San Francisco Chronicle

St. Mary’s rides defense to No. 22 in AP rankings

- By Steve Kroner Steve Kroner is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: skroner@sfchronicl­ Twitter: @SteveKrone­rSF

Though St. Mary’s has owned an excellent NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool) ranking for much of this season, the Gaels had remained outside of the Associated Press Top 25 rankings until Monday. St. Mary’s entered the Top 25 at No. 22.

As of Monday morning, St. Mary’s NET ranking was 6. The Gaels (18-4, 7-0 WCC) are riding a nine-game winning streak and all but one of those wins have come by at least a dozen points, including a 77-58 romp over Santa Clara in Moraga on Saturday.

Freshman guard Aidan Mahaney leads the Gaels in scoring at 15 points per game. Three other players average in double digits: center Mitchell Saxen (12.6), forward Alex Ducas (12.1) and guard Logan Johnson (12.1).

Still, the Gaels’ calling card is their defense. Through Sunday, they ranked fourth in the nation in fewest points allowed per game at 57.2.

“It’s a team deal,” St. Mary’s head coach Randy Bennett said of his defense. “We were good last year and we picked up where we left off.”

Bennett listed Johnson and forward Kyle Bowen as elite defensive players.

“We have a dog mind-set,” Bowen said, referring to all of his teammates. “We don’t take any plays off.”

Said Bennett: “I don’t think we have a bad defender. Usually, there’s somebody you’re trying to hide. I don’t think we have that. Aidan has improved as a freshman where he’s not a fish on defense. He’s got himself to where he’s had some good defensive efforts.”

The Gaels play at BYU on Saturday night. St. Mary’s leads the WCC by a game over Gonzaga, which fell from No. 6 to No. 14 in the AP poll after its home winning streak ended at 75 games Thursday night when LMU pulled off a 68-67 stunner. The first of two scheduled GonzagaSt. Mary’s meetings takes place in Moraga on Feb. 4.

Meanwhile, Mahaney received the WCC’s Freshman of the Week honor for the fourth consecutiv­e week and seventh time overall. The Campolindo­Moraga alum went 2-for-9 from the field in scoring six points in the Gaels’ 73-44 waltz at Pepperdine on Thursday but responded by going 8-for-15, including 4for-6 from long range, for a game-high 20 points against the Broncos on Saturday.

Purdue returned to the No. 1 spot in the poll after Temple knocked off No. 1 Houston on Sunday. Alabama, Houston, Tennessee and Kansas State round out the top five.

 ?? Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle ?? St. Mary’s Logan Johnson (0) is pumped after being fouled while scoring against Santa Clara.
Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle St. Mary’s Logan Johnson (0) is pumped after being fouled while scoring against Santa Clara.

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