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Field Level Media - Professional sports content solutions | FLM

Feb 28, 2024 9:05 am

With WCC outright title in sight, No. 17 Saint Mary’s visits Pepperdine

St. Mary's Gaels

No. 17 Saint Mary’s will look to wrap up its first outright West Coast Conference regular-season title since 2011-12 when it opposes Pepperdine on Thursday night at Malibu, Calif.

One Saint Mary’s victory or one Gonzaga loss will assure the title for the Gaels (23-6, 14-0 WCC), who own the nation’s longest current winning streak at 15 games. Saint Mary’s and No. 23 Gonzaga (22-6, 12-2 WCC) play Saturday night in Moraga, Calif., to close the regular season.

Though Saint Mary’s clinched a share of the crown with an 88-62 home rout of San Diego on Saturday, nobody was getting giddy after the contest.

“We’re not celebrating right now,” Gaels coach Randy Bennett said afterward. “We’ve got another game Thursday in Malibu and we’ll go from there. These guys have been very good at being able to compartmentalize and not getting distracted on anything else.”

Saint Mary’s has won 14 of the past 16 meetings with Pepperdine, including a 103-59 home victory on Feb. 15. Augustas Marciulionis poured in a career-best 28 points on 11-of-16 shooting that night for the Gaels.

In the win over San Diego, Mitchell Saxen had 20 points and Alex Ducas scored 18 on six 3-pointers.

Saint Mary’s led by 13 at halftime and expanded the advantage to 25 in the first six minutes of the second half.

“I thought we were really good in the second half. Really good,” Bennett said. “We did a better job defensively. … In the second half we were very consistent and just kept taking turf little by little.”

Aidan Mahaney leads the Gaels with a 13.9 scoring average. Marciulionis averages 12.3 points and leads Saint Mary’s in assists per game (4.9) and total steals (43). Saxen contributes 11.6 points and a team-leading 7.6 rebounds.

The Gaels hope to get big man Harry Wessels (shoulder) back after a one-game absence. Saint Mary’s also lost fourth-leading scorer Joshua Jefferson (10.2) for the season with a knee injury earlier this month.

Pepperdine (12-18, 5-10) is closing in on its third straight losing campaign but has found a force in junior-college transfer Michael Ajayi.

The 6-foot-7 Ajayi leads the WCC with a 17.5 scoring average and ranks second in rebounding at 9.5 per game. He was named WCC Player of the Week on Monday for last week’s averages of 21 points and 13.5 rebounds in two games.

Ajayi, who has 15 double-doubles, had 30 points and a season-best 17 rebounds in an 89-70 road win over Pacific on Feb. 21. He followed up with 12 points and 10 boards in a 92-68 road loss at San Francisco on Saturday.

Ajayi didn’t make the varsity squad at Kentwood High in Kent, Wash., until his senior season. He then played two seasons in junior college at Pierce College in Washington before landing with Pepperdine prior to this season.

“Everyone thinks juco is the bad route to go but I feel like juco gives you a real good opportunity to get better in your game,” Ajayi told No Ceilings earlier this season. “… It’s still a high level. You still have to compete, you still have to go out there and work hard. You can’t just jog through the motions. You still have to put the work in and you will see the results.”

Jevon Porter (15.5) and Houston Mallette (15.0) also are playing well for the Waves.

–Field Level Media

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