LAS VEGAS — Saint Mary’s and Pepperdine’s WCC Quarterfinal matchup was a game of twos.
The game featured two 40-point outings spread across two overtimes. Two big deficits erased during the 50-minute thriller — all while being played two hours after midnight on the east coast. Naturally, Pepperdine’s Colbey Ross (43 points) and Saint Mary’s Jordan Ford (42 points) own two of the top three scoring performances in WCC Tournament history after their duel on March 7.
And just like the game itself, Ford needed two extra tries to set up the perfect dagger.
Clinging to a two point lead with 42 seconds to go, Saint Mary’s head coach Randy Bennett called timeout as soon as Ford crossed the timeline. Out of the timeout, Altman and Ross forced a sideline trap that prompted another timeout with 34.1 seconds left. Once Ford received the ball out of the latter timeout, he only had eight seconds on the shot clock to work with, yet he made every one count. The double-team came again, he ducked underneath one of the defenders, then hoisted up a turnaround three from the hash-mark as the shot clock expired.
That shot not only gave Ford his first 40-point outing in his illustrious career, but also sealed the deal for the third-seeded Gaels.
“I was trying to step back and try to get [my defender] in the air and get a foul, but he didn’t go for it,” Ford said, recalling the moment a few ticks after midnight.
“He had great poise,” Bennett said of his point guard. “He got something off that was pretty clean. He could’ve panicked and shot the thing. But that’s what a special player can do. It was not a high-percentage shot, but he got one that had a chance of going in and it did.”
Up until Saturday night, all five WCC Tournament games were decided by double-figures, and San Francisco’s win over Pacific earlier on Saturday was the only upset. And while these results were on-par for the nation’s leading conference in blowout games according to KenPom, they were decidedly not the norm for a typical conference tournament played on a neutral site.
Yet it almost didn’t happen that way.
After jumping out to a 7-2 lead in the first 92 seconds, Pepperdine couldn’t shake the 3 seed Gaels. A slew of empty possessions and careless turnovers gave Saint Mary’s the advantage — all without the services of stars Ford and Malik Fitts. Ford didn’t get on the board until the 13:35 mark, in which he bolted towards the rack for his first (of many) crafty finishes. By the time both teams entered the locker room at halftime, Saint Mary’s held a 40-31 advantage.
Pepperdine, meanwhile, had been no stranger to halftime deficits. During opening weekend, the Waves erased a nine-point UC Irvine lead in the final 2:11 of play for their best win of the season based on KenPom ranking. Furthermore, Pepperdine notched at least five wins when trailing by at least 10 points; a nine-point hole meant the game was far from over.
“We know that until the final buzzer ends, we’re not going to stop competing,” Ross said. “That’s what we do and that’s what coach [Romar] teaches us. He tells us that the last three minutes, if we’re in reach of 10 points, we have a chance no matter what.”
The Waves trailed by 11 points with 8:25 left until Ross willed his team back into the mix of things. Ross finished at the rim to cut the deficit to single digits for the rest of the game, then grabbed a crucial defensive rebound that led to a Kessler Edwards three, which kickstarted personal a 5-0 run.
“When we do things like that, I think character is a big key when a group of young people are together,” Romar said. “I think our group has really good character. I think our group enjoys playing with each other. I think our group enjoys pulling for each other, and wants to see each other do well. I’ve said that when you’re in the foxhole battling like that, as a result, guys just come together and compete for one another.”
He passed the proverbial baton back to Ross, who proceeded to make two difficult threes, the latter of which involved a Trae Young-esque hard brake in transition that created enough space for a straightaway three.
Naturally, Ross drew contact late and sank both free throws to send the game to overtime.
“I tried to guard [Ross] in the second half, and that didn’t go so well,” Ford said with a grin. “But he’s an unbelievable player.”
Ross’s impact wasn’t just on offense: The 6’1” point guard teamed up with Sedrick Altman for several crucial blocks, deflections and steals as the Waves mounted their comeback. He also added eight rebounds — nearly double his season average — one game removed from recording the WCC’s second-consecutive 600 point, 100 assist and 100 rebound season in 20 years.
Fittingly, the two guards shared a moment during the handshake line, in which the elder statesman Ford gave his respects to his fellow All-WCC First Teammate.
Ross’s teammate Kessler Edwards finished with a 21-point, 10-rebound double-double — which included three timely threes midway through the Waves’ comeback attempt. The Waves fell to a 16-16 record on the season; a postseason appearance, if any, is yet to be determined.
As for the Gaels, they will have a brief, yet much-needed reprieve before they take on 2 seed BYU on Monday night. Given the two teams’ previous meetings, that game might have the makings of an instant-classic too.
So those new marks in the WCC Tournament record book might be written in pencil, not pen.