DAYTON, Ohio — Matthew Dellavedova was battling some major outside shooting woes entering the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, but three poor games did nothing to affect his confidence.
So he put up shots early against Middle Tennessee State and quickly broke out of his slump, leading Saint Mary’s to a 67-54 victory over the Blue Raiders on Tuesday night in a “First Four” game at the University of Dayton.
The star point guard scored 22 points, hitting 5 of 7 shots from beyond the arc, in the Gaels’ first NCAA tournament victory since reaching the Sweet 16 in 2010.
Now it’s on to the Midwest Regional in Auburn Hills, Mich., where the 11th-seeded Gaels will play No. 6 seed Memphis (30-4) on Thursday.
Though Dellavedova had hit just one of his last 18 attempts from beyond the arc coming into the game, he wasn’t worried. He said he didn’t even know the statistic until someone told him.
“That didn’t even really enter my head,” Dellavedova said. “I always have confidence the next one is going down.”
Dellavedova drained a pair of 3-pointers in the game’s opening four minutes, and his teammates followed his lead. The Gaels connected on 8 of 14 shots from beyond the arc after shooting just 25 percent from that distance at the West Coast Conference tournament.
Junior guard Stephen Holt added 18 points for Saint Mary’s (28-6). He and Dellavedova also led the Gaels in rebounding with six each.
Beau Levesque, who was part of the Gaels’ Sweet 16 run three years ago, contributed 13 points off the bench.
But Dellavedova was the biggest difference-maker.
“We’re not going to win games like this if Matt doesn’t shoot it decent,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “He’s going to play whether he makes shots or not, but if he makes shots, it gives us a chance to separate. If he didn’t make those shots, the game would have gone down to the wire.”
Middle Tennessee (28-6) threw several different defensive looks at the Gaels and Dellavedova, an Australian Olympian, but still couldn’t slow them down much.
“We tried a lot of combinations on (Dellavedova) and at the end of the day he just made great plays,” Middle Tennessee guard Marcos Knight said.
Saint Mary’s defense at the end of the first half was a big reason it took a 29-20 lead into the locker room, though. The Gaels didn’t allow a field goal in the final 6:12 of the period.
But Middle Tennessee didn’t go away. A transition layup by Knight capped a 7-0 spurt for the Blue Raiders, cutting the deficit to 41-38 with 12:36 left.
Saint Mary’s had a five-point lead with just under nine minutes remaining when it went on a 7-0 run. The Gaels led by at least nine the rest of the way.
North Carolina A&T 73, Liberty 72
Sharp shooting performances from Jeremy Underwood and Bruce Beckford put them in control, but the North Carolina A&T Aggies needed a stop on the last possession to preserve their first-ever NCAA Tournament victory, a 73-72 triumph over Liberty (15-21).
In the final seconds, North Carolina A&T’s Austin Witter forced a driving John Caleb Sanders into a layup attempt he couldn’t finish, vaulting the Aggies (20-16) to their fifth straight win and into a Midwest Region second-round matchup with top-seeded Louisville on Thursday in Lexington, KY.