MORAGA, Calif. — The Utah basketball team probably couldn’t have picked a much more challenging place to play its first-round NIT game than here against St. Mary’s.
The Gaels rarely lose at the compact 3,500-seat McKeon Pavilion, where a large red banner behind the south basket reads “Make the toughest place to play even tougher.’’
Going into Tuesday night’s NIT matchup with Utah, the Gaels hadn’t lost a nonleague game at home in 27 games — since a first-round loss in the NIT to Kent State. Over the last seven seasons, the Gaels have won 90.6 percent of their games (106-12).
The St. Mary’s gym resembles a typical Utah high school gym except that it has chair seats on the lower part of the west side and approximately 100 seats up high behind the north basket.
Tuesday night's crowd was spotty with a lot of empty seats at tipoff and a crowd in the 2,000 to 2,500 range, although it was still plenty loud.
This year, the Gaels lost more home games than they had since 2006-07 and tied the 2009-10 season with a 15-3 record. All three home losses came in WCC play — against Gonzaga, Santa Clara and BYU.
BENNETT A HOT COMMODITY: People will never know if he was a serious candidate of not, but in each of the last three coaching searches at Utah, St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett’s name came up as a possible candidate. In 2004, the Utes chose Ray Giacoletti. In 2007, Jim Boylen was named coach. And in 2011, Larry Krystkowiak was the Utes’ selection.
Bennett began coaching at St. Mary’s in 2001, when the Gaels were coming off a 2-27 season, and has since compiled a 282-134 record. Besides Utah, his name has been linked with other openings at Pac-12 schools — Oregon, Oregon State and Cal — as well as Hawaii.
However, Bennett says he is happy at St. Mary’s, where he has a contract that runs through 2021.
“My family and I enjoy being at St. Mary's and living in such a supportive and positive community," Bennett said after signing a 10-year extension in 2011.
GAME NOTES: The Utes practiced at St. Mary’s two weeks ago when they were in the Bay Area for games against Cal and Stanford. ... Krystkowiak wasn’t thrilled with the Utes' travel agenda, which took twice as long as usual with a stop in Los Angeles Monday afternoon. That’s what happens when you have one day to plan a trip like the Utes. ... In Utah’s only other appearance at McKeon Pavilion, the Utes eked out a 41-35 victory in January 2002 behind Nick Jacobsen and Phil Cullen. ... In Utah's last NIT appearance in 2001, it lost to Memphis at home. ... St. Mary’s has three basketball numbers retired, including Matthew Dellavedova, whose No. 4 was retired during the BYU game this season.