MORAGA, Calif. (AP) — Rob Jones watched Matthew Dellavedova slice through the lane and waited for the lob. The ball arched through a crowd of defenders, some his former teammates, and he hammered home a two-hand dunk that put the punctuation on a night that never figured to be so close.
Not in these parts, anyway.
Jones had 28 points and eight rebounds against his former team, and No. 18 Saint Mary's survived a slow start to beat San Diego 84-73 on Thursday night for its 12th straight victory.
"It has nothing to do that I used to play for them at all," said Jones, who spent two seasons at San Diego and enrolled at Saint Mary's in 2010. "Every game someone steps up and delivers, and it just happened to be me tonight."
The alley-oop from Dellavedova to Jones extended Saint Mary's lead to 80-73 with 54 seconds to play, bringing an announced crowd of 3,500 anxious fans roaring to their feet. San Diego shot 60 percent and Saint Mary's only 46 percent.
Saint Mary's still escaped unscathed.
Stephen Holt scored a career-high 23 points and Dellavedova added 17 points, six rebounds and five assists to anchor a late 15-6 run that gave the Gaels (22-2, 11-0) the lead for good against a surprising West Coast Conference challenger. Saint Mary's has won 15 straight at home to keep alive its chances for the program's first undefeated season at McKeon Pavilion.
"For whatever reason, we haven't had a lot of close ones," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said. "You have to play in those so that you have to make good decisions and play under that kind of pressure. In a funny way, it's all right for us. It could help us down the road."
Chris Manresa had 25 points and Dennis Kramer scored 17 for the Toreros (8-14, 3-7), who pushed the Gaels to the brink for the second time this season. San Diego lost 78-72 at home to Saint Mary's on Jan. 5.
Duplicating that type of performance has been a rare sight this year for McKeon Pavilion visitors.
The Toreros, who upset Saint Mary's 74-66 in San Diego last season, showed no signs of slipping this year. They pulled ahead in the opening minutes with a torrid start from beyond the arc and kept the Gaels on edge with production from across the roster.
Kramer came off the bench and made a pair of 3-pointers during a sudden spurt that gave San Diego a 24-19 lead. The Toreros went ahead by as many as six until the Gaels started to build momentum just before half, tying the score at 42 on Stephen Holt's layup in the opening minutes of the second session.
"No one's played them as close in the league as we have," San Diego coach Bill Grier. "And we've battled them. For whatever reason, we seem to match up well with them."
Little separation occurred until late.
A total of 15 ties and six lead changes highlighted a tight contest. Both teams shot well — San Diego at 60 percent and Saint Mary's at 46 percent — and made few mistakes.
Dellavedova shook off a timid start to tame the Toreros, making a 3-pointer, short jumper and two free throws during a 15-6 stretch that put the Gaels ahead by seven. Later, he feathered the alley-oop to Jones that sealed the victory.
"Our coaches do a good job of keeping everything in perspective," said Holt, whose previous best was 21 points against Portland earlier this season. "Yeah, we're ranked and we're undefeated in the conference, but we still haven't accomplished our goal of a WCC championship."
Another strong season shaping up for Saint Mary's has had little come easy lately.
After breaking his thumb last week in a locker room mishap, Bennett already was wearing a cast around his right hand and a short-sleeve collared shirt instead of his usual sharp suits. He said he opened a door and a white board fell on his thumb, requiring emergency surgery in Los Angeles following a victory at Loyola Marymount.
Most students also were absent because of a brief vacation between terms. That still didn't stop crowds from flocking to tiny McKeon Pavilion to create another strong and feverish turnout at the mid-major powerhouse.
Saint Mary's is one of eight teams in Division I — along with WCC rival Gonzaga and newcomer BYU — to win at least 25 games in each of the last four seasons. The ranking this week in the AP poll is the highest for Saint Mary's since 1989.
The highest ranking ever for the program is No. 14, a mark held in the first poll of the 1958-59 season. A few more wins might allow the Gaels to top that mark — even if they have to sweat out another victory.
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