MORAGA, Calif. (AP) — Randy Bennett has a long list of scorers on Saint Mary's, so that's the least of his worries. When his Gaels get big leads and the bench comes in, now the challenge is sustaining a defensive tempo that this group had last season in regularly holding teams to 40 percent shooting and below. Saint Mary's is making strides on both ends, even gaining some good practice against a zone defense Wednesday night.
MORAGA, Calif. (AP) — Randy Bennett has a long list of scorers on Saint Mary's, so that's the least of his worries. When his Gaels get big leads and the bench comes in, now the challenge is sustaining a defensive tempo that this group had last season in regularly holding teams to 40 percent shooting and below.
Saint Mary's is making strides on both ends, even gaining some good practice against a zone defense Wednesday night.
Jock Landale had 15 points and 13 rebounds and the 20th-ranked Gaels jumped to a quick lead they never relinquished to beat Western Kentucky 73-51.
The defense is coming along.
"As a team, it's something we practice every day. Coach, as he said, harps on it quite a lot," Emmett Naar said. "If we can just improve a bit each day, hopefully toward the end of the season we'll be pretty good."
Evan Fitzner scored eight of his team's first 12 points as the Gaels took control from the tip. He finished with 11 points and three 3-pointers, while Naar had 14 points and six assists.
Landale went 7 for 13 from the field and is shooting 65 of 99 — 65.6 percent — on the season for the Gaels (8-1), who used a late 13-2 run in the first half for a 38-24 lead.
Justin Johnson and Que Johnson each scored 11 points to lead Western Kentucky (4-6).
"The one thing this team hasn't been very good at, when we get hit in the mouth or get behind we're not very good in those situations," WKU coach Rick Stansbury said. "We got ahead at Indiana State and played with a lead, but this was a different animal here."
Bennett has challenged his team recently to play with more defensive fire, and the Gaels shut down Pancake Thomas. A graduate transfer in his first season with the Hilltoppers, Thomas shot 2 of 8 for four points and missed his three tries from 3-point range after getting a season-best 22 points in a win over Indiana State on Sunday.
The Hilltoppers shot 37.5 percent and 5 of 17 from 3-point range to lose for the fifth time in six games.
"The last couple games we've been able to play our bench and getting those guys to get some reps and try and be as good defensively and as consistent as the first six or seven guys is a challenge. We've got to get better," Bennett said. "Sometimes we sub, we take a dip down defensively. That can't happen."
Saint Mary's guard Joe Rahon limped off with a right leg injury with 4:37 left before halftime then returned just before intermission and wound up matching his career high with 10 assists.
In the first meeting between the programs, Saint Mary's jumped to a 7-0 lead in the opening 2:27 and 12-2 then never looked back.
Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers' 24 first-half points matched their season low. ... WKU dropped to 35-97 all-time against ranked opponents and hasn't won a true road game against a Top 25 team since stunning No. 4 Kentucky on Nov. 15, 2001. ... Stansbury still needs three wins for 300 career victories. ... The Hilltoppers will have gone 29 days between home games.
Saint Mary's: The Hilltoppers were Saint Mary's second Conference USA opponent after a win over UAB late last month. ... Top Warriors assistant Mike Brown sat courtside on an off day before Golden State hosts the Knicks on Thursday. Brown played at San Diego for 16th-year Gaels coach Bennett. "He got some good seats, took care of him," Bennett said.
Western Kentucky: At Detroit Mercy on Saturday to conclude a stretch of seven games on the road or at neutral sites over nearly a month's time covering more than 10,000 miles and hitting six states.
Saint Mary's: Host Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Sunday in the fourth game of a five-game home stand before the start of conference play.
Follow Janie McCauley on Twitter @JanieMcCAP