Around 1 a.m. ET, in the wee hours of Sunday morning, two storylines were emerging out of Moraga, California: Saint Mary's was officially poised to end Gonzaga's reign atop the West Coast Conference, and Aidan Mahaney was ready to become a national name.
Saint Mary's came back in the final minutes to defeat Gonzaga in overtime, moving to 10-0 in the WCC -- and taking a two-game lead on the Bulldogs in the league standings. There's still plenty to play out in the final six games of 2022-23, but Gonzaga's 10-year run with at least a share of the regular-season title is in serious danger.
The catalyst for the Gaels' comeback was Mahaney, who has emerged as one of the best first-year players in college basketball. Over the final 6:25 of regulation plus overtime, Mahaney had 16 points and three assists, cementing himself in Saint Mary's-Gonzaga rivalry lore.
This might be the best Saint Mary's team Randy Bennett has had since taking over in 2001, and Mahaney looks like one of the best players Bennett has had in that time. But how good, really, is Mahaney, and are the Gaels a second-weekend NCAA tournament team? We talked to opposing coaches and NBA scouts to find out.
Mahaney's star turn puts him on the map
The 6-foot-3 guard opted to stay close to home despite being recruited by multiple high-major programs. He entered the fall with some preseason hype, but nobody expected him to be in the WCC Player of the Year conversation so quickly. He's averaging 15.0 points and shooting 41.6% from 3-point range, and he has established himself as the team's go-to guy since moving into the starting lineup nine games into 2022-23.
"He looks like he could be conference Player of the Year," one WCC coach said. "I thought he would be a very good freshman, but [Tommy] Kuhse was also so good last year. He was so good at the end of games. Now, though, they have a real dude. He's answered those questions. The shots he was hitting against Gonzaga. Patty Mills and [Matthew] Dellavedova are the only two guys they've had who were this good as freshmen. He has unbelievable confidence."
Mahaney's late-game heroics were not limited to the Gonzaga game, either. In the two games prior, he hit the winner against BYU with 0.3 seconds left to give Saint Mary's a one-point win, and had 13 second-half points in the victory over San Francisco.
how he do that?!@saintmaryshoops | #WCCHoops pic.twitter.com/Ae1R9tflrg— WCC Basketball (@WCChoops) January 29, 2023
"He's mentally tough," one WCC executive said. "He will get more athletic as he gets stronger. He's comfortable in pick-and-roll. He can shoot on and off the ball. He's not afraid. Houston didn't intimidate him."
While it's too soon to consider Mahaney a future NBA draft pick, his confidence and quick adaptation to the college game have at least put him on the radar of scouts.