At a time when most Bay Area basketball fans were distraught over the Golden State Warriors' 2-1 deficit in the NBA Finals, dozens of patrons at one Walnut Creek bar couldn't stop smiling.
The Saint Mary's coaches, staff and alumni who filled this particular bar had just watched a beloved former Gaels star make a big splash on basketball's grandest stage for the second consecutive June.
Exactly 359 days after ex-Saint Mary's guard Patty Mills erupted for 17 points in 18 minutes off the bench in the decisive game of San Antonio's NBA Finals victory over Miami, it was fellow Aussie Matthew Dellavedova's turn to thrive in the spotlight. The former undrafted free agent again filled in admirably for injured point guard Kyrie Irving, hounding league MVP Stephen Curry into a poor shooting night, hurling his body across the floor to chase down numerous loose balls and even mixing in 20 points for a depleted Cleveland team in dire need of secondary scorers.
Dellavedova's spirited effort was one of the biggest reasons a Cavs team written off after Irving's season-ending knee injury now stands two victories from vanquishing the favored Warriors. While LeBron James has averaged 41 points so far in the series and continues to carry Cleveland on his back, it was Dellavedova who sank Tuesday night's biggest basket, a late off-balance bank shot with Curry draped all over him after Golden State had rallied to within one in the final three minutes.
"We had an alumni event for the game, and it was tremendous," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett. "There were a lot of Warriors fans there, there were a lot of Delly fans there and then there were some that were torn. There were people there who were Warriors fans for years and years, but they like Delly so much they couldn't help but be happy for him"
If Dellavedova's impact on this series has come as a shock to most viewers, Bennett is far less surprised by his former point guard's achievements. The longtime Saint Mary's coach learned never to underestimate Dellavedova after he earned all-league honors three straight seasons, reached the NCAA tournament three times and finished as the school's all-time leader in scoring, assists, free throw percentage and 3-point shots.
Even though Dellavedova went undrafted because he lacks the size and athleticism of a prototypical NBA guard, Bennett saw signs during the Aussie guard's Saint Mary's career that he could be a productive role player. Dellavedova worked as hard as any player Bennett has coached to improve his defense, transforming himself from a liability as a freshman to a pest who has held his own against the league's best shooter today.
Dellavedova also consistently coaxed the best out of his teammates with his mixture of relentless effort, contagious enthusiasm and leadership skills. Whether it was scouring autobiographies written by Phil Jackson, Andre Agassi or John Wooden or perusing books analyzing patterns to how greatness is achieved in any field, Dellavedova actually researched leadership during college and took tidbits from everything he read.
"Here at Saint Mary's, we kind of knew all this stuff about Matt being around him, but it's kind of fun to see everyone else in the country learn about him," Bennett said. "Everyone's seeing how hard he plays and how tough he is. We knew it, but now everyone else is recognizing it too."
Dellavedova and Mills are both part of an Australian pipeline to Saint Mary's that Bennett established almost by accident nearly 15 years ago.
Bennett inherited a two-win team lacking backcourt depth in 2001, so he made a late offer to Adam Caporn, a guard from the Australian Institute of Sport that he'd only seen in a few highlight reels. Caporn had a good enough experience at Saint Mary's that he recruited AIS teammate Daniel Kickert, a forward who went on to star for the Gaels and play professionally overseas afterward.
The success of Kickert convinced Bennett that recruiting Australia could be a way for Saint Mary's to attract elite talent without having to go head-to-head with higher-profile programs. Bennett has made sure his staff has at least one coach with Australian ties every year for the past decade, a decision that has helped him land about a dozen Aussie standouts including the highly regarded Mills and the less heralded Dellavedova.
"We can still get some of the best players over there, so it would be stupid for us not to recruit those kids," Bennett said. "There's a comfort level for those kids with us. And with Patty and Delly doing what they've been doing recently, it would be silly for us not to recruit Australia hard."
Saint Mary's hasn't made the NCAA tournament or posed as great a threat to league rival Gonzaga in the two years since Dellavedova graduated, but Bennett is hopeful that slight step backward is only temporary. He believes the success of Dellavedova and Mills in the NBA Finals can only help showcase Saint Mary's to recruits in Australia and the United States.
"What Delly and Patty have done the past two years, there's not much marketing-wise you can do better than that," Bennett said. "We're really proud of those guys and what they've done."
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