DAYTON, Ohio – After Matthew Dellavedova's second straight 3-point shot was right on target, Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis called a timeout to reset his defense.
Didn't matter. Saint Mary's career scoring leader had regained his touch, and nothing was going to stop him.
Dellavedova emerged from a deep shooting slump by scoring 22 points on Tuesday night, and the Gaels raced to a fast start in their second straight NCAA tournament appearance, beating Middle Tennessee 67-54 in the First Four.
The Gaels (28-6) make a quick trip to Auburn Hills, Mich., to play sixth-seeded Memphis on Thursday.
And Saint Mary's can thank their point guard, who is back in the flow. He'd been only 1 of 18 from behind the arc coming into the game, though no one would know it by the way that first one went in.
Credit Dellavedova for making a difference, as he has all season. The point guard went 7 of 14 from the field, including 5 of 7 behind the arc, and had four assists and six rebounds.
"When he does that, he may be the best point guard in college basketball, when he shoots the ball like that," Davis said.
Middle Tennessee (28-6) had little to show for its first NCAA tournament appearance in 24 years. Tweety Knight led Middle Tennessee with 16 points. The Blue Raiders went only 4 of 12 from behind the arc, hitting one fewer 3-pointer than Dellavedova.
"I wish it ended differently, but we broke the drought for MTSU going to the NCAA tournament in 20-plus years, so you hang your hat on that," guard Bruce Massey Jr. said.
Saint Mary's is making back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances for the first time in its history. The Gaels reached the round of 16 in 2010 before losing to Baylor. Not so good last year, when they dropped their opening game to Purdue 72-69.
Both teams were No. 11 seeds on Tuesday night. With four starters back and Dellavedova, the school's career scoring leader, handling the ball and making the biggest shots, the Gaels were too much.
With that type of experience, Saint Mary's is looking for one of its best finishes yet. The Gaels did pretty much what they wanted all season long, except for one thing: Beating rival Gonzaga. Saint Mary's lost only three times in its last 22 games, all three times to the Bulldogs.
Middle Tennessee counted it a breakthrough just to be playing in the First Four — the Blue Raiders hadn't been there since 1989.
They won the Sun Belt's regular-season title and were expected to win the tournament and their league's automatic bid, but were upset in the semifinals, ending a 17-game winning streak. They had to sweat out a few days before finding out that the NCAA selection committee picked them over defending champion Kentucky and other basketball blue bloods for an at-large bid.
One main reason: Consistency, especially on the road. The Blue Raiders didn't lose two games in a row all season until their last two tournament games.
Dellavedova found his mark early. He had a pair of 3s as well as a steal and a layup, helping Saint Mary's pull ahead 13-9. After his second 3-pointer fell, Davis called that timeout.
But it didn't faze Dellavedova. He hit a floater in the lane, passed to Brad Waldow for a dunk, then drew a foul and made a pair of free throws during an 11-2 run that closed the first half and gave Saint Mary's a 29-20 lead.
"We tried a lot of combinations on him," guard Marcos Knight said. "At the end of the day, he just made great plays."
Indeed, Middle Tennessee repeatedly switched defenses to try to cool off Dellavedova. None worked.
"He hit his first 3 he took, and then he got another one," Massey said. "After that, he started hitting tough shots and got going."
The Blue Raiders repeatedly missed close-up shots and managed only two free throws in the final 6 minutes, shooting 32 percent from the field overall in the half.
Dellavedova showed he was comfortable in the big moments, pumping up teammates with a pat or fist bump and slicing into the lane and pulling the defense to him like a magnet. He was part of Australia's backcourt in the 2012 Olympics in London, and it showed.
Dellavedova hit a pair of long 3s for a 39-28 lead early in the second half. Middle Tennessee pushed the pace and got its first significant run of the game, a 7-0 spurt that cut it to 41-38 with 12:38 to go.
Dellavedova had a 2-minute break on the bench to rest, then came back and hit his fifth 3-pointer of the game, helping the Gaels pull ahead 54-42 with 6 minutes to go. Middle Tennessee never got closer than nine points the rest of the way.
Follow Joe Kay on Twitter: http://twitter.com/apjoekay