MORAGA, Calif. (AP) -Carlin Hughes took the microphone at Midnight Madness and taught the Saint Mary's supporters a chant from his homeland.
``Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi!''
The tiny college tucked in the hills east of San Francisco may be thousands of miles from Australia, but at Gaels home games this season McKeon Pavilion is the land Down Under.
Hughes and two fellow Aussies have helped Saint Mary's to its best start in more than a decade. With their play and likable personalities, they have quickly become celebrities on campus.
``We have a few mates around,'' Hughes said. ``The more the merrier.''
Students call out that Aussie catchphrase each time Hughes, Patty Mills or Lucas Walker scores. Men at Work's popular tune ``Down Under'' blares from the sound system during timeouts. The only thing missing is Vegemite sandwiches in the concession stands.
``They are the most popular kids on campus,'' athletic director Mark Orr said.
Mills has already given the Gaels plenty to celebrate.
A highly regarded freshman guard who helped Australia qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Mills has lived up to his billing. Whether it's with his relentless ball pressure, a crisp crosscourt pass or a pretty drive to the basket with his off hand, he's making an immediate impact for a team expected to challenge favored Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference.
He had 17 points, five assists and four steals in his college debut, a victory over Division II Sonoma State on Nov. 9, then scored 10 points the next night while in foul trouble.
In a win against Cal State Bakersfield on Tuesday, Mills had six assists, five steals and no turnovers - and the Gaels finished with only five, their fewest since at least 1996.
``I enjoy coming to the games to watch him,'' said seventh-year coach Randy Bennett, who two years ago took his team on a tour in Australia. ``He's a freshman and comes in with a lot of buzz, but he's handled that well. As a point guard, he knows this has to be his team and he has to take charge. He's doing that quietly.''
Mills' toughest test yet at this level will come in a home game Tuesday night against No. 11 Oregon.
``It's going to be pretty big time,'' he said.
When Mills arrived at school this fall, the coaches had to order him to rest his body for a few weeks following a busy summer with the Australian national team. He regained his rhythm in no time.
It wasn't even an official practice and Mills was going full speed on each possession, clapping his hands to scold himself for a missed 3-pointer then confidently sinking consecutive long jumpers another time down in the Shirts-versus-Skins scrimmage.
Saint Mary's is a program committing key resources to finding some of the top Aussies and bringing them to the laid-back Bay Area. Assistant coach David Patrick spent 10 years in Australia and has played a key recruiting role.
The coaches sell their school several ways: There's the chance to play in the competitive WCC while going to college in a close-knit community in sunny and progressive Northern California.
``That's handy, real handy,'' Hughes said.
Mills might easily have ended up at West Virginia or Utah playing a more limited role his first year had it not been for the established Australian connection at Saint Mary's.
Two seasons ago, Australian Daniel Kickert became the school's career scoring leader, and there's already talk that Mills is an even better shooter than Kickert.
``It's a nice little area that reminds me of home,'' Mills said. ``One of the factors, as silly as it sounds, is we're only one flight away from home, knowing as well there have been other Australians in the WCC. Everyone dreams of being in the NBA one day and the college route is a better path for us in development. Coming here is almost like a family with the coaching staff.''
With the Australian professional leagues no longer considered the most secure financial choice, going to college has become a viable and preferred alternative for many Australian players looking to both get an education and get their game noticed on a big stage in the United States.
``It's more of an option now,'' Walker said.
Other players have certainly paved the way, too, from Eddie Palubinskas in the 1970s to Andrew Gaze in the '80s.
More recently, the success of Milwaukee Bucks center Andrew Bogut, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft out of Utah, helped put Australian basketball on the map. And don't forget Seattle Storm star and Aussie Lauren Jackson, the first selection in the 2001 WNBA draft.
``I think we're getting more recognition,'' said Ben Allen, who is sitting out this season after transferring from Indiana. ``Players are improving here.''
Hughes and Walker each transferred to Saint Mary's from Montana State-Billings. Mills had several other options and chose to play for the Gaels with the hopes of bringing prominence to a program that has watched Gonzaga dominate the league for the last decade.
Another Aussie, 6-foot-4 freshman forward Louella Tomlinson, is playing for the Gaels' women's team.
Mills was Patrick's towel boy on the Canberra Cannons, and being that Mills is an only child, his parents were more inclined to let him go knowing Patrick would be nearby to help.
``He was a good player, but I wasn't even thinking of him being a college player,'' Patrick said of his early days watching Mills, an indigenous Australian.
Patrick has either played for every one of his Aussie players' coaches or has played against them. Born in Bermuda, Patrick lived in Australia for 10 years until he left at age 17 to pursue a playing career in the United States, starting with his final high school season.
``Probably the No. 1 thing for the kids is their parents can call me if there's a problem,'' said Patrick, the first Bermudian to play professionally. ``They speak English but there are still cultural differences.''
In his second season on the Saint Mary's staff, Patrick coached five Australians during his one season at Nicholls State under J.P. Piper. The Colonels still have five Aussies on their roster and will play at Saint Mary's on Nov. 24.
Patrick is still using all his connections Down Under.
``It's definitely a pipeline,'' starting forward Diamon Simpson said. ``It's opening up my mind to a lot of different things: foods, the AFL. They're so funny and all good guys.''
Patrick is a big reason the Aussies come to Saint Mary's. He makes three or four trips to Australia a year, combining recruiting and visits with family and friends.
``We're not the only school over there anymore,'' Patrick said. ``We have to be over there. It's not untapped anymore.''

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