by Michael Vernetti
The Gaels’ demise that began with a Feb. 10 drubbing by Gonzaga reached its nadir Monday night in Las Vegas, as Randy Bennett’s once-proud squad stumbled to a 13-point loss (85-72) to a BYU team it had defeated twice before by a combined total of 23 points.
There is no easy answer why the Gaels gave up 85 points to a team it had limited to 64 and 62 points in its previous meetings, but there are no easy answers to the Gaels’ overall problems either. Did Gonzaga’s 78-65 win in Moraga following a Gael victory in Spokane on Jan. 18 so discombobulate them that they limped home with two more losses in their final six games?
If so, why?
Maybe it’s just the residue of Bennett’s patchwork lineup that he settled on following the graduation of Dane Pineau and Joe Rahon from last year’s NCAA squad that set a Saint Mary’s record for winning percentage with a 29-5 record. After opening the season with 6-10 junior Evan Fitzner in place of the 6-9 Pineau, Bennett switched to 6-6 Tanner Krebs after Fitzner showed he was no Pineau in terms of back line defense.
Alas, Krebs came up against several power forwards who were too big and strong for his lanky frame to cope with, and Fitzner returned to favor after shoring up his defense. The same thing happened at guard, as Jordan Ford replaced Rahon in the lineup. Ford became the Gaels’ second most potent offensive threat by season’s end, but at 6-0 on tiptoes can’t match Rahon’s bulk and moxie.
Ford is good against quick guards somewhere near his size, but Bennett felt forced to use small forward Calvin Hermanson on more powerful guards during the season. As a result, Hermanson found himself guarding BYU’s tall (6-5), elusive Elijah Bryant Monday night, and Bryant tallied 25 points on 8-13 shooting while Hermanson fouled out.
Pineau’s absence was felt as BYU’s guards Bryant, TJ Haws and Jahshire Hardnett frequently penetrated the paint, drawing Gael Center Jock Landale to confront them. The wily BYU guards exploited the weakness created by Landale abandoning his man, dumping off passes for easy dunks by Yoeli Childs and Dalton Nixon. I couldn’t help thinking that Pineau would have prevented some of those easy buckets if he were still patrolling the back line for Saint Mary’s, but he is not and Bennett has not devised a solution for that weakness.
Why the blahs?
The loss of Pineau and Rahon is one troubling aspect of the Gaels’ late-season slump, but another is overall preparation and aggressiveness. Against San Francisco on Feb. 15, the Gaels seemed a beat slow and out of sync, resulting in an eye-opening 70-63 loss. It was especially hard to fathom since Saint Mary’s had defeated San Francisco by a whopping 79-43 margin just two weeks before that.
Although the Gaels rallied to beat Portland on the road and Pepperdine and Santa Clara at home to wrap up the regular-season, they carried their lassitude with them to Las Vegas for the WCC Tournament. They had to rally behind three late three-pointers by Hermanson to eke out a 69-66 win over Pepperdine, and then came up flat against BYU.
The most galling thing about the BYU loss was the Gaels’ continual failure to exploit opportunities for opening a sizeable lead. There were eight occasions in the first half when Saint Mary’s wrestled a lead from BYU only to give it up on a succeeding possession. Two examples stand out as emblematic of this failure.
With about six minutes left in the first half, Saint Mary’s had forged a 31-27 lead and seemed ready to stretch that to six, eight or maybe 10 points before the half. Receiving a skip pass from Naar on the left wing, Fitzner easily side-stepped a closing BYU player and was poised for an open jump shot. He changed his mind at the last second, however, and made a weak pass to the nearest Gael, which was intercepted by BYU’s Haws. Haws hit Hardnett for a run-out that turned what could have been a six or seven-point Saint Mary’s advantage — if Fitzner hit a three-pointer — to a two-point game at 31-29.
Similarly, nearing the end of the first half, the Gaels trailed 38-37 but had the ball for the final possession. Naar again located an open Gael shooter, this time Krebs, but Krebs missed badly on the three-point attempt, his third miss in three tries in the first half. Given a reprieve, BYU put the ball in Childs’ hands with the clock winding down and Childs — a 6-8 post player — calmly sank a three-point attempt to send his team to the locker room with a 41-37 lead and momentum.
The Gaels never led or even tied from the moment Childs sank his three-pointer, one of 13 buckets he made en route to a 33-point explosion.
The Gaels’ chances for a second NCAA Tournament bid in two years seemed to evaporate with their lackluster effort against BYU. Some Gael fans voiced hope that the NCAA Selection Committee will look favorably on the Gaels 28-win resume and perhaps grant them a play-in opportunity like that afforded the Matthew Dellavedova-led team in 2014. Dayton in early March may not sound ideal to spoiled Californians, but the Gaels would jump at the chance for redemption on the Flyers’ home court.
It is more likely that Saint Mary’s will find itself host for an NIT game or two, but it is hard to imagine the Gaels — or their fans — will muster much excitement for that prospect. A bigger question facing Gael fans is, “What next?” in a broader context. Only two starters on the floor against BYU — Krebs and Ford — will return next year, and Saint Mary’s will say farewell to stalwarts Landale, Naar and Hermanson. It is the biggest turnover the Gaels have experienced since the entire Brad Waldow squad of 2016 graduated, and many questions fill the air.
Has Bennett lost his once-unquestioned ability to rally his team for a spirited quest? Will promising newcomers such as Mattias Tass, Alex Mudronja, Quinn Clinton and Daniel Fotu make up for the exodus of so much experience? Will Ford continue to blossom as he takes over control of the Gael offense? Will the Gaels shore up their back line defense behind returning big men Jordan Hunter, Jock Perry and Fitzner, along with Tass, Fotu and redshirt Malik Fitts?
Will the Gaels ever exorcise the ghosts of Pineau and Rahon?
With his team-leading 27 points and six rebounds, Jordan Ford, shown above in an earlier game against Loyola Marymount, was a bright spot in the Gaels’ loss to BYU Monday night. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.