It takes patience to follow a three-point-shooting basketball team because, as Saint Mary’s demonstrated painfully in a 65-50 victory over Utah Valley Monday night, sometimes the shots just don’t fall.
If one were to post the box score from the Utah Valley game side-by-side with the one from the previous game against Santa Clara — and blot out the team names — you would never pick the Gaels as the same team in each. Three-point percentage against Santa Clara, 47.6% (10-21); three-point percentage against Utah Valley, 11.8% (2-17).
Emmett Naar, last week the nationwide statistical leader in three-point shooting at 63%, has made only one out of eight in his last two games. Showing he is not a one-trick pony, Naar played well against both Santa Clara and Utah Valley, scoring 21 points with 11 assists in the two games. But he seems to have lost confidence in the long ball.
Evan Fitzner disappeared against Utah Valley after shining in the Santa Clara game with 21 points on 4-5 three-point shooting. He went 0-4 in 14 minutes against Utah Valley, including three three-point attempts that looked like they were hoisted by the guy who tries to win a prize at half-time by making a half-court shot.
Just to complete the roll call of futility, Calvin Hermanson sank his first three-pointer then missed five in a row. Joe Rahon went 0-3 and Kyle Clark 0-2.
There are many ways to rationalize the poor performance against Utah Valley: after 11 ultra-efficient games (including the Cal loss), the Gaels were due for a stinker; it was the holiday blahs, the game coming three days after Christmas on a dead campus that fueled depression; the team was looking ahead to Thursday’s huge showdown against BYU and just couldn’t muster an all-out effort against Utah Valley.
Either or all of those might be legitimate, but a good way to think about it is to put it in perspective. Travel back in time to about this date last year. It was Dec. 16 not the 28th, but the opponent was similar — a 3-6 Northern Arizona team that didn’t appear particularly strong. The Gaels lost that game 73-71 despite a 25 and 15 night from Brad Waldow, 15 points from Dane Pineau and 10 each from guards Kerry Carter and Aaron Bright. They crossed the magical 70-point barrier that almost always signals a Gael win to go up 71-69 with 18 seconds left, but lost the game by giving up a lay-up for the tie and then bungling the inbound pass to allow a grateful Northern Arizona to put in the game-winner just before the buzzer.
A stunning loss, one that prompted coach Randy Bennett, who almost never calls out his team, to excoriate the guards for playing lousy defense. The 26 points scored by Quinton Upshur (don’t look for his name on any NBA roster) seemed to rattle the usually-calm Bennett, and it allowed him to scream “poor defense” rather than berate the Alphonse-and-Gaston pratfall by Bright and Carter that allowed the inbound pass to be hijacked.
Utah Valley didn’t score 73 points against the Gaels. Indeed, by limiting the Wolverines to 50 points on 27.4% shooting, Saint Mary’s improved its overall defensive stats. No guard went for 26 against the solid defense of Rahon and Naar, although Jaden Jackson did a fair impression of Tyler Haws’ little brother by dropping 16 on the Gaels.
Utah Valley’s Jaden Jackson did a fair impression of former BYU great Tyler Haws in dropping 16 points on the Gaels despite a 65-50 Saint Mary’s victory. Photo courtesy of Utah Valley University Athletic Department.
In other words, if Utah Valley proves to be the nadir for this year’s team, it is not that badly off.
It is hard to overstate the importance of the BYU game. No matter how well they continue to play this year, without victories over BYU and Gonzaga the Gaels will be vulnerable to the whims of the NCAA Selection Committee come tournament time. That committee operates like the admissions board at Harvard — it looks for reasons to keep teams out of the tournament. The biggest failing the committee cites in voting out seemingly worthy teams is lack of big wins — signature wins if you will.
By losing to Cal, the Gaels blew their only chance for a signature non-conference win. That leaves the WCC race and the four games Saint Mary’s has against BYU and Gonzaga to convince a skeptical selection committee that it deserves an NCAA bid. Of those four opportunities, the two home games present the best chance for victory. The Gaels don’t want to blow the first of these chances Thursday night.
BYU has had a solid, if not dominant, non-conference season. At 9-4, with losses to Long Beach State, Utah, Colorado and Harvard, they are polishing an offense missing the invaluable Tyler Haws. Chase Fischer has stepped into the Haws role by averaging 17.4 PPG, buttressed by a 41-point barrage against New Mexico in a 96-66 BYU romp, and 26 points in BYU’s most recent win, 84-76 over Northern Iowa (the improbable conqueror of North Carolina earlier in the season — talk about a signature win).
Fischer is followed by Nick (Sucker Punch) Emery at 15.3 PPG, Kyle Collinsworth at 14.6 and Utah transfer Kyle Davis at 13.5. That’s four starters scoring in double digits, something the Gaels boast when they are playing well. The Gaels’ defense is superior to BYU’s — almost anybody’s is — and stout defense will be their greatest edge on New Year’s Eve in Moraga.
The Gaels have to win this one and I think they will.