In defense of…Dee-Fence!

Following a night in which Saint Mary’s shot 56.4% from the floor in defeating BYU 85-74 and San Francisco scored 107 points — in regulation! — to squeeze by Portland 107-95, it seems, well, quaint, to talk about defense.

But it was the Gaels’ collective defense that throttled the Boys from Provo in a pleasant New Year’s Eve exercise in Moraga. BYU is guard-driven, which is to say, it is front court-challenged. For most games, that works out well for the Cougars because the trio of Kyle Collinsworth, Chase Fischer and Nick (Sucker Punch) Emery averages nearly 50 points per game.

Until last night, when Gael guards Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar, aided by wing man Calvin Hermanson, held them to 16 for 47. That worked out to 40 points on 34% shooting, a total that is skewed by Fischer’s heroic 21 points (he is really good). Emery and Collinsworth were hogtied — Emery 4-14 for 11 points and Collinsworth 4-15 for eight points — by Hermanson and Rahon.

Rahon’s job was perhaps more impressive because Collinsworth is a master at insinuating himself into the paint and scoring on a variety of moves around the basket. Emery is just a chucker, and Hermanson bothered him  enough to keep him from doing major damage.  But what Rahon did was brilliant, and indicates what a student of the game he is and how valuable his defense is for the Gaels.

Rahon, who gave away several inches to the 6-5 Collinsworth, widened his base and denied Collinsworth entry to the paint. Several times Collinsworth put on a couple of moves that usually free him to crash the basket, only to look up and see the extended frame of Rahon right in front of him. Bewildered, he passed the ball to someone else or made ill-fated attempts to score over Rahon.

Rahon draws the opponent’s toughest guard in every game, and provides maximum defense every time. And he gets tougher if his opposite number achieves some early success. In the Gaels’ early-season win over Manhattan, the Jaspers’ best player was guard Shane Richards, who was red hot in the first half, scoring 17 points, including three three-pointers. Rahon was fuming at half’s end, slamming down the basketball after one possession.

He got his revenge in the second half, holding Richards to free throws only. Similarly, in the Gaels’ recent win over Santa Clara, the Broncos’ gifted guard Jared Brownridge — who is capable of 40 points or more — seemed on the verge of a  big night. He scored 11 in the first half, including an improbable three-pointer with Rahon seemingly inside his jersey. Rahon held Brownridge to two lay-ups in the second half.

Kudos to Hermanson

All this is not to say the Gaels were lacking offensively against BYU. Behind that 56.4% shooting — which exceeded their first-in-the-nation average of around 54% — were five players in double figures. The Gaels’ two-man post tandem of Jock Landale and Dane Pineau totaled 28 points on 11 of 13 shooting. Evan Fitzner shook off his sleepwalking performance against Utah Valley (0 points in 14 minutes) to score 13 points on 4 for 8 shooting.

But it was the goggle-clad Hermanson, the former prep sensation from Lake Oswego, OR, who warmed he hearts of Gael fans more than anyone else. Hermanson was on fire in the second half, when he scored the bulk of his five three-pointers (out of seven attempts) en route to a 21-point effort. Hermanson occasionally gets into a zone where he can’t envision the ball going anywhere but the bottom of the net. He was in that zone last night, and the Gaels hope he stays there for a while.

Up next

San Diego comes to Moraga Saturday night, dragging a 5-7 record with it, including a 77-75 loss to  infraction-hobbled Pacific on Thursday. But more than the Toreros’ record will be the center of attention, as its first-year head coach, Lamont Smith, is the first leaf of the Randy Bennett coaching tree to go head-to-head with its old boss (the others: Kyle Smith, Columbia, Eran Ganot, Hawaii, Rick Croy, California Baptist, and Jim Shaw, Western Oregon).

Smith, a former standout at San Diego, was a graduate assistant at St. Louis University under Lorenzo Romar, as was a young assistant coach named Bennett. When Bennett landed the job at Saint Mary’s, Smith was one of his first hires, staying with the Gaels from 2001-07. He moved on to Santa Clara, Arizona State, University of Washington (reunited with Romar) and, most recently was associate head  coach at New Mexico.

Smith was voted San Diego’s best defender in two of his years there, and helped establish the Saint Mary’s pattern of rock-ribbed defense in his time with the Gaels. You can expect his team to reflect that gritty persona, and for his players to give it their all to spring an improbable upset over their coach’s former team.

Despite the WCC-opening loss to Pacific in Stockton, San Diego was showing signs of improvement under Smith, going 4-2 in December and boasting a 53-48 win over San Diego State in a game played at a baseball stadium, Petco Park. It is not true that Smith requested that Saturday night’s game be played in Saint Mary’s Stadium.

Gael fans will notice several familiar faces with the Toreros, including WCC shot-blocking champ, Jito Kok, and hard-nosed wing man Duda Sanadze. But their eyes will probably focus on San Diego’s back court, where four-year nemeses Johnny Dee and Christopher Anderson have departed along with coach Bill Grier (the players graduated, Grier was fired).

Smith has called on sophomore Marcus Harris, who played in all 31 Toreros’ games last year, and newcomer Olin Carter III to fill the holes left by Dee and Anderson, although another holdover, sophomore Vasa Pusica, is getting more minutes than Sanadze. San Diego is still a guard-oriented team, and the Gaels can be expected to exploit its advantage inside with Pineau, Landale and Fitzner.

Because of the Smith-Bennett element it will not be a routine conference game. If the Gaels are still giddy about defeating BYU, Smith’s charges will probably remind them early that they will need another outstanding effort to get the win.

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