Pineau in the paint.

Routine is good, dominating is better

The overriding question on Gael fans’ minds as they strolled out of McKeon Pavilion Saturday night following their team’s 79-46 romp over San Diego was, “How did these guys beat San Diego State?”

Good question, because it certainly didn’t appear Lamont Smith’s charges were capable of beating even a so-so San Diego State. But records exist saying they did, indeed, pull off the upset, 53-48, on Dec. 6 in a baseball park, Petco Stadium. Granted SD State is struggling through a 9-6 season, with losses to Arkansas-Little Rock and Grand Canyon, among others, but still…

There was a tiny  bit of frisson before the tip-off, generated by the anticipation of Smith facing off against his old mentor, Randy Bennett. Smith was one of Bennett’s earliest hires after Bennett came to Moraga in 2000, and he has compiled a commendable record while working through the college ranks — Santa Clara, Arizona State, Washington, New Mexico — to assume his first head coaching slot at USD at age 39.

And there was a history of grinding wins — and gut-wrenching losses — when San Diego was guided by Bill Grier, Smith’s predecessor. Would San Diego work its voodoo on the Gaels one more time?

Not a chance.

It appeared the Gaels were on their way to a routine win, and, most fans would agree, routine is good when you’re building a resume for a possible post-season run. Saint Mary’s had already notched a notable victory by throttling BYU 85-74 Thursday night, so a routine victory over San Diego would not ruffle any feathers.

But Bennett’s boys were having none of that “routine” stuff, and came out of halftime smoking. A good first half of shooting 50% from the floor and 60% from three-point range, which gave them a 34-21 lead,  accelerated to 67% overall, and, in a mild decline, 58.2% on threes in the second, as Stefan Gonzalez (4-5, all threes), Dane Pineau (8-9), Calvin Hermanson (4-7) and Jock Landale (5-9) stepped up their games.

That 34-21 lead zoomed to a 37-point bulge with 6:20 left, and Bennett sent in the reserves led by Franklin Porter, Jordan Hunter and walk-on Jack Biebel.

Some highlights

For the second game in a row, the Pineau-Landale duet in the post combined for 28 points on a combined 13-18 shooting. They also grabbed 11 rebounds between them. These two seem to be trying to outdo each other, creating a fascinating tableau of post play: Pineau is quicker on his feet than Landale, while Landale is perfecting the power game enshrined at SMC by Omar Samhan and Brad Waldow. They both successfully navigated the shot-blocking machine that is San Diego’s Jito Kok, who leads the WCC in swatting away attempts and had nine blocks in the Toreros’ win over UC Davis. Kok had only two blocks against the Gaels, a number that was matched by Pineau.

In the photo above by Gaels’ photographer Tod Fierner, Pineau works his way toward one of his eight buckets (on nine attempts).

The Gaels’ back court of Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar scored only 14 points between them, but each dished out seven assists to guarantee Saint Mary’s will continue its top-10 national ranking in that department. Someone should be compiling a highlight reel of the play-making exploits of these two, as they contribute several beautiful dishes each game. Naar specializes in a dazzling crossover dribble that freezes his opponent and leads him either to a driving bucket or a deadly assist.

And, hopefully, someone is chronicling the rise of Calvin Hermanson from  occasional three-point threat to stud small forward. Hermanson sank only one three-pointer against San Diego following a five-for-seven three-point outburst against BYU, but his power drives to the hoop accounted for the rest of his 11 points. He combines strength and quickness as he attacks the basket, and has great finesse around the rim.

Remember former Gael standout Ian O’Leary? He would frequently break down a defense by taking the ball hard to the basket, only to watch it inexplicably rim out, or fall short, or otherwise miss the mark. Not so with Hermanson. If he gets close to the bucket he is going to finish, and that gives the Gaels another weapon to complement their inside-outside game.

Which leads to…

The Gaels under Bennett have done an excellent job of “taking it one game at a time” this season, but that doesn’t mean I have to. As Gonzaga continued its Perils of Pauline trip to the Bay Area Saturday by taking San Francisco to overtime before winning 102-94, comparisons are unavoidable. The Zags also struggled against Santa Clara on Thursday before eking out a 79-77 win, and Saint Mary’s breezed by  both of those teams with 22-point victories. Granted, the San Francisco win was in Moraga and the trip to Santa Clara isn’t exactly a back-breaker, but you’ve got to wonder what’s going on with Mark Few’s boys.

Saint Mary’s moved to 13-1 with the win over San Diego, and has three more games before a Jan. 21 showdown with Gonzaga in Moraga. Assuming the Gaels keep winning over Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and Pacific, they could face Gonzaga at 16-1. That record is similar to the 18-1 mark the Gaels carried into Spokane in January, 2009, along with the nation’s longest winning streak of 15 straight and a national ranking of 18 or 22 depending on which poll you prefer.

That juggernaut derailed with the broken wrist incurred by Patty Mills as he neared the end of an epic first-half against the Zags (18 points). The Gaels lost the game, lost Mills and, eventually lost out on an NCAA bid to thwart what seemed like an historic season. It is not tempting the gods to think the Gaels will avert a similar disaster this year, and might be in a position to finish what began so promisingly in 2008-09.

Or is it?

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