First, let’s concentrate on the symphony of destruction conducted by Saint Mary’s guards Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar in the Gaels’ 78-62 dismantling of Pacific Thursday night.
It was simply no contest, as the Pacific guards assigned to Rahon and Naar, T.J. Wallace and Alec Kobre, had seemingly never watched tape of the Gael back court. On the Gaels’ first possession, Rahon used his hesitation dribble to blow by Wallace and make an easy lay-up.
Naar, coming off a sub-par performance in the Gaels’ loss to Pepperdine last week, was equally aggressive. With Kobre playing far off him for reasons only he can explain, Naar buried a three on the Gaels’ next possession. With fear of penetration firmly established, Rahon moved toward the bucket next time down and lobbed a pass over the Pacific front court defender who left his man, Dane Pineau. Pineau easily converted the lob for another lay-up.
Then, Naar simply dribbled past Kobre for a lightly-contested runner. The Gaels had scored nine straight points in less than three minutes, went up by 9-2, and essentially settled the matter. They finished the half shooting 83% (15-18), Naar and Landale scored 15 points each and Saint Mary’s went to the locker room leading 46-27.
Naar, whose perch at the top of the nation’s three-point shooters was upset by consecutive low-scoring games, bounced back with a 7-11 night, including 4-4 on threes, and totaled 21 points. Landale topped that, going 7-7 from the floor and 10-12 from the free throw line for a tidy 24 points. Rahon settled for eight points and seven assists.
True, the Gaels slowed down in the second half, scoring only 32 points on 42% shooting, but the overall FG percentage of 59.5 should be enough to keep them on top of the NCAA. They earned that spot with a 53% average coming into the game, so unless some other team shoots 75% or so over the weekend, the Gaels should continue leading the nation.
What’s up with Fitzner?
Gael fans would have thought redshirt freshman forward Evan Fitzner suffered enough chagrin with a woeful performance against Pepperdine — no points, two rebounds and four fouls, plus a major contribution to Pepperdine forward Jett Raines’ 24-point barrage. Not so fast there, karma believers. Fitzner handcuffed himself with thee first-half fouls that limited his playing time against Pacific to 12 minutes, scored a single bucket while missing on two three-point attempts and pulled down just three rebounds (Naar had five).
His slump is concerning considering who is rolling into McKeon Pavilion next Thursday as the Gaels battle Gonzaga for WCC leadership. Zag forward Kyle Wiltjer is scoring crazy numbers, 35 in Thursday’s loss to BYU, and presents a major headache for the Gaels. Saint Mary’s desperately needs the Fitzner who bagged three three-pointers in the first five minutes of the second half against Cal and who scored 13 points in the win over BYU. Fitzner needs it, too.
Partially because of Fitzner’s foul problems, the Gaels used Pineau at the four with Landale in the post for long segments against Pacific. That worked out fine for Landale, who feasted on the assist-making prowess of Naar and Rahon for a monster night, but it gave the Gaels little firepower at the four. Pineau scored seven points in the post, but balked at attempting any three-pointers when substituting for Fitzner.
The Gaels will be much better off against Gonzaga if Pineau and Landale can share the post position, guaranteeing a fresh body on the Zags’ dominating center, Domantas Sabonis. That puts the onus on Fitzner to guard Wiltjer without fouling (too much), and to knock down threes to loosen up the post area. Fitzner’s record of coming up big in the Gaels’ two biggest games this year — Cal and BYU — suggests he will rise to the occasion against Gonzaga.
To be fair, close analysis of the Pacific game indicates Fitzner was as much sinned against as sinning. I noted five phantom first-half fouls called by the whistle-happy crew officiating the Pacific game (44 fouls in 40 minutes) — three against Fitzner. He had barely started the game when he fought for position against Pacific’s rugged power forward Tonko Vuko. Careful study of the television broadcast showed only the slightest contact, but the whistle went off with 30 seconds gone.
A few minutes later Fitzner was the victim of the ubiquitous moving screen violation, certainly the most over-used of the “freedom of movement” fouls referees are obsessed with this season. Fitzner barely moved as he attempted to establish a high pick-and-roll position, but the whistle nevertheless sounded. That earned Fitzner a place on the bench, but the cruelest blow came a little later in the half when he went back in because Pineau picked up his second foul on another moving screen call.
Contesting Pacific’s seven-foot Sami Eleraky, Fitzner looked like a model in a Proper Defense video — standing stock still with both arms raised straight to the sky. Whistle, three fouls, banishment to the bench. In Fitzner’s favor, his demeanor after a third straight ticky-tack foul was upbeat. He parked himself next to Pineau and engaged in a conversation that must have contained elements of “What’s a guy gotta do to avoid a foul these days?”
Sketchy officiating aside, the Gaels need major contributions from all their big guns if they are to capitalize on the favorable position they are in after BYU beat the Zags. By suffering their third home loss of the year — something that used to happen as often as Donald Trump tells the truth — Gonzaga took Saint Mary’s off the hook for the Pepperdine loss. The Gaels need to hold their home court to give Gonzaga a second league loss and inoculate themselves against potential road losses in Spokane and Provo.
They also need the win for insurance against NCAA selection committee qualms about their strength of schedule. Wins over BYU and Gonzaga are absolutely necessary to get the Gaels into the Dance, and that fact is assuredly not lost on the Saint Mary’s brain trust. Once again the schedule is the Gaels’ friend, as they have a full week to prepare for the Zag invasion. Coach Randy Bennett was feeling so generous after Thursday night’s win that he said he might give his charges a small practice break, but I would expect a major effort before next Thursday’s nationally-televised showdown.