Pineau in the paint.

Showdown in Moraga

The first time Saint Mary’s beat Gonzaga in the Randy Bennett era was on Jan. 8, 2005, the famous “Marigney game” which saw former McClymonds star Paul Marigney explode for 30 points behind seven three-pointers.

That Zags team was ranked 11th nationally and boasted stars such as Adam Morrison, Ronny Turiaf, Derek Raivio and J.P. Bautista. In defeating them 89-81, the Gaels backed up Marigney with Daniel Kickert, E.J. Rowland, Frederick Adjiwanou and Jason Walberg. That group was good enough to earn an at-large NCAA bid just four years after Bennett inherited a dispirited and disrespected 2-27 team.

It took the Gaels another two years, ’till Jan. 15, 2007, to do it again, 80-75 behind Diamon Simpson’s 29 points. Perhaps the most memorable moment that night was a dunk over Zag center Josh Heytvelt by a shaggy-haired redshirt freshman named Omar Samhan, who contributed 20 points. Showing customary restraint, Samhan celebrated his big play by flipping off the Zag bench, definitely including coach Mark Few, whom Samhan said had angered him by referring to him as “the fat boy.”

The Gaels were on a roll by then, stopping the Zags the following year by 89-85 in overtime when they were ranked 25th in the nation and Gonzaga was unranked. That was Todd Golden’s moment in the sunshine, as he canned six-of-six three-pointers, including one in overtime, to score 19 points. Almost overlooked in the glare of Golden’s performance was a 23-point effort by Patty Mills.

Mills went down the next year during a game in Spokane when the Gaels seemed poised to extend the winning streak to the Zags’ home court. After Mills departed for the NBA before the 09-10 season, the Gaels faltered in both regular-season contests. They rediscovered their mojo in the WCC tournament, routing the Zags 81-62 in the championship game and rolling into the NCAA tournament.

Following a Sweet Sixteen appearance to cap the 09-10 season, the Gaels took the rivalry to the next level by defeating Gonzaga in Spokane, 73-71, on Jan. 27, 2011, behind Mickey McConnell’s 27 points.  When the Gaels defeated the Zags 83-62 the following January in Moraga, behind Matthew Dellavedova’s 26 points, they had won three out of five from the Zags. They extended that to four out of six by winning the WCC tournament and an outright WCC championship (they had shared the regular-season title with Gonzaga the year before).

Saint Mary’s lost its momentum against Gonzaga in 2012-13, losing three times and settling for an at-large NCAA bid, where they eventually fell to Memphis in Delly’s last game as a Gael. The next two years (see “Gaels or ‘not Gaels'”) were downers for Bennett’s program, leading them to tomorrow night and a showdown which will help determine whether they are ready to compete head-to-head with the Zags once again.

So here we are

That the Gaels are early 8-to-8.5 point favorites over Gonzaga says a lot about the vicissitudes of college hoops. No one gave any WCC team, least of all Saint Mary’s, a chance to challenge Gonzaga this season, as they returned a dominating front court and a promising back court that had been groomed in the shadow of four-year stars Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr.

But the Zags proved vulnerable early, losing 62-61 in a pre-season tournament to Texas A&M, with Przemek Karnowski in the lineup. Their shortcomings became more pronounced when Karnowski went down with season-ending back surgery, and they lost three more times — at home, no less — in succeeding weeks. The capper was a 69-68 loss to BYU on Jan. 14, giving them a conference loss and dropping them into a tie with Saint Mary’s at 6-1 in the WCC.

The biggest change for Gonzaga since the season began has been increased reliance on center Domantas Sabonis and forward Kyle Wiltjer. With Karnowski the starter in the post, Gonzaga was able to use Sabonis strategically. Although infinitely talented offensively, Sabonis is an indifferent defender and somewhat of a foul magnet. He flourished behind Karnowski, averaging only 23.2 minutes per game but routinely posting double-double numbers.

Since Karnowski’s injury, Sabonis has increased his minutes to 32.8, a 10-minute bump which seems just enough to get him in trouble. The worst case scenario of the new Gonzaga reality was played out in the loss to BYU, when Sabonis picked up fouls early and late that put him on the bench and left the offense almost entirely in the hands of Wiltjer. The wily, 6-10 Wiltjer rose heroically to the occasion, dropping 35 points on BYU before faltering at the free throw line with a chance to tie the game in the final seconds.

In three post-Karnowski losses, Wiltjer and Sabonis have scored 51 against Arizona (out of a total of 63), 38 against UCLA and 40 against BYU, Sabonis contributing only five in that one. Heralded point guard Josh Perkins has only sporadically lived up to his billing, leaving back court mates Eric McClellan and Bryan Alberts to fill roles they don’t seem up to. Another pre-season favorite, Portland prep standout Silas Melson, has been parked in Few’s doghouse.

Gaels’ opportunity

Saint Mary’s season has been the flip-side of Gonzaga’s, with a little-known crew leading the nation in field goal percentage and placing near the top in three-point shooting, assist-to-turnover ratio and defensive efficiency. Differing from the sometimes-scattered performances of the past two seasons, this year’s Gaels have shown a steadiness of purpose, team cohesiveness and commitment to defense that have led them to a 15-2 record.

Moreover, the Gaels’ strengths position them to do well against the Zags. Bennett has insisted on sharing the post position between Dane Pineau and Jock Landale, even though both have shown flashes of being able to take over sole occupation of the pivotal spot. Pineau battled Cal freshman sensation Ivan Rabb even in a heart-breaking loss to the Bears, grabbing 15 rebounds and scoring 10 points against the taller player. Landale won WCC Player of the Week honors for his 24-point performance in last week’s win over Pacific, going 7-7 from the floor and sinking 10-12 free throws.

Thus, Saint Mary’s has two big bodies to throw at Sabonis, which may force Few’s hand and bring redshirt freshman Ryan Edwards onto the floor more than usual. Advantage Saint Mary’s.

To try and slow down Wiltjer — stopping him is a pipe dream — Bennett will call on redshirt freshman Evan Fitzner and true freshman Kyle Clark. Fitzner will be one of Wiltjer’s few opposite numbers who can match his size, if not his offensive virtuosity. At 6-10 and boasting an excellent three-point stroke, Fitzner needs only to harken back to his stellar performance against Cal to draw inspiration for the Gonzaga contest.

Clark is a wild card because he has shown considerable promise at times, while fading at others. At around 6-6, he is smaller than Wiltjer but plays aggressive defense and will get right in the Zag leader’s face. He also has active hands and often swats the ball away from opposing players. Perhaps more importantly, Clark, too, is an excellent three-point shooter, so Wiltjer will have to move out of the paint to guard him just as he will Fitzner. The Gaels don’t need an advantage here, just a stalemate.

If Gael fans feel any superiority over Gonzaga it is in the back court, where Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar have been everything that Perkins et al have failed to become. Naar leads the Gaels in scoring, but the closeness among four starters averaging double figures is so pronounced it makes that statistic almost irrelevant. Besides, it is Naar’s play-making ability more than his sometimes sizzling three-point shooting that makes him dangerous to the opposition. As a second point guard on the floor with Rahon, Naar greases the smooth-flowing Gael offense to an extent that most college guards only dream about.

Rahon is the Gaels’ gutty leader, displaying a calm that was forged as point guard for two years at Boston College in the ACC before transferring to Saint Mary’s. Unflappable is the best word to describe Rahon, but he can also score in bunches and, like Naar, feed the post with great efficiency. Naar and Rahon are a powerful one-two punch that the Zags simply have not delivered this year.

The Gaels have faced three season-making challenges this year — against Stanford and UC Irvine at home and against Cal in Berkeley — and have risen to the challenge each time. Although they didn’t come away from Cal with a victory, they played well against a team with three potential NBA players in its lineup. Gonzaga is the fourth gut-check of the season, and Saint Mary’s is in excellent position pass that one Thursday night in Moraga.

I’m counting on it.

Dane Pineau, shown working in the paint earlier this year against San Diego, will be a key factor in the Gaels’ challenge to Gonzaga. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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