Taming the Tigers…barely

“These guys are great when they’re shooting 60%,” said the father of a Gael player following Saint Mary’s excruciating 68-65 win over Pacific Saturday night. “But they’ve got to learn to play better when they’re not shooting so well.”

Fair enough, but there was more involved in the Gaels’ struggle than poor shooting. It got lost in the end-of-game drama, but this one started off like a repeat of the 78-62 drubbing Saint Mary’s handled Pacific just two weeks ago in Moraga. That was the memorable 15-18 first-half-shooting game, and even more memorable 24-point performance by Jock Landale.

The Gaels were dominant early on in the sequel, going up 13-0, 13-4, and 21-10 at various early points. The descent into road hell began at about the 7-minute mark of the first half with a Fitzner driving lay-up to give the Gaels a 28-15 lead. Saint Mary’s fans were then contemplating a comfortable first-half lead, quiet surrender by the Tigers in the second half and a positive beginning to the back end of the WCC season.

Someone forgot to tell the Tigers, who have responded well to substitute coach Mike Burns and the return to their lineup of three players temporarily suspended as a result of a pending NCAA investigation. The last of these three to return to play, 6-8 post man Eric Thompson, is becoming more of a factor for Pacific, and he played a dramatic role in almost upsetting the Gaels.

After that 28-15 high-water mark, Pacific went on a 24-10 run encompassing the end of the first half and beginning of the second, culminating in their first lead, 42-40 with 15 minutes left in the second half. The key contributors were guards Eric Kobre and T.J. Wallace. Kobre, benefiting from solid screens by his teammates that knocked Gael Emmett Naar out of position, began hitting three-pointers, and Wallace matched him and began attacking the lane as well.

In one first-half segment, Wallace, Kobre and Ray Bowles all hit threes as part of an eight-for-nine shooting spree. Thompson contributed just by being on the floor, as Gael post players Landale and Dane Pineau proved incapable of guarding him without fouling. By the end of the half, Landale had three fouls and Pineau two, and Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett was giving the word to freshman big Jordan Hunter to get ready.

Fouls on bigs

This problem of Landale and Pineau accumulating fouls — they both fouled out against Pacific — is getting worse and needs to be addressed. A close review of the game revealed no obvious flaws, as most calls fell into the category of ticky-tack, the kind of routine pushing and shoving that marks any college game. The only semi-egregious foul I found in watching and re-watching the game was a downward arm swipe by Pineau on one possession.

A good example of the head-scratching calls was a play near the end of the first half when Wallace, who resurrected his sinking season with 17 against the Gaels, drove hard into the lane. Landale, attempting to cut off Wallace after he left Joe Rahon in the dust, slid into Wallace’s path. No matter that Wallace plowed forcefully into Landale while sinking a lay-up, Landale was called for blocking and picked up his third foul. It seemed like a no-call situation, but there are seemingly no “no-calls” in this season of “freedom of movement,” and Landale was saddled with a third foul just as the half drew to a  close.

That set the stage for a climactic foul call against Landale with 33 seconds left in the game and the Gaels up by a single point, 66-65. Landale received the ball in the low post and began his crab dribble against Thompson. Both players came together just as Landale prepared for his move to the hoop, and Thompson pulled a flop that would make a European soccer player jealous.

I was immediately reminded of a similar play by ex-Gael Omar Samhan in the 2010 NCAA tournament game against Villanova, whom Samhan was dominating. When a Villanova defender flopped as Samhan moved toward the bucket in the second half, the ref swallowed his whistle, Samhan scored and the Gaels went on to win. No such luck for Landale. In a situation crying for a no call, the ref determined that Landale was charging, blew the whistle and fouled him out.

Other keys

There was more to the game than dubious foul calls and hot-shooting Pacific guards. One of the biggest developments was Naar’s almost total lack of offensive contribution. Naar is the Gaels’ offensive leader, averaging more than 14 PPG entering the Pacific contest, but he shot a miserable 1-8 Saturday night, and missed all three three-point attempts, some badly. He was also exploited repeatedly by the Tigers in freeing up Kobre for three-point attempts — of which Kobre sank four en route to an 18-point game.

Like the Gaels’ foul-prone bigs, Naar’s occasional offensive disappearance is a worrisome trend as the season winds down. He has bounced  back from sub-par games in the past, and Gael coaches and fans fervently hope he does the same next week as Saint Mary’s travels to BYU and San Diego for crucial contests. The Gaels need Naar to score and defend well.

On the bright side was Rahon’s dramatic play in the clutch. At the Gaels’ absolute nadir against Pacific, down by seven points (63-56) with 4:25 left, Rahon sank a momentous three from the top of the arc to cut the lead to four. He then stole the ball from Thompson on the low block, took it up-court and maneuvered into position for a three-point attempt from the right corner. Swish! The lead was down to one and the Gaels had retaken the momentum.

And Landale’s night was memorable not only for the five fouls he accumulated, legitimate or not. On a night when the Gaels were shooting horribly from the free-throw line (13-23 for the game), Landale sank two free throws to put the Gaels ahead 66-65 in the final minute. He had previously intercepted a pass to Thompson and sank a difficult bucket on the ensuing possession to put the Gaels up temporarily by 64-63. Thus, the big Aussie can take credit for giving his teammates successive leads in the game’s final minutes — not too shabby.

And, finally, a word for Hunter, the Gaels’ energetic freshman post player, whom Bennett did put into the game a few times to give Pineau and Landale breaks. He came onto the floor for the game’s final possession after Landale was sent to the bench, and Pacific wasted no time tossing the ball into Thompson’s hands with the game on the line — Saint Mary’s up 66-65.

Hunter, who has committed fouls this season at a rate to make Pineau and Landale look like pikers, defended Thompson perfectly. He moved between Thompson and the basket and extended his 6-10 frame to its highest point without committing the common error of lowering one arm into the shooter’s path. It was just enough to deny Thompson a clear look at the basket and his attempt to give Pacific the lead fell short. The Gaels’ Naar, who also had free-throw troubles in this game (missing two, unheard of for him), sank two clutch free throws in the final seconds and the Gaels were able to get out of town with a hard-earned W. To his credit, Naar also defended Kobre well on Kobre’s last-ditch attempt at a game-tying three-pointer.

On to Provo!

Joe Rahon, shown above scoring against Stanford earlier this year, contributed 13 points and six assists against Pacific. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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4 thoughts on “Taming the Tigers…barely

  1. Good summary as usual. The home court advantage in basketball has more than one variable but the most prominent is the officiating. Check any group of random box scores and way more than half will reveal that the home team fouled less. Most of the time the officials are trying to be fair but they are subconsciously are biased in that they don’t want the disapproval of the home crowd. So if is a 50/50 call (or no call) as many are, the home team gets it. Incidentally before the Spanos Center, Pacific was noted for having a most particular home court advantage, at least from what I remember reading as I never attended a game there. The court was apparently slanted.

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    1. I actually thought the officiating was well-balanced — equally poor for both sides. This obsession with calling every slight touch is affecting the ability of teams to compete successfully when the NCAA Tournament begins. At that point the ticky-tack calls disappear, and players like Landale are going to left wondering what they can or can’t do on defense.

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