Gaels have ticket punched…to Vegas

Got your tickets to the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas yet?

If not, you’d better act fast to catch the climax of Saint Mary’s unlikely bid for an NCAA Tournament berth. As the Gaels made painfully clear Thursday night in succumbing meekly (70-59) to BYU, they don’t seem equipped to sweep their remaining eight games, particularly road contests against Gonzaga in Spokane and Portland in Portland.

Randy Bennett’s precocious pups, nurtured in the comforting environs of their home court, are not ready to take their show on the road and duplicate the McKeon Pavilion performance. Losses to Pepperdine in Malibu and BYU in Provo, combined with a stumbling 68-65 win over Pacific in Stockton, raise red flags that point to a showdown in Las Vegas.

No more prophetic words have ever been spoken than those of a BYU-TV announcer at the 13:51 mark Thursday night, after BYU had turned a 37-33 halftime deficit into a three-point lead at 44-41. With 18,000 home fans cheering loudly, he said, “Bennett wanted to find out how tough his guys were. They’re going to find out in this setting.”

Answer not encouraging

The answer was not to Bennett’s liking, as BYU outscored the Gaels 13-2 over the next three minutes to move ahead by nine points at the 11:24 mark. The turnaround included such lowlights as Jock Landale missing a short hook shot, Emmett Naar being stripped on a drive, Calvin Hermanson missing an open three-pointer and BYU guards Nick (Sucker Punch) Emery and Chase Fischer cashing in on three-pointers of their own.

The Gaels were far from done, as Joe Rahon summoned the heroic effort he displayed in comeback wins over Gonzaga and Pacific by hitting a crucial three-pointer to bring the deficit to six. Naar finished a breakaway after a steal to cut the lead to four at 52-48,  but then the Gaels faltered again. After getting a stop, they had the ball with a chance to cut the lead to two or one, but Naar gave the ball up on a careless dribble and BYU’s Kyle Collinsworth dunked on a runout.

Evan Fitzner, who had a game that might give him nightmares for months, then carelessly threw the ball away, giving BYU a chance to increase their lead. The next shot was missed but Dane Pineau committed a key foul by pushing off on BYU center Korbin Kaufusi, whom the Gaels managed to make look like an NBA prospect.

Kaufusi tried to help out the Gaels by missing his second free throw, but Fitzner compounded his turnover gaffe by crashing the lane too soon and giving Kaufusi another chance. He sank it to push the BYU lead to eight, 56-48 with 8:41 left. Bennett replaced Fitzner in the lineup.

The Gaels weren’t done with their spate of carelessness, however, as Landale missed another bunny on the next possession (he was 2-8 on the night), Naar sent BYU’s Fischer to the free throw line for an automatic two points, then coughed up another turnover (he had three turnovers to four assists) that gave Collinsworth an opportunity to polish his dunking-on-runout skills. That put the score at 60-48 with 7:51 left and the party was just about over except for some late heroics by Hermanson, who sandwiched a put-back basket between two three-pointers, and Rahon, who made another three-pointer to cut the deficit to six points, 65-59, with 3:27 left.

Gaels falter again

Down six with the ball and more than three minutes on the clock looked like a promising scenario, but not on this night. Rahon made one of his few tactical mistakes of the night on the ensuing possession, missing a mismatch with Landale on Emery in front of the basket. Instead of tossing the ball to Landale, Rahon attempted another three-pointer. In turning for the rebound, Landale inadvertently bull-dozed Emery, sending BYU’s leading free-throw shooter to the line.

Emery made one free throw for a seven-point lead, and the Gaels responded with an almost truth-defying series of missteps: Naar missed an open lay-up, Rahon fouled out defending Fischer (one made free throw), Naar missed another lay-up and a three-pointer on successive possessions and Fitzner committed still another turnover. For the night, Fitzner was one-for-six shooting, with two turnovers and the lane violation. He was the poster child for the Gaels’ ineffectiveness, with Naar close behind.

Among a spate of unflattering statistics, the Gaels’ anemic second-half output of 22 points on 23.3% shooting and rebound deficit of 11 (44 to 33) stand out. Above those abysmal performances stands the strategic advantage given BYU coach Dave Rose for keeping Kaufusi and Nate Austin on the floor for most of the second half. Not only did Austin, who hadn’t scored a point in three preceding games, sink two crucial jump shots, but his height and that of Kaufusi befuddled the Gaels completely. Bennett never figured out a way to counter this overwhelming mismatch.

So, it’s on to San Diego Saturday before the Gaels come home for a crucial rematch with Pepperdine on Feb. 11. Bennett only has that brief respite to right his wayward ship before it sets sail for the Pacific Northwest and the Portland-Gonzaga one-two punch on Feb. 18-20. The Gaels have not demonstrated the moxie it takes to compete against quality teams on their home courts, perhaps a forgivable shortcoming in an inexperienced squad. They don’t have much time to either figure that out or risk a gloomy end to what has been a glorious season.

The Gaels couldn’t match the favorable advantage of Joe Rahon over Kyle Collinsworth, shown above in a New Year’s Eve game in Moraga, in Thursday’s rematch in Provo, when Collinsworth scored 17 points with nine rebounds and seven assists. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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