So now comes to Moraga the freewheeling Pepperdine Waves, a team that takes particular joy in upsetting the WCC’s top teams. This was the season that the Waves were supposed to step up from pesky challenger to title contender, but it hasn’t happened.
Sitting at 7-6 in the WCC (14-10 overall) with wins over Saint Mary’s and BYU, Pepperdine has lost too many winnable games to be anything but a spoiler down the stretch. Case in point was their performance following their Jan. 9 upset of the Gaels in Malibu (67-64): they lost their next game on the road to an eminently beatable Santa Clara squad 62-60. Overall, they are 4-6 on the road, which has prevented a WCC title run.
The Waves blew their last opportunity to affect the conference championship last Saturday, coming close to Gonzaga on their home court but once again falling victim to poor free throw shooting (11-17) in a 69-66 loss. They warmed up for that disappointment by going 17-for-37 from the free throw line en route to a 73-70 loss to Portland. That’s 20 missed free throws in a three-point loss.
That being said, Randy Bennett’s Gaels will be anything but relaxed Thursday night as they battle to remain in a first-place WCC tie with Gonzaga. Pepperdine plays loose and free, anchored by their senior forwards Stacy Davis and Jett Raines. Point guard Jeremy Major is among the league’s best, and his back-court mate Amadi Udenyi, a De La Salle grad, is a potent counterpart.
One of the Waves’ problems this season has been Udenyi’s struggle to recover from an Achilles injury suffered toward the end of last season. That battle, which has mainly affected his three-point shooting, was exacerbated by a season-ending injury to promising sophomore guard Shawn Olden, robbing the Waves of a competent reserve.
Another cog in the Waves’ attack is mercurial guard/forward Lamond Murray Jr., who is capable of quick scoring bursts and prolonged absences, often in the same game. To this veteran lineup the Waves added one of the WCC’s outstanding freshmen, 6-6 forward Kameron Edwards. In sum, the Waves possess experience, quickness and lightening-like scoring ability, but are not particularly deep.
Paging Mr. Raines
One of the key questions the Gaels face is which Raines will show up Thursday night. Back on that forgettable January in Malibu, Raines was an offensive nightmare Saint Mary’s couldn’t solve. He scorched Gael forwards Evan Fitzner and Kyle Clark for 24 points, including 10-12 free throws. Saint Mary’s fans could be excused if they shouted at their televisions during the Pepperdine-Gonzaga game, as Raines posted a mere eight points and went one-for-three from the free throw line.
“What, you only show up against Saint Mary’s?” might have been on many fans’ minds watching Raines in that game, but, in truth, the Gonzaga performance was more in keeping with Raines’ career than the Saint Mary’s one. He is a career seven-point-a-game scorer and usually chips in three or four rebounds. His 24 against the Gaels and a career-best 27 against Portland, where he was again potent from the free throw line with a 10-14 performance, were anomalies. Nevertheless, the Gaels know what he is capable of, and can’t afford to get burned as they did in Malibu.
The Gaels’ challenge
If Pepperdine is destined to play only a spoiler’s role as the WCC season winds down, Saint Mary’s has its season-long goals well in sight. They have suffered two sub-par offensive performances in a row, scoring only 59 points against BYU in a 70-59 loss and 60 against San Diego in a 60-43 win. It is doubtful that even an inspired defensive game will hold Pepperdine below 50 points, so the once-potent Gael scoring machine will be called on to crank up the volume.
Pepperdine’s guards Major and Udenyi harass their counterpoints ceaselessly, and make up one of the WCC’s most potent perimeter defensive duos. They held the Gaels’ back court of Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar to a total of 15 points on a combined 5-14 shooting, including only two three-pointers. More than that, they took Rahon and Naar out of the game, which devolved into a series of lobs into Gael post men Jock Landale and Dane Pineau. Gone were the probes into the paint, the lay-ups and the lay-offs that are the highlight of SMC’s attack.
For their parts, Landale and Pineau performed well against Pepperdine, scoring 16 points each. Forward Calvin Hermanson also had a strong game with 14 points and had a shot at a game-tying three-pointer in the final seconds that was slightly off. The big story offensively was Fitzner’s goose-egg, an anemic 0-2 output partially caused by foul trouble from trying to guard Raines. It goes without saying that the Gaels need something more from Fitzner to avoid a catastrophic loss.
At 10-2 in the WCC with six conference games left, this is the time when Saint Mary’s answers the question “Gaels or not-Gaels?” The pre-2013-14 Gaels could be counted upon to rise to the occasion and make a strong push to the finish, including the WCC Tournament where they battled Gonzaga for the championship five years in a row. For the past two seasons a lesser version of the Gaels has limped into the homestretch and bombed out of the WCC Tournament.
The game against Pepperdine will provide a strong hint which version of the Gaels is now in operation.
Pepperdine’s Jett Raines, shown driving against Kyle Clark above, was a major thorn in the Gaels’ side last month in Malibu. The Gaels must contain him to reverse a loss suffered on that day. Photo courtesy of Pepperdine Athletics.