It’s official: the Gaels have hit a wall.
For the fourth consecutive game Saint Mary’s failed to score at least 70 points Thursday against Pepperdine, falling 69-63. Seventy has been a talisman for the Gaels over the years — reach it and they win an overwhelming percentage of games. But now they can’t reach it, scoring 68, 59, 60 and 63 the last four times out, splitting those games 2-2.
The well-oiled machine that has been their offense this year is still functioning — the wheels have not fallen off the bus — but it is not producing enough. Indeed, the Gaels’ pass-happy attack, burning up most of the 30-second clock on each possession, has begun to work against them as they play increasingly from behind. The team of unselfishness can’t find anyone to take — or make — a tough shot when they need it.
Against Pepperdine, the Gaels went 2-12 over the final 5:47 of the game. There is no Waldow on this team, no Delly, no Omar, no Diamon, no Mickey. Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar have been the most consistent scorers, but Naar has lost his touch on the three-pointer — 0-3 Thursday — and Rahon may have exhausted his supply of miracles after engineering come-from-behind wins over Gonzaga, Pacific and others.
After leading the Gaels in scoring at the half with 11, Rahon did not score a single point in the second half, and had the same number of turnovers — three — as assists. For the player who has led the WCC in assist-to-turnover ratio all season, that is a deadly statistic.
What the Waves did
Pepperdine didn’t show anything new Thursday night since defeating the Gaels 67-64 Jan. 9 in Malibu. Indeed, Saint Mary’s blunted the sharpest weapon in that attack — forward Jett Raines — by holding him to 12 points instead of the 24 he piled up in Firestone Fieldhouse (“The biggest house in Malibu”). Raines’ senior counterpart Stacy Davis, who is moving inexorably toward Pepperdine’s all-time scoring leadership, was also relatively contained at 13 points.
It was the quickness and athleticism of the Waves’ Lamond Murray Jr. (16 points) and Amadi Udenyi (14 points, all in the second half) that exposed a glaring Gael weakness and gave Pepperdine the edge. Following a brief Saint Mary’s rally that carried them to a seven-point lead (47-40) at the 13:57 mark, Udenyi went on a tear against Naar and Rahon, scoring all 14 of his points before the clock ticked down to 5:32. That put the Waves up 59-57 and the Gaels never regained the lead. Murray inserted the dagger with a little more than a minute left, faking Rahon off his feet and sinking a short jumper to move the score to 65-61.
The Gaels are not a quick lot. They depend on poise and execution, along with exceptional shooting, to conquer more athletic opponents, but the limits of that attack were apparent against Pepperdine. Ever since another quick Pepperdine guard, Jeremy Major, intercepted a lazy Rahon pass on the Gaels’ first possession and raced for a lay-up, the Waves beat Saint Mary’s to the punch on hustle plays. They had six steals, three by Udenyi, and led many Gaels fans to long for the days of a Wayne Hunter or a Stephen Holt, when Saint Mary’s forced the action with steals and stifling perimeter defense.
The road ahead
All is not lost for this Gael team that has overachieved and defied expectations since the opening tip of the 2015-16 season. Of five conference games left, four are winnable — Loyola Marymount in Moraga on Saturday, Portland and San Francisco on the road, and Santa Clara back in Moraga on Feb. 25. Given their performance since beating Gonzaga at home on Jan. 21, it is not reasonable to expect a repeat in the Zags’ house on Feb. 20.
If that scenario plays out, the Gaels would compile a 14-4 conference record (23-5 overall) and a probable second-place finish heading into the WCC Tournament March 4-8 in Las Vegas. Although not as glorious as seemed possible just a week ago — before losses to BYU and Pepperdine — it would still give them a shot at the 25-victory mark that coach Randy Bennett covets, and a possible rubber match against Gonzaga for the WCC Tournament title and the automatic NCAA tournament bid that comes with it.
The Gaels are probably not still a candidate for an at-large NCAA bid, so it may be all or nothing come March in Vegas. That’s enough motivation to keep this group scrapping for the next three weeks.
Dane Pineau, shown above battling San Diego earlier this year, compiled a gritty double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) against Pepperdine, but shot a miserable 2-8 from the free throw line to typify the Gaels’ frustration. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.