Gael fans who witnessed Thursday’s disheartening 69-63 loss to Pepperdine probably had modest hopes heading into Saturday’s contest against a weaker Loyola Marymount squad: cut down on turnovers, make a few free throws.
Turns out that was too much to expect. The suddenly-erratic Gaels more than doubled the turnover number against Pepperdine — seven — to 17 against LMU. They matched that with 17 assists, eliminating the outstanding hallmark of their offense when it was worth the name — a dominating assist-to-turnover ratio.
Free throw accuracy was better — how could it not be? — but 11-18 is hardly anything to write home about, especially considering inexplicable lapses down the stretch against LMU. No greater evidence exists that a group of aliens has taken over the bodies of the young men we knew as Gaels than the sight of Evan Fitzner — who had missed a total of four free throws all season — missing both attempts with 23.5 seconds left and LMU trailing only by seven points.
As if that sight was not difficult enough to digest, another usually dead-eyed free throw shooter, Emmett Naar, made only one of two chances a few seconds later. What’s going on here?
The fatigue factor
I have resolutely refused to accept facile explanations for the Gaels recent troubles — five straight games without reaching the 70-point threshold — such as “They’re worn out” or “Bennett can’t coach.” I still reject the latter — alien abduction is not really logical in the case of our outstanding coach — but have got to concede the possibility of some combination of mental and physical fatigue becoming a factor.
The reason a part of me still rejects this is simple logic. These are 19-and-20-year olds who only play twice a week, usually in the comfort of their own facility. So what if Naar and his sidekick Joe Rahon play nearly every minute of every game? Didn’t Mickey McConnell and freshman Matthew Dellavedova log the same minutes in 2009-10 when they led the Gaels to a rout of Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament championship and a Sweet 16 run in March Madness? Indeed they did.
But something is terribly wrong with the Gaels at this point, and a lackluster 68-62 win over a 11-15 LMU squad playing without its best player — Adom Jacko — hardly indicates that a week of practices in Moraga has straightened them out. Jacko scored 21 points and pulled down eight rebounds as the Gaels throttled LMU 73-48 a few weeks ago in Los Angeles, but without him — he is struggling with back issues — they battled the Gaels more evenly.
After posting a fairly impressive 33-21 halftime lead that featured the return of their three-point prowess, the Gaels seemed on the verge of continuing their domination by surging to a 20-point margin, 43-23, with under 13 minutes left. From that point on, LMU outscored the Gaels 39-25 en route to a 41-point second-half performance. Along with the Gaels’ continued inability to reach the once-routine 70-point mark, the LMU meltdown continued the alarming trend of allowing opponents more points in the second half than the first. It doesn’t take a degree in science to detect signs of fatigue in that pattern.
Guards bearing the brunt
The Gael offensive breakdown is centered mainly in the play of Naar and Rahon, who had been the backbone of the team’s smart, efficient operation until the first Pepperdine loss on Jan. 9. Once league — and national — leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio, the twosome posted numbers of seven assists, six turnovers (Naar) and seven assists, five turnovers (Rahon) against LMU.
Naar seems more affected than Rahon, and he has begun to match his three-point shooting demise — one of three Saturday night — with ball-handling problems. After bouncing a pass off the heel of Dane Pineau on the Gaels’ first possession, Naar then dribbled into a turnover by allowing an opposing player to tie him up while probing the paint with no apparent purpose. Bennett then did something remarkable — he actually benched Naar at the 12-minute mark of the first half. The Gaels’ only functioning reserve guard, Stefan Gonzalez, had entered the lineup a few minutes earlier as a sub for Calvin Hermanson, and remained to share share the back court with Rahon.
This was one of the few times this season that Gonzalez has functioned as a guard rather than a sub for Hermanson at the small forward position. And it seemed to be working. Before Naar left the court Gonzalez nailed a three-pointer from the corner — his first contribution in several games — then sank a truly long-range three-pointer a few minutes later. This logical solution to an obvious problem — Naar’s funk — was a hopeful sign for Gael fans. It is not heresy for college coaches to yank players who are not performing well and substitute someone else.
But it has been anathema for Bennett throughout his tenure at Saint Mary’s, and any fair-minded observer would conclude that his predeliction has worked out pretty well. Bennett sticks with his starters from game one to the season’s bitter end, and he is usually rewarded with unswerving loyalty and team unity. That history notwithstanding, Gael fans were probably willing to break the pattern if it gave the team a lift.
Back to the past
The Naar-on-the-bench experiment lasted fewer than three minutes, however, as Naar went back in and Gonzalez resumed his usual position riding the pine. So much for shaking things up. To be fair, Naar did make some outstanding contributions both in play-making and shooting for the rest of the game, ending with 13 points and seven assists. He deserves credit for substituting drives and floaters in the paint for his missing three-point output.
If anything, Rahon took on the curse of fumbleitis than Naar initiated, combining lazy passes that were intercepted by LMU defenders with a propensity for allowing defenders to strip him of the ball. He, too, seems to be in a funk, ending the game with nine points on 3-5 shooting and a perfect 2-2 from the free throw line, where he has been shaky all season. That was a ray of light in the dark shadows of the Gaels’ free-throw-shooting performance.
There were stars for the Gaels in contrast to the uninspired play of Naar and Rahon. Hermanson is emerging as perhaps the team’s most consistent offensive threat, leading Gael scoring with 16 points on 6-11 shooting. More important than his scoring totals is his willingness to take shots in crucial times whether he has been hot or not. His confidence is growing game-by-game, and that is a crucial ingredient as his teammates negotiate these troubling times. Hermanson logged 37 minutes against LMU, certainly a high-water mark for a player who used to be on Bennett’s extremely short leash.
The consistently inconsistent Fitzner put in a solid performance as well, following Hermanson with 12 points on 4-8 shooting, all buckets coming on three-pointers (4-6). Fitzner, another oft-benched member of the Gaels, put in 30 minutes himself, a sign that Bennett is beginning to trust that twosome.
Alas, also gone missing for the Gaels in addition to their previously-excellent guard play is the front court dominance provided by the tandem of Pineau and Jock Landale. Landale confessed in a refreshingly candid media interview a few weeks ago that he was too “inside his own head” at the season’s beginning, worrying too much about perceived shortcomings. He professed to be over that nonsense and to be focused on helping his team, to an obviously beneficial end.
Maybe he has had a relapse. Landale possesses a perfectly good — and almost unstoppable — right-hand baby hook that defenders simply can’t defend against. In the last few games he has abandoned that move in favor of a spin move to the right that depends on a left-handed finish. Whether capable of that finish or not, he has yet to effectively complete the spin, usually leaving the ball behind as he moves toward the basket.
Do the Gaels have a team shrink who can coax him out of his head again? One can only hope, as Bennett has apparently seen enough of Whirling Dervish Landale and longs for Unstoppable Baby Hook Landale. After a couple of failed inside moves and a turnover in the paint, Bennett sent him to the bench where he remained for the rest of the game, logging only six minutes.
Even with Pineau left to man the paint by himself the Gaels seemed to have an edge since Jacko was missing from the LMU lineup. Pineau was on the verge of compiling a double-double — he had nine points and 10 rebounds — when LMU resorted to something the Gaels have not seen this year, if ever — a hack-a-Dane strategy. LMU’s wily coach Mike Dunlap, who has done a stint in the NBA as well as on several college campuses, instructed his post man, Shamar Johnson, to foul Pineau intentionally on a Gael possession with just over a minute left.
The Gaels had a seemingly-comfortable 11-point lead at that time, 62-51, but Dunlap waged a take-no-prisoners battle down to the last second of this game, whether in a reasonable hope for a miracle win or to inspire his troops to keep fighting. His strategy worked somewhat, as Pineau made only one of two free throws — a seeming breakthrough after his abysmal 2-8 effort against Pepperdine — and LMU sank a three-pointer on its next possession to cut the margin to 63-54. More tellingly, Bennett benched Pineau to prevent another hack attack.
Even with a mind-warping Hermanson foul on LMU’s Steven Haney as Haney launched his only successful shot of the night, a three-pointer that Hermanson helped turn into a four-point play, the Gaels limped to the finish line. It is a fair question whether other coaches will follow Dunlap’s lead and begin fouling Pineau early in Gael possessions, and becomes one other thing Bennett must wrestle with as he prepares his team for a daunting two-game road trip to Portland and Gonzaga.
Calvin Hermanson has become one of the Gaels’ most reliable offensive threats, leading the team against LMU with 16 points. Photo by Mike Krizenbeck.