Progress comes slowly with a young team such as the Saint Mary’s Gaels. Knowing that, Gael coach Randy Bennett kept his youngsters mostly within the confines of McKeon Pavilion until the inevitability of league road games moved them out of their comfort zone.
The results were spotty, if predictable, as the Gaels split their first two trips to Los Angeles and Provo-San Diego, picking up losses at Pepperdine and BYU. That set the stage for this week’s scary visit to Portland and Spokane, with the outcome anything but clear. Then, BOOM!
The youngsters stepped up, veteran Joe Rahon continued his inspired leadership and the Gaels edged Portland in a nail-biter, 74-72, and then took command of Gonzaga with a 63-58 win and a series sweep for the first time in 21 years. Bennett’s plan for the season has not worked perfectly — I doubt he penciled in two losses to Pepperdine — but it has put the Gaels into a tie with Gonzaga for the conference title at 13-3, with a more favorable ending in store for his troops than Gonzaga’s.
Saint Mary’s faces a typically lackluster Santa Clara squad (10-18 overall, 6-10 conference) Thursday in McKeon, then finishes up against a high-scoring but erratic San Francisco across the Bay on Saturday. San Francisco boasts a winning record overall, 15-12, and is even in conference play at 8-8, but has seemingly forgot how to defend. The Dons have given up 114 points to BYU and 100 to Loyola Marymount without Adom Jacko in recent losses.
Gonzaga, meanwhile, is on the road for its final two games, facing a shell-shocked San Diego on Thursday, then BYU in a season finale on Saturday that could be epic. Not only did BYU utterly destroy San Diego at home Saturday, 91-33, following a narrow win (69-67) two nights earlier in San Diego, but it has already defeated Gonzaga in Spokane, 69-68 on Jan. 14.
The Cougars, hanging just behind Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga at 12-4, can force a tie with Gonzaga for second if they win out, giving them a second seed in the WCC Tournament beginning March 4 by virtue of having swept the Zags. They could do even better if Saint Mary’s falters in its last two games.
How did they do it?
The Gaels’ victory in Spokane can be seen as the culmination of a series of gritty road wins beginning with a come-from-behind 68-65 win over Pacific, followed by a defense-led 60-43 win over San Diego and the squeaker over Portland courtesy of a Rahon runner with 2.7 seconds left on the clock. The Gaels seemingly gained strength with each win, no matter how ugly they may have looked to fans. The team grew stronger and closer through the crucible of winning hard-fought games.
The squad that took the floor last night in Spokane was confident, beating Gonzaga with a two-tiered strategy that kept the putative WCC champs off-balance. Tier 1 was three-point shooting in the first half, six of them coming from all over the roster: two each from Evan Fitzner and Calvin Hermanson, and one each from Kyle Clark and Stefan Gonzalez. That and stout defense, holding Gonzaga to its lowest point total of the season, gave them a 30-23 halftime lead.
Tier 2 was probing the paint by the Gaels’ crafty guards Rahon and Emmett Naar. Running the high pick and roll relentlessly, Naar and Rahon scored on a series of lay-ups, runners and dinks, none from more than five feet away from the basket. The stage was set shortly after the second half began following a Zag miss on their first attempt. Naar maneuvered into the paint, seemed stymied, then reached into his bag of tricks to uncork a scoop shot that went down.
That was a tremendous statement by the Gaels, who have faltered coming out of the second-half gate in recent games. Turning away the Zags and scoring first set the stage, and the team was energized by Naar’s wizardry. Even when Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins, who had a big game with 21 points, scored twice shortly thereafter, Naar amd Hermanson answered with strong drives to the hoop to maintain the Gaels’ edge at 36-30 with 17 minutes left.
Mr. Landale arrives
The Zags’ second-half comeback peaked three minutes later when Eric McCllelan sank two free throws to cut the lead to 36-34. Then if ever the Gaels were going to shrink back, but Jock Landale had other ideas. Landale apparently changed into his Big Boy pants during the intermission following a quiet first half in which he did not score, and made a strong move in the paint following McCllelan’s free throws. He didn’t make the bucket, but sank one of two free throws to put the Gaels up by three, 37-34. It wasn’t immediately apparent, but the Gaels had survived the Zags’ second-half run.
There followed a Rahon reverse lay-up using the rim as a screener, a much-needed three-pointer from Fitzner, then a definitive statement from Landale. Eschewing the unsuccessful spin move that had failed to produce any points in two previous games, Landale went to work on the Zags’ daunting Domantas Sabonis. Receiving a pass on the low block, Landale moved strongly across the paint to his left, then lofted a perfect baby hook over Sabonis for a 44-36 lead. The end was coming for the Zags.
Naar scored on another dink in the paint, then, with the Zags desperate to stop him from doing it again, laid off a dime for Landale, who scored the bunny. Then, just to show everyone he could finish by going to his right with his left hand, Landale scored again. That set the stage for one of Rahon’s most elegant assists in a season filled with them.
Picking up the hulking Kyle Wiltjer on a switch, Rahon dribbled into the paint. He spied Landale crossing the paint to get into position to score, then bounced as pretty a pass as can be bounced to the eager post man. Completing a nine-point individual run in a six-minute span, Landale finished over Sabonis to put the Gaels up 52-44.
Wiltjer came alive for his first and only three-pointer of the game to cut the Zags’ deficit to 52-47, but the Gaels had a few more minutes of excellence left in their tank. In three successive possessions, they scored on a Naar lay-up, a Rahon dink and a drive and finish by Fitzner to put them up 58-47 with a little less than five minutes to go. They had a chance to conclusively seal the deal when Rahon went to the line for two free throws with just over a four minutes left. Make them both and the Gaels go up by 13 and coast to the finish.
But Rahon, who has battled free throw ghosts all season long, not only missed both attempts but seemed to give the Zags life by air-balling the second. He also lost containment on Perkins, who scored on a floater in the lane to cut the lead to nine, 58-49. Rahon’s failure at the free throw line caused a four-point swing that kept the Zags in the game until the end. They eventually closed to 61-58 with 13.4 seconds left before Hermanson finally converted two free throws to ice it at 63-58. Continuing a trend that is more than worrisome, the Gaels made only 4-12 free throws in the second half en route to an 8-16 game.
It would be an emotional Senior Night Thursday if the Gaels had any seniors, but they will settle for a strong effort against Santa Clara as the images of Las Vegas and a possible WCC Tournament championship come into view.
Joe Rahon, shown scoring against Stanford earlier in the season, did the same thing to Gonzaga as he did to the Cardinal: penetrated the lane for key buckets and assists. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.