It is not true that Emmet Naar could have defeated Santa Clara all by himself Thursday night.
Naar’s 24 points and eight assists accounting for at least 16 more gave him a hand in 40 of the Gaels’ 75 points. Santa Clara totaled 50, so they could have stopped him if his teammates hadn’t shown up. Maybe.
Naar, the team’s scoring leader at about 13-15 PPG all season long, picked a good night to ratchet up the pressure, logging his highest scoring total since a 21-point effort against Pacific last month. The Gaels inexplicably lost their three-point shooting touch against the Broncos, making only 7-23. Calvin Hermanson and Joe Rahon, who usually chip in three to five long-range buckets per game, were a combined 0-7. Naar himself continued to struggle from distance, making 2-7 three-pointers.
It didn’t matter since the Gaels owned the paint. Commented Naar in his typically understated manner:
“They guarded me a little differently than I’m used to.” Translation: I’m used to guys actually trying to stop me.
He continued, “They were going under [the high screen], so we just tried to set the screen low so it was a long way for my guy to run.”
He was being kind, as the Santa Clara guards, Jared Brownridge, KJ Feagin and Brendyn Taylor, were clueless about defending the Gaels’ pick and roll all night long. Naar’s overall shooting line was 10-17, but five of those misses were on three-pointers, so he scored on 10-12 drives into the lane, and dropped dimes for Dane Pineau or Jock Landale several other times.
Don’t those Santa Clara guys ever watch any film? I mean, they are “Silicon Valley’s Jesuit University,” so one would assume they have access to high-tech stuff like video cameras.
For the night the Gaels shot 50% from the field, despite the abysmal three-point percentage, logging 19 assists on 29 made baskets. Their assist-to-turnover ratio, already leading the WCC, was 19 to three against Santa Clara. You read that right: the Gaels, who have been a little turnover-prone in recent games, committed all of three turnovers Thursday night, only one of them by a guard (Rahon). Naar had zero TOs to complement his eight assists.
Defense continues strong
For all the positive offensive news — Jock Landale made the first three-pointer of his career near the end of the game — it was the Gaels’ defense that dominated. Holding Santa Clara to 34% shooting for the game helped keep opponents’ offensive output at a 57 PPG average over the last five games. The Gaels are stepping up their defensive performance at just the right time, heading into the WCC Tournament and possible NCAA Tournament play. Teams that try to shoot themselves through games in crunch time usually go home early; those who clamp down on the defensive end soldier through.
For all his offensive excellence Thursday night, Naar was a terror defending the Broncos’ Feagin, holding him to eight points on 3-9 shooting. Rahon, who scored only four points, harassed Brownridge on defense all night. Brownridge ended up scoring 16 points on 5-13 shooting, but several of those were late buckets after Rahon went to the bench with four fouls.
Pineau, logging a quiet offensive night with 10 points on 5-9 shooting, registered three blocks against the Broncos, and Evan Fitzner, second leading scorer with 13 points on 5-7 shooting, added two more blocks. That’s five blocks for the front line.
Finishing it off
The Gaels’ path to a no. 1 seed in the WCC tourney and possible outright WCC regular-season championship goes through San Francisco on Saturday. Winning the game guarantees them the no. 1 seed; winning the game combined with a Gonzaga loss at BYU, makes Saint Mary’s the conference champs at 15-3. We won’t discuss the consequences of losing to the Dons, because that doesn’t seem possible given this team’s make-up.
The Gaels stumbled at this point in the season last year, but this group is far above its predecessor. Coach Randy Bennett continues to marvel at the unselfishness of his squad, and the sterling assist-to-turnover ratio is a testament to that.
The team dynamic was well illustrated by a sequence late in the second half, when Fitzner started to penetrate the lane going left to right. This is Fitzner’s favorite driving posture, as he dribbles hard to his right, elevates and finishes with a right-hand hook shot that is difficult to block. All was set up for a stat-stuffing finish, but Fitzner stopped in mid-air and dropped a pass to Landale, who was a little closer to the basket. Landale caught the pass and finished with a deft left-handed lay-up on the other side of the paint. It was a nifty choreographic exercise, epitomizing the Gaels’ ethos of passing up a good shot to get a better one.
It is hard to believe they won’t continue to demonstrate that philosophy Saturday night in San Francisco.
Emmett Naar, shown driving in an earlier game against Gonzaga, was a dominant force against Santa Clara.