It’s the little things.
For the second game in a row, Joe Rahon sacrificed his offense to shut down the opponent’s best offensive player: San Francisco’s Devin Watson scored 16 points but he did it on 6-19 shooting with three turnovers. Thursday night, Rahon held Santa Clara’s Jared Brownridge to the same total, 16 points, but on 5-13 shooting.
For those two games, Rahon shot only 3-12 himself for a total of 12 points, but he held two outstanding players to 34% shooting, and prevented them from leading their teams to victory. Imagine if Watson had gone off in the same way as San Francisco’s Tim Derksen, who bested several Gael defenders for 27 points on 11-19 shooting. It could have been a much different result from the 84-72 win that brought Saint Mary’s a share of their third West Coast Conference championship in the past six years.
But there was more than Rahon’s defense that brought the Gaels to the San Francisco win and WCC title. Struggling from the free-throw line down the stretch of the conference race, the Gaels went 17-18 Saturday night, exemplified by Rahon’s 4-5 performance. The Gael player who has struggled at the line along with Rahon, Dane Pineau, made his only free throw to help his 19-point performance.
Calvin Hermanson shook off the memory of an 0-4 three-point shooting night against Santa Clara to sink 6-10 against San Francisco en route to a team-leading 24 points. On the flip side, Emmett Naar continued a month-long three-point shooting slump by going 1-4 from distance, but converted 3-6 drives in the paint and sank 10-10 free throws to total 19 points after his 24-point performance against Santa Clara.
Little things that enabled the Gaels to surpass perhaps even their own wildest expectations and build a 23-4 record heading into the WCC Tournament as the top seed. Gonzaga holds the second seed with an identical 15-3 conference record as Saint Mary’s because the Gaels swept Gonzaga for the first time in 21 years.
Half a ‘lope is better than…
The Gaels actually have one more game before the tournament begins, hosting the over-achieving Grand Canyon ‘lopes (Antelopes, Jackalopes, Cantaloupes — it’s unclear) Tuesday night. That game was scheduled by Coach Randy Bennett to keep his team sharp before heading to the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas.
Bennett probably didn’t foresee Grand Canyon’s 24-5 record, good for a tie for second place in the woeful Western Athletic Conference, or WAC for those of you fond of puns. This will be the Gaels’ third whack at the WAC, having beaten Cal State Bakersfield and Utah Valley in pre-conference play. That Bakersfield game presents an uncomfortable reference point for ‘lope coach Dan Majerle, the former NBA great who is outspoken in his quest to establish Grand Canyon among the better mid-major programs.
Back in November, in their fourth game of the season, the Gaels throttled Bakersfield 94-59. It was not a pretty sight for WAC fans, and Majerle will be busy over the next few days wiping the thought of the ‘lopes’ 77-62 loss to Bakersfield on Saturday from his team’s memory bank. Do ‘lopes have good memories? Something to ponder.
The Vegas opportunity
Whatever the Gaels’ fate against Grand Canyon, they will steam into Las Vegas with a conference co-title in their gym bags and the advantage of the no. 1 seed. That seeding will give them an opening-tournament game next Saturday against either lowly San Diego or equally-inept Loyola Marymount, who will battle each other in a play-in game on Friday.
Assuming a win over the LMU/San Diego survivor, the Gaels will face either Pepperdine or San Francisco in the semi-final round on Monday, March 7 (Sunday is a BYU-required day of rest). Since Pepperdine swept the Gaels this year, it would be more pleasant to consider facing San Francisco than the Waves.
In the other half of the tournament pairings, Gonzaga faces Portland in the opening round and BYU squares off against Santa Clara. Gonzaga is an overwhelming favorite to beat Portland, who haven’t defeated the Zags in recent memory, and BYU is similarly favored over Santa Clara.
The Pepperdine-San Francisco battle preceding the Gaels’ game will be worth the price of admission. Both teams are wildly inconsistent, having split their conference games and struggled down the stretch, but both can score in bunches.
Pepperdine suffered a huge blow to its self-confidence and momentum by enduring a double overtime loss to LMU, 90-83, on Saturday night. In addition to its loss to Saint Mary’s, San Francisco also inexplicably lost to Pacific, 79-70, in the game before that. What’s the opposite of momentum? Never mind, these guys can fill up the stat sheets and both will be firing on all cylinders in their contest.
Gonzaga will face the BYU/Santa Clara winner, and will be favored to beat either of them. So, assuming Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga advance through the semifinals, the stage would be set for another Gael-Zag tournament title game on Tuesday night (ESPN, 6 p.m. Pacific).
Before sagging the past two years, Saint Mary’s faced Gonzaga in the WCC title game five years in a row, with the Gaels winning two. It is unclear whether the Gaels would advance to the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid if it lost in the WCC title game, so Bennett is probably counseling his young-but-eager charges to eliminate that uncertainty with a win next Tuesday.
I can’t argue with that advice.
One of the Gaels’ most potent weapons entering the WCC Tournament is forward Calvin Hermanson, shown driving in an early-season contest with Cal Poly. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.