Two to go

One year to the day after crashing out against a so-so Portland team, the Gaels are one win away from playing for the WCC championship for the first time since 2013. They are two wins away from the undisputed conference title and the automatic NCAA bid that comes with it.

Saturday’s 60-48 win over Loyola Marymount, ragged as it was, actually demonstrates how far Randy Bennett’s team has come this season. In that Portland game a year ago, won by the Pilots 68-52, one Saint Mary’s player, Brad Waldow, scored in double figures. Indeed, Waldow’s 25 points were the only sign of offensive life.

The Gaels shot only 30% against Portland, and season-long stalwarts such as Garrett Jackson, three points, Kerry Carter, six points, and Aaron Bright, eight points, barely evidenced pulses. Part of this was opening-tournament jitters, which primarily affects highly-seeded teams who carry some hopes of post-season glory. Their lower-seeded opponents carry the weight of no expectations, and usually play freely and aggressively.

A few hours before Saint Mary’s and LMU squared off, BYU felt the jitters against a Santa Clara team it had obliterated in both regular-season meetings. The Broncos, throwing their bodies all over the floor, rattled BYU and closed within a point or two several times near the game’s end. BYU, like Saint Mary’s, eventually settled down and won by double-digits, 72-60.

Saint Mary’s obviously showed jitters against LMU, and allowed themselves to be unnerved by the Lions’ tenacious man-to-man defense. Evan Fitzner, the Gaels’ redshirt freshman forward, seemed particularly struck by tournament-itis, missing shots, committing turnovers and botching passes. Fitzner, Stefan Gonzalez and Kyle Clark — who showed signs of nervousness himself — were all playing in their first WCC tournament games, and looked it.

Veterans to the rescue

As they have all season long, however, Gael guards Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar refused to break under pressure, and recovered from a rocky first half to make the big buckets and key assists when it counted. It was an interesting dynamic against LMU, as Rahon, who usually takes it upon himself to rally the Gaels when the chips are down, deferred to Naar in crucial moments because Rahon was struggling with his shot and handle (six turnovers). The apple-cheeked Aussie went on a personal scoring binge midway through the second half that steadied the Gaels and pointed them to victory. He ended the night with 14 points, six assists and only one turnover.

Rahon hardly shrank into the sidelines, as he made two clutch three-pointers that jump-started a Gael offense that was sluggish all night, and pulled down a team-high 10 rebounds. Rahon also recovered from a scary-looking ankle injury in the final moments, and, after a time-out, stayed on the floor to finish the game. The two guards, forward Calvin Hermanson and Perpetual Unsung Hero Dane Pineau — 16 points, 8 rebounds — led the way to the semifinal round. All four scored in double digits and contributed to a 59% second-half shooting percentage.

Pineau’s performance against LMU was only what he has been doing all season long, although hardly anyone outside of Moraga seems to notice. It is unconscionable that Pineau, who averaged more than 10 points and eight rebounds for the season — while splitting the post position with Jock Landale — made neither the second team nor honorable mention all-WCC squads. Oh, yeah, he also led the conference in field goal percentage.

Monday, Monday

No one was watching LMU’s success harassing the Gaels more closely than Pepperdine coach Marty Wilson. Another unusual facet of tournament play is that a team’s upcoming opponent can often watch another team live right before engaging it. Wilson was seen wringing his hands anxiously as LMU built a halftime lead and kept it up for the early part of the second half. It was probably just a nervous tic, but it looked as if Wilson were imagining how his Waves would strangle the Gaels Monday night (ESPN 6 p.m. Pacific).

Pepperdine owns a series sweep over the Gaels, and showed no opening-round nervousness in a 90-86 win over San Francisco earlier Saturday. Guards Jeremy Major and Amadi Udenyi ran over, around and through the Dons’ porous defense, and Wilson must be imagining a similar scenario when going for a third straight win over Saint Mary’s and a place in the conference championship game.

Saint Mary’s showed its character if not its offensive excellence against LMU, and Bennett’s charges will have to summon all their moxie to thwart Pepperdine’s dreams.

The Gaels rallied behind Emmett Naar’s 14 points and six assists to overcome Loyola Marymount Saturday night. The photo shows Naar driving against Gonzaga earlier this year.

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