That was easy

For more than three-quarters of its opening-round NIT game against New Mexico State Tuesday night, Saint Mary’s played a perfectly respectable game. A Joe Rahon dribbling exhibition led to one of his patented reverse lay-ups against New Mexico’s lumbering, 7-3 Tanveer Bhullar, and the Gaels went up 52-40 with 7:28 left.

Time to put the hammer down, finish off the Aggies and await the victor of Wednesday’s game between Georgia and Belmont. As if.

New Mexico rallied briefly, as befitted a team that won its conference race and suffered a buzzer-beating loss to Cal State Bakersfield in the conference tournament that kept it out of the NCAA Tournament. A couple of missed Gael shots led to run-outs by Aggie guards, and they made it an eight-point game, 52-44, with less than six minutes left. No reason to panic.

A jumper by the Aggies’ excellent 6-9 forward Pascal Siakam cut it to six at the 5:19 mark, but the Gaels’ Calvin Hermanson sank a pull-up jumper to move the lead back to eight. Rahon then stole a pass and led a fast-break that was culminated by an Emmett Naar look-away pass to Dane Pineau for a lay-up and another eight-point lead, 56-46, with 4:15 left in the game. Again, time to put it away.

No one told that to Siakam, who is the best power forward the Gaels faced this year, including Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer. Siakam is from Cameroon and was late coming to basketball, even though his brother, James, played at Vanderbilt. He was the Western Athletic Conference’s Freshman of the Year last year and Player of the Year this season, after posting 20.3 PPG and 11.6 RPG to go with 26 double-doubles. He is a handful, and he kept the Gaels from sewing up a win by sinking a crucial jumper following Pineau’s fast-break lay-up.

Flub city

That got the game back to a six-point deficit, and touched off a nightmarish series of flubs by the Gaels that almost ended their season. With 3:30 left, Rahon muffed a routine pass from Evan Fitzner, giving the Aggies the ball back. Their excellent guard, Ian Baker, then split the Gael defenders and drove the lane for a lay-up that cut the lead to six, 56-50. A Fitzner miss of a short jumper at  the free-throw line led to another run-out by New Mexico, and they closed to 56-52 with 2:30 left.

An errant Gael pass led to another turnover, but New Mexico failed to capitalize, so they stripped Pineau on the Gaels’ next possession. Shortly afterward, Hermanson made still another turnover, but New Mexico again proved unable to convert Gael miscues into baskets, and the 56-52 margin held. At that point there were only 29 seconds left, New Mexico had no timeouts left and the Gaels had not scored in more than four minutes. What else could go wrong?

Rahon answered that question with a terrible inbound pass to Naar that Naar couldn’t reach, giving the Aggies the ball back on their end of the court. Even New Mexico’s stumbling comeback effort was able to capitalize on that gaffe, as Baker took Rahon to the rim for a lay-up that cut the lead to 56-54 with 22 seconds left.

Bennett replaced Rahon with Hermanson as the in-bounder, and Hermanson rewarded his coach’s confidence with a bad pass to Fitzner, which New Mexico intercepted — the Gaels’ sixth turnover in a four-minute span. Again, the Aggies refused this gift and fouled Pineau after missing a shot to tie the game. Pineau put in a solid night’s work against Bhullar and occasionally against Siakam, scoring 13 points and grabbing seven rebounds. But he has struggled at the free-throw line all season long, and missed the front end of a one-and-one with 12.6 seconds left.

It seemed somehow fitting that it would fall to Bhullar to tie up the game, and he did it in an almost comical manner. Initially allowing Naar to strip him after receiving a pass into the paint, he somehow recovered the ball and put up a sidearm layup around Jock Landale that found the net for his only bucket of the game. New Mexico, however, which was too generous throughout the game, refused to accept an opportunity to take down the Gaels in overtime, and fouled Rahon with two seconds left.

Rahon, who had much to redeem himself for, sank both free throws and went from goat to hero in a matter of seconds. Gaels win 58-56, hold the champagne.

What’s it mean?

Gael fans, coaches and probably opponents will sift through that four-minute meltdown endlessly, and find much to worry about. Some will blame Gael coach Randy Bennett, and I have heard criticism of him for slowing the game down and getting his team out of rhythm. But reviewing the game reveals little evidence of a fatal “prevent offense” beyond the ordinary steps to milk the clock that any team would take to protect an eight-point lead with four minutes left.

It was all on the players, notably Hermanson and Rahon, who committed inexcusable turnovers, and on the too-cautious Fitzner, whom I praised for shaking off his timidity in the WCC-concluding loss to Gonzaga. Fitzner was his shaky, non-confident self throughout the New Mexico game, going one-for-five (a lay-up) and attempting only two three-pointers. Hermanson made only a slightly greater offensive impression, scoring seven points on three-of-six shooting. Neither he nor Fitzner attempted a free throw, a testament to their lack of aggression.

Watching NIT games all day Tuesday revealed that the field is unusually strong this year, with numerous teams like Saint Mary’s and New Mexico finding themselves in the tournament after winning their conference titles but losing NCAA bids in conference tournaments. The Gaels have an opportunity to end their glorious 2015-16 campaign on a high note by going to Madison Square Garden for the NIT semifinals in two weeks, but they will have to play much better than the stumbling, bumbling crew that showed up in Moraga on Tuesday.

Georgia, their probable next opponent (assuming a victory over the Belmont Bears today), will be a considerably tougher match-up than New Mexico. The Bulldogs tied for sixth in the rugged Southeastern Conference, but won 10 games in a league full of powerhouses like Kentucky, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and South Carolina. Georgia went to the championship game of the SEC tournament, and lost to Kentucky by a comparable margin (93-80) as the Gaels’ loss to Gonzaga.

Part of the Gaels’ funk Tuesday night could be attributed to psychological dissonance from losing to Gonzaga after sweeping both conference games, then being unceremoniously dumped by the NCAA Selection Committee. Having only one day to prepare for New Mexico State might have left them unsure what to make of the Aggies or the NIT opportunity itself.

Let’s hope the head-slap provided by the eager Aggies in the second half of Tuesday’s game will wake them up to the opportunities still available to them, and to the challenge they face in finishing strong.

Dane Pineau was one Gael who didn’t leave his lunch pail at home, posting two blocks to go along with 13 points and seven rebounds. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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