This is getting interesting

No more the hesitant, seemingly-distracted Gaels who limped to a 58-56 win over New Mexico State in the NIT opener, Saint Mary’s dispatched a strong Georgia Bulldogs squad 77-65 Sunday afternoon, and got on a plane to Valparaiso, IN for a Tuesday  contest that could send them to the NIT semis in Madison Square Garden.

The Gaels were ruthlessly efficient against Georgia, which beat SEC foes Georgia Tech, Missouri, Tennessee and South Carolina this season, and pushed Kentucky before succumbing to John Calipari’s talented Wildcats in the SEC tournament semifinal. Georgia didn’t plan on losing to Saint Mary’s, and rode its duo of Yante Maten and J.J. Frazier to what it hoped would be its own ticket to New York.

Instead, Maten found difficult sledding inside against Dane Pineau, Jock Landale and an energized Evan Fitzner, as he struggled to 12 points on 6-22 shooting. You read that right — Maten missed 16 shots. Pineau and Landale combined for 18 points and 13 rebounds between them, while Fitzner pulled down seven ferocious rebounds to go with 13 points.

Frazier fared little better competing against Gael guards Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar, scoring 13 points on 5-15 shooting. Rahon and Naar cruised to 28 points between them, with Naar consistently befuddling Georgia in the paint as he dished 11 assists to one turnover. The Gaels totaled 19 assists on 29 made baskets, shooting 50% from the floor against one of the stingiest defenses in the country.

Fitzner on fire

If there was a poster boy for the Gaels’ win over Georgia it was Fitzner, the talented redshirt freshman who plays like, well, a freshman, at times. Fitzner sleepwalked to a two-point, five rebound effort against New Mexico State, but had fire in his eyes against Georgia. He pounded the boards early, then nailed three three-pointers in the second half when the Gaels staved off a strong Georgia rally that brought the Bulldogs within four points of the lead.

Another Blast from the Past was provided by true freshman Stefan Gonzalez, who had gone MIA in recent weeks after announcing himself as one of the brashest, most deadly three-point shooters in the Gaels’ arsenal. Gonzalez came off the bench early in the first half and sank three straight three-pointers that gave the Gaels confidence early.

Pineau, who has become a double-double machine, put in another workmanlike 12-point, 11-rebound effort. His ability to defend and rebound without fouling out, then score inside when the opposition forgets about him has made him one of the Gaels’ most potent weapons. Landale, who was splitting time almost evenly with Pineau early in the season, gets fewer minutes these days but has not let it affect his performance.

The Gaels will be tested against Valparaiso, which has dominated the Horizon League the past two years as Alec Peters has become a conference beast. Peters, the 6-9 junior who became a one-man highlight reel by converting an 80-foot desperation pass at the end of regulation against Green Bay in the Horizon League conference semifinal (Valpo lost in overtime), averages 18.5 PPG and 8.4 RPG.

He combines with 6-10 shot-blocker Vashil Fernandez, who averages 5.6 blocks-per-game, to give the Crusaders a truly potent inside game.

Valpo, which failed the NCAA road opponent test, ventured outside the Midwest infrequently this year, visiting Oregon and Oregon State for back-to-back games — a 76-67 loss to Oregon and a 63-57 win over Oregon State. Valpo also lost at Belmont, 85-81; Belmont took Georgia to the wire in an earlier NIT contest before losing 93-84.

Valpo, which is a private Lutheran college of roughly Saint Mary’s size, plays its home games in a snug, 5,400-seat facility inventively named the Athletics-Recreation Center (the ARC). Based on earlier NIT results, including Crusader wins over Texas Southern and Florida State, it will be rocking for the ESPN telecast against the Gaels at 4 p.m. Pacific.

NIT field

As the NIT moves into the quarterfinal stage, some interesting potential match-ups loom. BYU has breezed past its two initial opponents, UAB (97-79) and Virginia Tech (80-77), and faces Creighton in Provo the same day as the Gaels face Valpo. If both BYU and Saint Mary’s prevail Tuesday, they will face each other in the NIT semifinal in New York on March 29.

Slouching towards Gotham on the other side of the bracket are South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Washington, San Diego State and NCAA reject Monmouth, among others. If either Washington or San Diego State make it to the semis, it could be an all-western shootout in the Garden.

The Gaels’ Evan Fitzner, shown above driving the baseline, came up big against Georgia. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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