by Michael Vernetti
For 36+ minutes of Saturday’s game against Dayton, Randy Bennett was enjoying one of his finest days as head coach at Saint Mary’s.
His Gaels had come into a packed arena of 13,000 screaming fans that rivaled a Gonzaga crowd in intensity, dominated a Dayton Flyers squad that started the season lurking just outside the Top 25, and were poised to celebrate a convincing victory that would have solidified — if not improved — their own no. 17 ranking.
The last 3:30 took away a lot of that luster, but the Gaels refused to crack under intense pressure from a proud, athletic team playing on a court where they had gone 36-3 over the past 39 games. It was a good win that could have been better. Let’s look at the ups and downs.
The Gaels’ first 30 minutes could go in a time capsule for efficient offense and stifling defense. Bennett pulled a major surprise by having Calvin Hermanson guard Dayton’s best player, 6-5 senior guard Charles Cooke III. For Gael fans who have witnessed Hermanson go in and out of Bennett’s dog house because of defensive lapses, this was a major vote of confidence — and Hermanson nailed the assignment.
He held Cooke, who had scored 31 against Appalachian State and 19 against Alabama in two previous games, to one field goal in the first half — a well-defended three-pointer. And he didn’t foul either, committing only one personal while racking up 13 points of his own on 5-9 shooting. That was a major mismatch in the Gaels’ favor, and gives Bennett a reliable option against big guards the Gaels will face during the season, i.e. Josh Perkins of Gonzaga. That could free the Gaels’ point guard Joe Rahon from the burden of defending the opposition’s best guard, a giant break for Rahon.
Jock Landale dominated the Flyers’ defense, scoring easily on 4-6 attempts to tally 11 points in the half. No one besides Landale and Hermanson did much, but Stefan Gonzalez, Kyle Clark and Dane Pineau scored three each, to give Saint Mary’s a comfortable 39-26 lead. The Gaels had made 11 assists on 13 made baskets and turned the ball over only three times.
More important than the smooth-flowing offense, however, was the Gaels’ excellent defense that held the Flyers to 38.9% shooting. The only player who hurt them was senior guard Scoochie Smith, a slick product of the New York street ball scene (he’s from the Bronx), who scored nine points on 4-6 shooting. Most of Smith’s baskets were circus-style efforts, however, as Rahon covered him closely, and he didn’t score for most of the first half after an initial burst, and only twice more in the entire game.
Another key in the first half was Bennett’s decision to rest Emmett Naar for about four minutes in favor of Gonzalez, who nailed one of three three-point attempts and acquitted himself well overall. Bennett might wish he had remembered that effort as the second half wore on.
Second half stumbles
The second half began as a total reversal for the Gaels, as they matched their first-half total of three turnovers in the first three minutes. Naar committed two of them on sloppy passes under no no particular pressure, but Dayton was unable to capitalize on the Gaels’ sudden generosity. Despite going five possessions without a basket, the Gaels led by the halftime score after three minutes.
The Gaels seemed to regain their composure and pushed the lead to 47-29 at the 13:24 mark, and 51-34 with 10:26 left. At that point, the game seemed over for all intents and purposes, and Bennett might have repeated the first-half pattern by benching Naar for a few minutes’ rest. Bennett didn’t seem to even consider resting Rahon, who played all 40 minutes, and he kept both guards on the floor throughout the second half.
Overcoming his teammates’ sloppiness, Hermanson canned a three-pointer at the 8:16 mark to push the Gaels lead to 20 points at 54-34. Dayton had scored eight points in almost 12 minutes, and, again, the affair seemed all but decided. The only ominous signs were fouls on Hermanson, one a dubious touch foul, that pushed his total to four as the game neared an end. Naar seemed to put the game away with his eighth assist at the 5:53 mark, pushing the Gaels’ lead to 56-42. The Gaels, however, would score only five points the rest of the way, all on free throws.
The inglorious finish
Things started to go south for the Gaels on two possessions after the 3:33 mark, when Rahon seemed to be channeling Dean Smith’s four-corner stall offense, which doesn’t exist any more because of the shot clock. He delayed one possession so long that Clark had to take a desperation three-pointer as the horn sounded, creating an empty possession.
Undaunted, Rahon repeated his one-man stall next time down, this time coughing up the ball after dribbling foolishly into the paint, creating a Cooke run-out that cost Hermanson his fourth foul and gave Dayton some hope by cutting the deficit to 56-42. Dayton was now pressing all over the court, but the Gaels broke it easily and Clark found himself wide open under the Flyers’ basket. He was fouled on his shot attempt, and made both free throws to push the lead back to 14. What could go wrong?
Naar showed the first sign of potential fatigue on the Flyers’ next possession, moving slowly to cut off the driving Darrell Davis and giving up a lay-up. On the inbounds, Naar broke the press easily and fired a long pass to an unguarded Clark. Clark, however, stood in one place until Naar and Rahon could arrive to bail him out. Unfortunately the Dayton defense arrived, too, forcing a Naar turnover that was more Clark’s fault than his.
Hermanson flew down the court to block the ensuing lay-up attempt, but was called for his fifth foul. Scoochie made both free throws to cut the lead to 10, 58-48. Naar coughed up the next possession, resulting in another Dayton free-throw opportunity that was converted to cut the lead to eight. Cut to nightmare scenario.
Naar wasn’t finished wilting under the Dayton pressure, giving up another steal by Scoochie for a lay-up that cut it to 58-52. To signal a total collapse of the Gaels’ back court, Rahon was fouled on an inbounds play, but air-balled the first of a one-and-one opportunity. As a sign the tide was turning Dayton’s way, forward Sam Miller retrieved an errant three-point attempt standing right under the basket and cashed in a lay-up.
That made the score 58-54 and marked a 4:12 minute lapse in which Saint Mary’s did not score a basket. The Gaels seemed to catch a break on the next inbounds, however, as Naar broke free and dribbled into the front court where Landale awaited him. Two Dayton players were there also, but instead of dribbling out and burning clock, Naar attempted a foolish pass to Landale that rolled out of bounds.
Clark gave the Gaels a little more breathing room — and a five-point lead — by making the front half of a one-and-one to make the score 59-54. But Cooke made his biggest play of the game, scoring over Krebs in the paint and drawing a foul. Krebs did nothing wrong on the play, but the Gaels would have rather had Hermanson guarding Cooke at that point than the freshman Krebs.
Cooke’s free throw cut the lead to two with 23.8 seconds left and set up a frenzied finish. Naar was turned over once again by the Flyers’ pressing defense, but the Dayton player committed an offensive foul driving to the bucket, giving the Gaels another chance to save themselves. It took several attempts to get the ball inbounds, but Clark finally achieved it and Naar was fouled on the possession. Redeeming himself somewhat, Naar sank both free throws and the Gaels escaped 61-57.
It’s hard not to point to Naar’s five turnovers in the last three minutes, along with Rahon’s dubious decision-making and failed free throw attempt and ask why these guys never get a rest during games. Gonzalez is a more-than-adequate substitute for either of them, and freshman Jordan Ford might be as well. One way in which Ford could prove valuable against pressing defenses is getting himself open to receive an inbounds pass. Neither Naar nor Rahon is particularly quick, and they struggled to get free against Dayton.
Whether the guards’ meltdown was caused by fatigue will never be proved, but eliminating fatigue isn’t the only reason for benching players for brief rests. Naar might have noticed something sitting out for a few minutes that would have been helpful down the stretch. Taking the ball out of Rahon’s hands for a few minutes might also have resulted in some different decisions than the dubious ones he made.
No one is knocking the contributions from both these players, as they are responsible for much of the Gaels’ success over the past two years. But they both don’t have to play every minute (Naar played 36) for the Gaels to be successful. Gonzalez and Ford are exciting players, and the Gaels might be well served by allowing them to contribute more than token minutes.
Calvin Hermanson had the best game of his career against Dayton, leading the Gaels in scoring and slowing down Dayton’s best offensive player. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.