by Michael Vernetti
Defensive intensity is that most mercurial of basketball attributes: when it is needed the most, it can still elude even the best teams.
The Saint Mary’s Gaels produced their best defensive effort of the season in holding Dayton to 37.7% shooting in a 71-67 road win. Three days later they looked as if they had never heard of defense as a lackluster San Jose State team scorched them for 40 points on 46.4% first-half shooting.
Coach Randy Bennett held the Gaels in the locker room until the second half was almost underway against San Jose, and one doesn’t imagine he was discussing the Presidential election. His charges held San Jose to 24 points in the second half on 40% shooting, so the halftime exhortation had some effect in an 81-64 win.
What his team needed before facing a quick, seasoned, high-scoring team like University of Alabama-Birmingham on Sunday in Las Vegas was practice, Bennett said. Three days of drilling on a quiet, Thanksgiving-recessed Saint Mary’s campus primed the Gaels for a maximum effort against UAB.
The result: the high-scoring Blazers, who averaged nearly 80 points per game last season, were held to 27 in the first half and trailed the Gaels 43-27. Saint Mary’s kept up the intensity in the second half, holding off the Blazers for a 76-63 win. The percentages weren’t outstanding, 47.3% overall for UAB, but the Gaels scorched them for 51% shooting themselves, including 50% on threes (13-26).
In reality, the Gaels played good defense in stretches. To fuel a 21-8 run to end the first half, for instance, Saint Mary’s forced UAB to miss nine out of 10 shots in a four-minute stretch. UAB is a good team, however, finishing 26-7 last year, including 16-2 in Conference USA. A loss in their conference tournament kept them out of the NCAA Tournament (something the Gaels can appreciate), but they definitely think of themselves as NCAA-quality this year.
With four of five starters returning, including star forward Chris Cokley (13.1 PPG last year) and guard Dirk Williams (13.4 PPG last year), they will win a lot of games. The Gaels got a good look at Cokley, as he worked Jock Landale for 20 points on 10-13 shooting. Williams, however, was kept quiet by another outstanding defensive effort by small forward Calvin Hermanson.
As he did against Dayton’s Charles Cooke, Hermanson took on a high-scoring 6-5 guard and stifled him. Hermanson held Williams to four points on 1-9 shooting, while scoring 12 points himself. His outstanding defense against two big guards on good teams, greatly increases Bennett’s defensive options as the season progresses.
Landale continues to shine
It was not as if Landale’s difficulty guarding the quick, high-leaping Cokley threw him off his game. He scored 20 points himself on 9-11 shooting, including his second (of two) three-pointer of the season, and grabbed eight rebounds to Cokley’s five. In a great example of the Gaels’ depth, Dane Pineau spelled Landale for several minutes in the second half, and his greater quickness seemed to bother Cokley. It is not known whether Pineau has completely recovered from the back problems that have sidelined him this year, but he promises to give Saint Mary’s an excellent one-two punch in the post when he is healthy.
Emmett Naar continued his recovery from a seven turnover, seven point game against Dayton with 12 points and seven assists against only two turnovers against UAB. That follows an equally solid effort against San Jose State, when he scored 16 points, added four assists and turned it over only twice. Naar has recovered his three-point stroke in the last two games as well, hitting four of five from distance.
It’s a little early in the year to be discussing a Sixth Man of the Year award, but the Gaels’ Stefan Gonzalez is staking his claim. He personally deflated one UAB run by drilling consecutive three-pointers in the second half, and counted four long-distance buckets in six attempts. He also hit two three-pointers against San Jose State to help put that one away.
The rapidly-improving Kyle Clark sank three of five three-pointers, as he pressed his case to start over the struggling Evan Fitzner. Fitzner gave Gael fans some hope that he was going to break out of a season-long slump against UAB, sinking a three-pointer in the early going, but he quickly took his spot on the bench and totaled only 11 minutes of action.
Stanford Coach Jerod Haase was too busy leading his team in the Advocare Invitational Tournament in Orlando, FL on Sunday to pay much attention to the Saint Mary’s-UAB game, but that’s not to say he had no interest. Haase built the UAB team that the Gaels faced in a four-year stint in Birmingham, and he will undoubtedly pore over the stat sheet carefully as he prepares the Cardinal for a rematch against the Gaels on Wednesday in Palo Alto.
Haase has pumped life into the Cardinal squad, leading them to a 6-1 record, including two wins in the Avocare tournament (over Indiana State and Seton Hall) after stumbling in the first round against Miami. The lineup facing Saint Mary’s is almost identical to the team the Gaels beat by 17 points last year in Moraga, with the biggest change being the addition of Robert Cartwright at point guard. Cartwright, injured before last season began, was the missing piece that kept Johnny Dawkins from having a good enough year to ward off firing.
The current UAB coach, Robert Ehsan, was an assistant to Haase, so the amount of telephone time the two spend before Wednesday will tell a lot about how well they got along.
Emmett Naar, shown scoring earlier this year against Prairie View, has recovered his scoring and assist magic in the last two games. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.