by Michael Vernetti
It was Valpo all over again.
Worse, actually, since Saint Mary’s played a pretty good first half against Valparaiso last March, leading 31-29 before collapsing with a 13-point second half.
The Gaels were barely in the 65-51 loss to Texas-Arlington Thursday night. They came out flat, didn’t execute on offense and were consistently caught flat-footed on defense. Weak- side help, rotation to cut off driving lanes? Not there, as various Mavericks found ridiculously easy paths to the basket.
Based on what I heard from numerous fans following the game, the primary takeaway was that UTA was too “quick” for the Gaels. Like most answers to difficult questions, that’s too simple.
Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett is acutely sensitive to his team’s lack of overall athleticism, but his answer to that criticism is always the same: you counter superior team quickness with positioning and execution. The Gaels displayed those qualities against quick teams such as Dayton and Alabama-Birmingham, and no one talked about those opponents being too quick.
Against UTA, however, the Gaels neither took offensive positions away, nor executed basic plays such as weak-side help. The Gaels probably expected known UTA entities such as point guard Erik Neal to cause them problems, and he did score 13 points by splitting defenders and exploiting switches that left him one-on-one against Jock Landale.
But unheralded guard Kaelon Wilson was more of a dagger to the Gaels’ hearts as he converted 4-5 attempts, including two uncontested drives to the hoop in the second half, for 10 points. Also contributing mightily to the Gaels’ misery was UTA guard Drew Charles, who made only two baskets on the night — both killers.
When the Gaels made a mini-run with about 10 minutes left in the game, cutting the lead to 52-41 and causing UTA to call a re-grouping time out, Charles hit back-to-back jumpers for five points and a 16-point lead at the 7:22 mark. On both shots Charles exploited a height and experience advantage over freshman Jordan Ford, who played extensive minutes because of ineffectiveness by Emmett Naar (two points, three turnovers).
Gael leaders missing
Naar exhibited what Bennett has referred to several times this season — shakiness apparently caused by injuries sustained before the season began. The Naar who assumed overall Gael leadership from back court companion Joe Rahon as last season wore on has been evident only intermittently this year, and was nowhere to be seen against UTA.
Combine his invisibility with Calvin Hermanson’s 2-9 performance (1-7 on three-pointers), Landale’s 3-10 shooting and a dearth of bench scoring (Gonzalez 4, Kyle Clark 5) and you get something like the Gaels’ 31% field goal percentage. Bennett seems to face a legitimate rotation problem at this point in the season, as he tried various combinations against UTA to little effect.
To combat the Mavericks’ powerful forward Kevin Hervey, Bennett went to the combo of Landale and Dane Pineau in the front court that worked so well against Stanford. Hervey, however, is primarily a long-range jump shooter, so Pineau was mainly a spectator to Hervey’s 5-8 shooting for 15 points. Similarly, Clark, who is almost always a spark plug off the bench, was inconsistent, giving the Gaels a ray of hope with a put-back off a missed free throw that helped with the second-half mini-run, but committing two turnovers that hurt mightily.
Ford, the true freshman from Folsom, played 13 minutes in relief of Naar and does possess one-on-one quickness that will help the Gaels eventually. But like redshirt freshman Tanner Krebs, whom Bennett is trying to develop as a sub for Hermanson, Ford had trouble scoring against UTA. He and Krebs were a combined 0-6. Even Gonzalez, who looked as if he was preparing for stardom with a 14-point outburst against Prairie View, struggled on defense Thursday night.
Irvine on tap
In contrast to the eight days Bennett had to prepare his troops for UTA, he has only two before UC Irvine comes calling Sunday afternoon. The Anteaters, who have become a staple of the Gaels’ pre-conference scheduling, are without 7-6 Mamadou Ndiaye this year, and have struggled to a 4-5 record. They have played good teams, however, including Arizona, Utah State and Cal, losing all three of those games, but have defeated WCC teams Santa Clara and Pacific.
If Naar is suffering from more than a one-game case of the blahs, Bennett has some decisions to make about back-ups. Both Ford and Gonzalez are inferior defenders to Naar, so who should get major minutes if Naar is, indeed, hobbled? Naar’s struggles against UTA and, to a lesser extent, against Stanford (2-9 shooting, but eight assists) have put added pressure on Rahon, who played 40 minutes in both those games.
At this point, Bennett can’t even think about subbing for Rahon, and he has to hope that Naar bounces back so he doesn’t have to rely on Ford or Gonzalez for long stretches. Most fans thought guard depth was going to be a strength this year, but Ford has been slow to develop and Bennett has resorted to using Gonzalez as a sub for Hermanson as Krebs has not been productive in that role. It’s a conundrum, as potential guard talent in Elijah Thomas and Tommy Kuhse sit out as apparent redshirts.
This is an early-season test of the Gaels’ grit. They can say goodbye to the laudatory media coverage and heady national rankings they garnered with a 6-0 start, as they will drop like a rock following the loss to unranked UTA. Those factors pale in comparison to the real problems facing Bennett, however, as he has to find a way to energize his charges in the build-up to the WCC conference opener on Dec. 29.
The Gaels need center Jock Landale to return to dominance as they attempt to right their ship against UC-Irvine on Sunday afternoon. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.