by Michael Vernetti
It’s not as if Jordan Ford hadn’t scored for the Gaels — he chipped in 12 points in the rout of Prairie View — but until Sunday afternoon he hadn’t made a definite impression on his coaches, teammates or fans.
That ended with 11:52 left in the second half of the Gaels 84-53 pounding of rebuilding UC-Irvine. Ford took a jab step towards his defender, cleared some space and sank a three-pointer to put the Gaels up 56-23. On the next possession he worked a neat pick-and-roll with Dane Pineau — which required Pineau to execute a pirouette in the paint before dropping in a lay-up — to extend the lead by two more points.
His next action came with a little more than four minutes left when Gaels’ Coach Randy Bennett took the almost-unprecedented step of benching senior guard and team leader Joe Rahon. This could have been considered garbage time as the Gaels were nursing a 30-point lead, but Ford’s play bore no resemblance to anyone’s garbage.
He immediately drew a foul on a drive, sank both free throws, and scored shortly thereafter on a drive and lob that could have been intended for reserve center Jordan Hunter to flush, except it went in. He next sank a step-back three-pointer, then sank a floater in the lane for 12 points in his brief time on the floor.
During the last four minutes, Ford had the Gaels’ offense in his hands, and gave fans a look at what may be the future of that offense. Rahon is a senior, and fellow back court stalwart Emmett Naar has an uncertain future beyond this year because of NCAA qualms about his post-high school days in Australia. Because Naar played after graduating and before coming to Moraga, the NCAA took away his freshman year, and has not yet decided whether to give it back next year (the same uncertainty affects Tanner Krebs).
So, Ford’s development at the point is important. The only other active Gael reserve guards are Stefan Gonzalez, a natural two-guard, and Krebs, whom Bennett has been using as a substitute for Calvin Hermanson at the three. Two incoming guards next fall, Kristers Zoricks and Angus Glover, are highly regarded — Zoricks was described by one Gael coach as “a 6-4 Naar” — but it is a stretch to think of either of them stepping directly into the lineup. The same could be said about two redshirt guards riding the Gaels’ bench, Elijah Thomas and Tommy Kuhse.
Ford gained confidence with every second he was on the floor against Irvine, and gave indications he may combine strong points of both Rahon and Naar. He is a better outside shooter than Rahon and is quicker on the drive than Naar, an impression that may be compromised by Naar’s continued gimpiness from some sort of leg injury. I watched Naar closely during warm-ups, and he constantly flexed, jiggled and twisted his left leg and hip, as if he were trying to work out some kinks that won’t go away. The Gaels aren’t saying what’s wrong, so we’ll just have to watch and see if he improves.
Fitzner emerges from hibernation
The next best thing about the Gaels’ performance against Irvine was the reappearance of Evan Fitzner as a force on offense. Not only did Fitzner log the most minutes of any game this year, 30, but he also showed confidence in making 4-6 shots from the floor, including two three-pointers and two nifty drives into the paint.
Watching the 6-10 Fitzner attack the paint, one wishes he would do it more often. He dribbles as well as the Gael guards, and when he extends his left or right arms to shoot — he made baskets with each hand — he simply cannot be stopped: defenders can either foul him or concede the shot. Combined with his dead-eye three-point shooting, Fitzner’s driving ability makes him an invaluable offensive threat.
The Gaels’ overall offense was hit-or-miss against Irvine, which seems strange considering it was a 31-point win and Saint Mary’s shot 56.3% from the floor and nearly 59% from three-point range. They tallied only 13 assists against 13 turnovers, however, which indicates they weren’t operating as smoothly as Bennett would want. In the first half in particular, center Jock Landale was bothered by the Irvine big men — 7-2 Ionnis Dimakopoulos, 6-10 Jonathan Galloway, 6-10, 320-pound Brad Greene and 6-8 freshman Tommy Rutherford.
Instead of going to the basket strongly, Landale was hesitant and had several shots blocked or altered. He shot only 4-9 for the game, a far cry from his 75% performance in earlier games, and seems to be relying on outside shooting more and more. He sank a 15-foor jumper to open the game, and followed that with a three-pointer, but Irvine closed down pick-and-roll opportunities that were abundant in the early going. It may be that defenses have figured out the Gaels’ pick-and-roll game, which makes Landale’s ability to hit the occasional jump shot even more valuable, but one hopes the pick-and-roll will make a comeback.
Bits and pieces
Some sidelights that made watching basketball on a Sunday afternoon in Moraga more pleasant:
The Anteaters may be rebuilding under Russell Turner — four starters from last year graduated and returning leading scorer Luke Nelson has been sidelined with a hamstring injury — but they feature some basketball royalty on their roster. Redshirt freshman Spencer Rivers, a 6-2 guard from Winter Park, FL, is the son of LA Clippers Coach Doc Rivers and the brother of Clips’ star Austin Rivers.
Not to be outdone, starting UC Irvine guard Max Hazzard, another redshirt freshman, is the grandson of UCLA great Walt Hazzard, one of the early stars in John Wooden’s glory days at UCLA.
The Gaels displayed some impressive athleticism by two of their bigs, Landale and Hunter. Hunter brought the crowd of 3,000+ to its feet with a more-than-halfcourt heave that drew nothing but net as time ran out in the first half. Hunter, who has an impressive vertical jump, was hanging out just outside the Gaels’ three-point line to thwart an attempted baseball pass by Irvine with 1.3 seconds left. He vaulted over fellow Gael Pineau to snatch the pass out of the air, gathered himself and let fly with the shot. It took the game referees more than 10 minutes to decide he got it off in time.
Landale made his mark early in the second half, swatting away an attempted entry pass by an Irvine guard, then outracing the Irvine players to corral the ball, take a few dribbles and slam home the basket. If ESPN ever featured highlights from games played west of the Mississippi, Landale’s play would have been a natural top 10 highlight.
True freshman guard Jordan Ford made a big impression with his play against Irvine, scoring 12 points and leading the Gael offense. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.