by Michael Vernetti
Notwithstanding Mark Twain’s wry observation on the misleading use of statistics, a thought occurs concerning Saint Mary’s ultra-efficient dispatching of Western Kentucky (73-51) Wednesday night: sometimes a stat is just a stat. To wit:
Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar combined for 16 assists against one turnover, an other-wordly achievement;
As a team, the Gaels recorded 23 assists on 31 made baskets, another eye-popping stat. To put it in context, even though the Gaels beat UC Irvine by a wider margin (84-53) in their previous game, they compiled only 13 assists against 13 turnovers. In the loss to UT Arlington, the totals were even worse: 11 assist to 16 turnovers. That’s a giant efficiency boost;
The Gaels held WKU to 37.5% shooting, and 29.4% three-point shooting. Their own totals were 47.7% overall and a lackluster 33.3% from distance.
Rahon, Hermanson shine
The individual performances contributing to the excellent defensive totals were led by Rahon’s blanketing of one of the Hilltoppers’ leading scorers, Pancake Thomas. Thomas, one of three redshirt senior transfers at WKU, averaged nearly 19 PPG at Hartford last year, and was averaging 13.4 PPG for WKU coming into the Saint Mary’s game. He finished the night 2-8, 0-3 from three-point range, for four points. You could say that Rahon was the stickiest syrup that Pancake has ever encountered.
Similarly, Calvin Hermanson fought Que Johnson, a prolific three-point shooting transfer from Washington State, all night long, limiting him to 5-12 shooting, 1-4 from distance. Johnson scored 11 points, down from his average of 14.1 PPG, and he earned them. More importantly, Hermanson kept Johnson from heating up from three-point range, where he scored at a 40% clip for Wazzou.
Even more impressive than the defensive exploits of Rahon and Hermanson is the fact they have sacrificed their offensive output to achieve them. Rahon didn’t score a point against WKU, but defending Thomas and dishing out 10 assists more than compensated.
Likewise, Hermanson, since his 25-point explosion against Stanford on Nov. 30, has scored eight, nine and five points, but no one has heard him complaining. The Gaels are coming closer to the total buy-in on defense that Coach Randy Bennett insists is vital to their season-long success.
Gaels’ forward Evan Fitzner, who had been unimpressive in the early season, has experienced a re-awakening in the last two games, reflected in his 30 minutes of playing time against Irvine and 21 against WKU. The increase in playing time is directly linked to his defensive effort, but it has allowed him to post back-to-back double digit games of 12 and 11 points.
The 11 against WKU were notable for the speed in which he posted them. Fitzner accounted for five of the Gaels’ first seven points with a three-pointer and a driving layup, then canned two more three-pointers by the 11:41 mark. It seemed he could have kept scoring, but didn’t add another point. His reduced time on the floor compared to Irvine was not caused by defensive dereliction, however, but by Bennett’s desire to get some minutes for super-sub Kyle Clark. Clark, who has been kept busy in his time at Saint Mary’s by filling in after defensive lapses by Hermanson and Fitzner, finds himself more of a spectator as those two refuse to give Bennett reasons to sit them down.
Ford shines again
Bennett got good production out of true freshman Jordan Ford for the second game in a row, as Ford showed that he can not only contribute but affect the flow of the game. Entering the game at the seven-minute mark for Naar, Ford quickly scored on a floater in the paint, then hit a three-pointer that increased the Gaels’ lead to 10 points. On a subsequent fast-break by the Gaels, Ford dropped a look-away pass to Hermanson that Hermanson converted for a bucket and a free throw.
Rahon was hurt on that play, apparently slipping on a wet spot on the floor, and the crowd hushed at the site of the Gaels’ Mr. Ironman limping off to the trainer’s table. He was quickly spotted on the stationary bicycle, however, and returned to the floor with a little less than two minutes’ left. Pancake was not among those applauding his return.
The Gaels showed the same second-half explosiveness that was apparent against UC Irvine, increasing a 14-point halftime lead to 26 points (57-31) on a Clark three-pointer at the 12:20 mark. It looked as if they could have equaled the 46 points they scored against Irvine, but Bennett decided to go to the bench instead. He gradually subbed in an entire second team of Ford, Stefan Gonzales, Jordan Hunter, Tanner Krebs and Clark to finish off the game.
Keep an eye on (a few things to watch in the future):
Hunter to contribute.
Hunter made an impression on Gael fans by his buzzer-beating half-court heave against Irvine, but is showing more of his potential as the season wears on. Having accumulated 13 fouls in 21 minutes of play before the WKU game, Hunter knows what he needs to do to share the post with Jock Landale and Dane Pineau — quit fouling. He got six minutes playing time against WKU and grabbed two rebounds and scored a bucket on a neat lob from Gonzalez. More importantly, he was whistled for just one foul, and it was one his teammates Landale and Pineau have committed many times in their careers — an offensive foul for extending his hip on a screen.
He also made a play that neither Landale nor Pineau are capable of when he jumped in front of WKU forward Justin Johnson to intercept a routine entry pass. He has quickness and hops that are going to pay dividends for the Gaels sooner or later. Gael fans are becoming increasingly gloomy about the prospect of facing Gonzaga and its impressive front line crew of Przemek Karnowski, Johnathan Williams and freshmen Zach Collins and Killian Tillie. Adding Hunter to the Gaels’ own front line of Landale, Pineau and Fitzner could do a lot to equalize that apparent mismatch.
Krebs can score.
There is no more frustrated Gael than redshirt freshman Tanner Krebs. Given several opportunities to help his team, Krebs has appeared in seven of nine games but scored on only four of 21 attempts, including three of 18 from three-point range, his specialty. Rather than criticize his performance, fans should appreciate that the shots he is taking are exactly the ones Bennett wants him to take. He had three attempts against WKU, all from deep three-point territory, and all looked good until they rimmed out.
The lid will not stay on the basket forever, and Krebs’ ability to find open holes in the opponents’ defense and launch his deadly jump shot from far away will eventually pay off. When Krebs finds the range and regains his confidence, the Gaels will have two of the best off-the-bench sharpshooters in college basketball in him and Gonzalez.
Naar and Pineau are back.
These two have been among the walking wounded all season long, but both appeared to be fully healed against WKU. Naar had his highest-scoring game of the year with 14 points on six-of-nine shooting, and also scored in the lane against WKU’s talented seven-footer Ben Lawson. He nailed the only two three-pointers he attempted, and there is no greater evidence of fully-healed legs than the ability to hit jump shots.
Pineau scored 10 points on five-of-seven shooting, including a coast-to-coast steal and conversion that had the Gael bench roaring in approval. It even brought a quick, tentative smile from Pineau, and should have done the same for Gael fans. We can all applaud his return to last season’s form, which brought him selection to the pre-season all-WCC team.
Joe Rahon prepares to launch a shot against Western Kentucky, one of only three he attempted in the game. Rahon’s defense on WKU’s Pancake Thomas was one of the keys to the Gaels’ victory. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.