by Michael Vernetti
So, you hold a team averaging nearly 82 PPG to 46 points; a team that was 7-2 coming into Moraga and that won 25 games a year ago; a team with everyone back from that 25-win team.
And, yet, the mood in McKeon Pavilion after Saint Mary’s defeated Texas A&M Corpus Christi 67-46 Tuesday was “meh.” The Gaels shot only 42%, 33% from three-point range; they turned the ball over 13 times against 17 assists, far from the 23 to seven assist-to-turnover ratio they achieved against Western Kentucky in the previous game; four of their most consistent three-point shooters — Calvin Hermanson, Kyle Clark, Stefan Gonzalez and Evan Fitzner — were a combined 0-9 in the second half.
So, “meh.”There was even some relief that a meltdown such as that experienced against Texas-Arlington (L66-51) two weeks ago was averted: the Islanders — their campus is located on an actual island in Corpus Christi — closed a 15-point halftime gap to five points (47-42) with a little more than nine minutes left.
In truth it wasn’t that bad, as the Gaels reeled off a streak of their own to go up by 11, 55-44, a few minutes later. Stepping in for the usual three-point-shooting suspects was team leader Joe Rahon, sinking a crucial three-pointer after Texas A&M narrowed the lead to five. Rahon, who scored exactly zero points in the Western Kentucky win, yet controlled that game with 10 assists, sensed that his teammates left their hot hands in the locker room. He took an unusually high number of three-pointers — five — sinking four to provide 14 points along with six assists.
As if carrying the team’s offensive load wasn’t enough work for a Tuesday evening, Rahon also squared off against A&M’s elusive, crafty and talented guard, Ehad Amin, a recruit from Egypt. Amin was a major pain in the neck against the Gaels, scoring 17 points on 7-14 shooting and making five steals. Utilizing every asset available to him, Amin even used a diminutive ball girl as a screen on one of his layups after pilfering the ball out of a surprised Emmett Naar’s hands and streaking down court.
The well-meaning tot, earnestly drying the floor with her back to the action, was as surprised by Amin’s steal as was Naar, and never saw him coming. He glided over her tiny body, made the layup and then tended to her as she sat dazed on the court. The Gaels’ excellent play-by-play caller, Alex Jensen, turned unusually harsh after the incident, mumbling something on the W.tv broadcast about the necessity of “keeping your head on a swivel.”
She’s five years old, Alex — give her a break.
On the other hand
All the drama of A&M’s comeback notwithstanding, the Gaels were not far off from their previous performance against Western Kentucky. Two factors conspired to make the game closer than seemed necessary: turnovers and cold shooting. The Gaels were unusually careless with the ball in the first half, creating five turnovers in the first nine minutes. The culprits were varied, with Naar, Hermanson, Jock Landale and Clark making bad passes.
Those first-half misadventures were covered up by Hermanson’s brilliant three-point shooting. He sank five in a row at one point, leading all scorers with 18 points at halftime. Unfortunately, Hermanson didn’t bring his three-point touch with him after the break, missing four in a row in the second half to match the futility of Fitzner, Clark, Gonzalez and the rest of the Gaels.
That cold-shooting combined with the turnovers, which were divided into six in the first half and seven in the second, kept the Gaels from developing any rhythm offensively. The Gaels were not bothered by the Islanders’ zone, as they moved the ball well and located open shooters in both halves. They just couldn’t convert a normal percentage of three-point opportunities, so gave the Islanders a greater opportunity to stay close.
The Gaels outstanding defense withstood the patch of cold shooting, as they held the previously free-wheeling Islanders’ field goal shooting to 35.3%. The point total was a new low for Saint Mary’s as well, and follows a promising downward trend over the last three games: 53, 51 and 46 points for UC Irvine, Western Kentucky and Texas A&M. Throw out the Texas-Arlington game (if only) and go back to Stanford, which scored only 51 points, and the trend must be exciting for Gael Coach Randy Bennett. Bennett probably doesn’t think it unrealistic to dream of a game in which the opponent scores zero points.
Odds and ends
A few other items of interest from the game:
Break too long? The Texas A&M game came six days after Western Kentucky, creating comparisons to the eight-day layoff (including finals) leading up to the Texas-Arlington face plant. Do the Gaels suffer from long intermissions between games, and, if so, should they worry about the one-week break between Thursday night’s game against South Carolina State and the WCC opener against Loyola Marymount Dec. 29 in Los Angeles?
LMU is enough to worry about on its own, having won four straight including a 69-66 win over a respectable Colorado State squad in Ft. Collins on Monday. The Gaels will get a good idea of how tough it will be to top the Lions on Thursday, as the Lions face off against Texas-Arlington at home.
Since the college is still on break, Bennett has plenty of latitude in handling the Gaels’ prep for the road trip to Los Angeles. He could take the team down as early as Tuesday, let them get in a practice of two in the LMU gym and break up the routine in advance of the Thursday showdown. Some see LMU as a possible “trap” for the Gaels, but I think the excitement of the road trip and beginning of conference play will be enough to prevent them from developing the blahs.
Fitzner saga. Fans of redshirt sophomore forward Evan Fitzner took heart from his two performances previous to Tuesday’s game — 12 points in 30 minutes against UC Irvine and 11 points in 21 minutes against Western Kentucky. “He’s back,” some proclaimed, only to groan as he put up a goose egg against A&M in only 11 minutes of action.
To be sure, going 0-4 on open-look three-pointers probably didn’t improve Bennett’s mood, but I think his reasoning for benching Fitzner in favor of Dane Pineau at the power forward spot had more to do with the prowess of A&M’s outstanding forward, Rashawn Thomas. It didn’t take Bennett long to realize that guarding the 6-8, 230-pound Thomas was going to be a major challenge for Gael center Jock Landale. Solution? Sub in Pineau for Fitzner and put the aggressive Pineau on Thomas.
It wasn’t a total success, as Thomas accounted for 22 points and eight rebounds, but Pineau probably bothered him more than Landale would have. Freed of the Thomas defensive assignment, Landale registered a double-double, with 15 points and 13 rebounds. The odd man out was Fitzner, whom Bennett still trusts less to guard difficult forwards than he does Pineau.
Young guns step up. On a night of generally disappointing three-point shooting, two rays of hope were spread by true freshman Jordan Ford and redshirt freshman Tanner Krebs. Ford played only six minutes and Krebs two, but each sank his only three-point attempt. It had to be particularly heartening for Krebs, a genuinely excellent shooter who has seen many shots rim out in limited minutes this season. He didn’t shy away from casting off in the game’s final seconds, which says something about his moxie.
Ford continued to take advantage of the limited minutes he has been given, making something positive happen as he has in several previous games.
Gael center Jock Landale, who registered a double-double against A&M, must improve his defense to keep Dane Pineau from usurping Evan Fitzner at power forward. Landale and Pineau have been playing together more and more recently, forcing Fitzner to the bench. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.