It’s rough on the road

by Michael Vernetti

There are a lot of things you could say about Saint Mary’s 72-60 win over Loyola Marymount Thursday in Los Angeles — and many of them wouldn’t be kind.

But here’s one thing you should tell your friends in summing up the game: with 20 seconds left, after shutting down LMU’s top scorer, Brandon Brown, for the entire game, after almost having his shoulder separated by a hard foul — uncalled — from 6-10 Trevor Manuel, Gael guard Joe Rahon picked up his first and only foul.

Thinking about that instead of the Gaels’ 19 turnovers (against only 15 assists) and 13 missed free throws (20-33) will give you a clearer insight into the game. The Gaels out-defensed and out-willed LMU, and both characteristics were personified in Rahon’s game.

Rahon tied Brown in scoring at 11 points, but did it with just seven shots against Brown’s 18. He constantly put a hand in Brown’s face, and denied him entry into the paint on most possessions. As if to underscore his personal victory over Brown, Rahon emphatically blocked a Brown layup attempt with about three minutes left, sending the shot ricocheting off the back wall of Gersten Pavilion.

LMU coach Mike Dunlap has remodeled the Lions since the Gaels swept them three times last season. He adroitly picked up fifth-year transfer center Stefan Jovanovic from Hawaii, and even more adroitly scooped up an unhappy Manuel from Oregon. Jovanovic will be what he was at Hawaii, where he played mainly as a back-up — an acceptable post presence who can score inside and hit the occasional jumper from outside the paint.

But Manuel could be a star in the WCC. Although his stat sheet showed he was 0-10 on three-point attempts in limited action this  year — the Saint Mary’s game was only the fifth he played in — he made all four three-pointers against the Gaels en route to an 18-point game. Tall and rangy, Manuel can put the ball on the deck and attack the rim, as he did on two rim-rattling dunks (only one of them counted).

Another potential star is 20-year-old freshman guard Erik Johansson, a veteran of the Swedish National Team who has decided to try his hand at US college hoops. Johansson showed poise and polish in sticking three jumpers – two of them three-pointers — but seemed to disappear for most of the game. He will become more of a force as he gains more confidence in the Lions’ system.

The rest of the story

Dunlap’s problem is the rest of his team, all holdovers from last year. To make room for Johansson, Dunlap moved sharpshooting guard Steven Haney to forward, where he is under-sized at 6-6. Against the Gaels, Haney also drew Calvin Hermanson on defense, and Hermanson turned in an outstanding defensive effort against him. Haney ended up 0-5 from the floor, settling for two free throws. That followed a 24-point outing against Morgan State on Monday night, when Haney went 9-18 and 4-8 on three-pointers. He will struggle to assert himself against strong defenders.

The Lions’ other forward is 6-6 Buay Tuach, who is quick but has a questionable handle and apparently no outside game. Tuach was an ineffective 2-4 against the Gaels in 30 minutes. As for Brown, he is a mediocre replacement for former Lion stars such as Anthony Ireland and Evan Payne (now starting for Long Beach State). He goes only to his right and has no actual shot, replying on quickness and circus shots to score.

Besides Rahon’s gritty performance, the other headline for the Gaels was the continued development of Dane Pineau at strong forward alongside Jock Landale. Nominal starter Evan Fitzner lasted only two minutes against LMU, losing Tuach on a baseline drive, tossing a lazy pass to Landale that was intercepted, then compounding that by having the ball stolen from him on an ensuing possession. He sat down at that time, never to return.

The telling point was the beginning of the second half, when Gael Coach Randy Bennett invariably starts the same five players who opened the game. Gone was Fitzner, replaced by Pineau. Pineau responded by almost posting a double-double, settling for nine points and eight rebounds. He and Landale are an impressive force as defensive rebounders, corralling 19 rebounds between them.

Pineau signaled his growing comfort at the 4 by sinking a three-pointer with about three minutes left in the game, a shot that pushed the Gaels’ lead to 11 at 61-50 when the issue was still unsettled. It is difficult to see a return path to the starting lineup for Fitzner, who must make up his mind to play strong and smart on defense to work his way out of the doghouse. Landale and Pineau make a dynamic duo on the front line, so Fitzner’s role may devolve into a jump-shooting alternative to Pineau.

About those turnovers, that free-throw shooting.

That turnovers have arisen as a serious problem for Bennett’s offense must rank as a huge surprise and disappointment. Bennett’s teams pride themselves on efficient offense, which includes a healthily positive assist-to-turnover ratio. That they posted 15 assists against 19 turnovers against LMU is shocking, and follows a so-so 20 to 14 ratio against South Carolina State and 17 to 13 against Texas A&M Corpus Christi. The Gaels have to go back to their 23 to 7 dominance against Western Kentucky to find a decent performance on turnovers.

The first-half turnovers against LMU were more a result of carelessness than any ball-hawking superiority by the Lions. They began with Fitzner’s poor entry pass to Landale, which was followed by a careless cross-court pass by Rahon that was picked off, Landale throwing the ball away under pressure in the paint and Naar standing on the out-of- bounds line on another possession. Pineau air-mailed a pass to Naar on a back-door cut that should have been an easy bucket, then Rahon and Naar threw away successive passes without unusual pressure. Seven empty possessions that kept LMU in a game the Gaels seemed on the verge of dominating by going on a 10-0 run that put them up 23-12 with about 10 minutes left in the half.

If those don’t give Bennett heartburn, he can always look at free-throw shooting that defied explanation. Landale going six  of 13 and Rahon going 4-7 were the main culprits, but even knock-down shooter Hermanson went 1-3. Those represented more points taken off the scoreboard, points that kept the game from being the 20-point breeze it seemed destined to become. In Rahon’s defense, two of his misses came after his collision with Manuel on a fast-break basket that Rahon converted. Manuel crashed into Rahon, pinning his left shoulder against the basket stanchion. He landed on the same shoulder on an ensuing drive, and was clearly in pain as he left two free throws short.

Bits and pieces

Some additional highlights against LMU:

Naar healed. Any doubts about Naar’s physical condition were quieted by a dominant performance, which included 19 points on 6-9 shooting, and, thank goodness, 5-6 from the free throw line. As is his wont, Naar made one of the most crucial buckets of the game with a little more than 10 minutes left and the Lions having closed to 42-41. His three-pointer pushed the lead to 45-41 and seemed to take the wind out of the sails of LMU.

Krebs for Hermanson. Bennett subbed in Tanner Krebs for Hermanson with about eight minutes left in the first half, and he immediately paid dividends. Benefiting from a Naar penetration into the paint, Krebs received a kick-out pass from the Gael guard and buried a three-pointer from just beyond the three-point line. It was his only shot of the game, but he managed to make a contribution with limited minutes.

Along with Pineau for Fitzner, the Krebs insertion in favor of Stefan Gonzalez may loom as one of the Gaels’ biggest personnel stories.

Ford also shines. Given even fewer minutes than Krebs, freshman Jordan Ford still managed to shine. Coming off the bench in the game’s waning seconds, he dribbled through LMU’s frantic full-court defense, picked up a foul and nailed two free throws on a night when that feat was anything but a certainty.

Joe Rahon, shown above last year against BYU, was an emotional  and substantive leader for the Gaels in the LMU game. Shutting down the Lions’ Brandon Brown, Rahon scored 11 points, handed out seven assists and had three steals. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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