by Michael Vernetti
The Gaels’ offense was stuck. Frozen. Paralyzed.
After seven minutes of play against San Diego Saturday evening in Moraga, the score stood at 12-6 in favor of the visitors. The Gaels were shooting 2-11 from the floor. One of Coach Randy Bennett’s usual long-range bombers — stretch 4 Evan Fitzner — had been benched to put a quicker defender on the Toreros’ string-bean forward, Juwan Gray.
Bennett looked down his bench and called for redshirt freshman Tanner Krebs, who had been anything but scintillating prior to the San Diego game, going just 8-28 on three-point attempts. But Bennett has voiced confidence in Krebs all season, and he put his sub where his mouth has been by inserting Krebs in place of another usually reliable three-point shooter, Calvin Hermanson.
Within less than a minute, Krebs sank a spot-up three-pointer to move the Gaels to within 12-9. A few possessions later, Krebs struck again, sinking a three-pointer to tie the game at 14-14. At the 6:15 mark, Krebs sank his third straight three-pointer to give the Gaels a 22-19 edge they would never surrender. Roll the highlight tape.
San Diego hangs tough
Not quite, as Torero Coach Lamont Smith has energized his team to avoid a repeat of last year’s disastrous 9-21 season, including a 4-14 record in the WCC that earned San Diego last place. He has assembled a small, athletic squad organized offensively behind senior forward Brett Bailey and sophomore guard Olin Carter III. With those two scoring nearly 20 PPG each, and with San Diego practicing Smith’s patented stingy defense, the Toreros have improved to 7-7 overall, possessing a five-game winning streak before WCC play began with a loss to San Francisco last Thursday.
One of Smith’s moves has been to eschew traditional post play with a 5-out attack that takes advantage of Gray’s quickness and three-point shooting ability. That lineup forced Gael center Jock Landale to guard Gray on the perimeter, which was a significant mis-match in favor of San Diego. Within the first five minutes, Gray had scored on a driving lay-up and a barely contested three-pointer.
Landale went to the bench, where he stayed for the longest period this season, 19 minutes. That move brought an end to Landale’s string of double-doubles, as he ended up with 14 points and nine rebounds, but it limited the damage done by Gray.
It also may have forced Bennett to think unusual substitution patterns earlier in the game than he might have wanted. While defensive ace Kyle Clark did a good job of quieting down Gray, the Gaels faced an offensive deficit. Hermanson started slowly, missing his only three-point attempt and ending the first half with no points. That’s why Krebs’ blazing start was so important.
The Gael bench added another spurt when freshman Jordan Ford entered the game at the 3:03 mark in the first half in place of Emmett Naar. Mimicking Krebs’ performance, Ford sank a three-pointer within a minute of his insertion, then scored on a coast-to-coast rebound and lay-up to cap a 9-2 run that gave the Gaels a 33-25 lead at the half. The scoring barrage by Krebs and Ford also improved the Gaels’ offensive numbers to a respectable 46% by the half, including 56% on three-pointers (5-9).
Couldn’t shake San Diego
Krebs and Ford notwithstanding, Saint Mary’s never got the separation from San Diego that they wanted. They endured another scoring drought past the mid-way mark of the second half, going almost three minutes without a score. Krebs again provided a spark, sinking his fourth three-pointer (out of four attempts) at the 7:53 mark to push the Gaels’ lead to its highest level, 14 points, at 55-41 (final score 72-60).
The last seven minutes devolved into a free-throw shooting contest, as San Diego went through one period when they made only two of 11 shots, yet remained within 10-12 points because of a constant parade to the free-throw line. When San Diego’s leading scorer, Bailey, converted a free throw attempt in the final two minutes, it was San Diego’s 20th free-throw attempt in the second half, and marked another period of more than four minutes when they went without a field goal. Overall, 19 of their 60 points came from free throws.
The Gaels will not have to endure conscientious defense when BYU rolls into Moraga next Thursday (Jan. 5), but they must hope to improve their offensive efficiency. Veteran San Francisco Chronicle beat writer Steve Kroner, interviewed at halftime on Alex Jensen’s broadcast, commented that the Gaels don’t seem as sharp in their execution as last year.
“It used to be pass-pass, easy score,” Kroner remarked, echoing a memory many Gael fans probably share. Maybe the WCC has improved enough so that even erstwhile bottom-feeders like San Diego pose challenges. Or maybe the Gaels aren’t as sharp on offense as they usually are, caused, perhaps, by Naar’s erratic play after injuring himself over the summer. Naar seemed revitalized against LMU, leading all scorers with 19 points and dishing out five assists, although he committed four turnovers.
His numbers against San Diego were not bad, nine points and six assists with only one turnover, but he shot just 2-10 and missed his only two three-point attempts. So, one game where he was sharp scoring-wise but careless with the basketball, followed by one where he didn’t shoot well but took better care of the ball. Maybe this is the result of Naar’s injury, and maybe the Gaels must wait for him to recover fully to get back to Kroner’s memory of “pass-pass, easy score.”
Thursday’s game against BYU will be interesting from that perspective as well as its implications for the WCC race. The Gaels have opened at 2-0, matching Gonzaga and BYU, who both had trouble on Saturday. BYU was down by as many as 18 points in the first half against LMU, but rallied to win by five (81-76), while Gonzaga actually trailed Pacific at the half by five before rallying to win by 20 (81-61).
Is it early-conference stumbles or the portent of a more closely contested race than observers predicted? As a wise man once said, that’s why they play the games.
Gaels’ freshman guard Jordan Ford, above, joined redshirt freshman Tanner Krebs in giving the Gael offense a boost in Saturday’s 72-60 win over San Diego. Ford is shown finishing off a coast-to-coast drive and lay-up in the first half. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.