Mano a mano in Moraga

by Michael Vernetti

Eric Mika vs. Jock Landale. An active 6-10 bruiser with a forward’s mobility vs. a determined, 6-11 Aussie who plays with his back to the basket. Who would lead his team to victory?

If you looked solely at the stat line and didn’t know the score, you’d conclude Mika won the battle and his team, BYU, probably won the game. Mika was sensational, scoring inside and out, fighting through bumps and grabs to score in traffic, ending up with 28 points and 10 rebounds.

You’d be wrong.

Landale was no slouch himself, scoring 26 points on 11-13 shooting, grabbing nine rebounds and handing out six assists. Since those assists accounted for 15 points, Landale was responsible for 41 of Saint Mary’s 81 points in a 13-point victory, 81-68.

But it was neither Mika nor Landale who decided the game. Landale’s team was better than Mika’s, and five players will always triumph over one, no matter how great that one person’s effort. Because he had to carry so much of the burden for BYU, Mika was gassed before he second half was halfway over.

He went to the bench with a little more than 16 minutes left, after single-handedly leading his team from the brink of disaster. He scored all seven of BYU’s points in the early going after the halftime break, but was gasping for air as teammate Nick Emery went to the foul line to complete a three-point play.

Upon returning to the floor a few minutes later, Mika scored his 28th and final point, leaving BYU to go more than 11 minutes without any contribution from him. A 22-year-old sophomore who has spent the last two years completing his Mormon mission, Mika is not yet in good enough shape to survive a fierce battle when his teammates don’t show up. He was averaging about 26 minutes per game before Thursday night, and stretched that to 29 against the Gaels.

Landale, meanwhile, made hay while Mika’s sun set, leading the Gaels’ offense from the low post. He passed out to Joe Rahon for an open three-pointer at the 15-minute mark, found Evan Fitzner for another three-pointer a minute later, and then Emmett Naar hit a three-pointer off an assist from Rahon to keep the pressure on BYU.

When Landale scored off a driving layup against Yoeli Childs, the Gaels had their biggest lead at 69-56. With Mika once again on the bench, Landale scored again over Childs, then put back a Naar missed layup (or was it a pass?). Landale greeted Mika’s return to the floor with 4:35 left by scoring over him and running his own point total to 26. More than that, however, Landale had either scored or assisted on five straight baskets during a crucial stretch of the second half in which Mika was not involved. Landale finished with 32 minutes and was smiling not gasping at the end.

A team victory

As well as Landale played, he was far from the whole story for Saint Mary’s. The Gaels clicked smoothly against either zone or man-to-man pressure from BYU, shooting 64% in the first half and ending up at 55%. Moreover, they reversed a troubling string of games in which their assist total barely edged out their turnovers, logging 21 assists against only eight turnovers.

Gael Coach Randy Bennett loosened the string on his embattled sophomore forward, Fitzner, giving him 15 minutes on the floor and allowing him to contribute with 2-3 three-point attempts. Naar chipped in with 17 points, including 3-4 from distance, and Calvin Hermanson added a quiet 15 points even though he was only 2-7 on three-pointers.

Oh, and about that fellow named Rahon.

It is becoming repetitive, but Rahon absolutely strangled BYU’s high-scoring freshman guard, TJ Haws. Haws scored only a single bucket in the first half, and it can be expected BYU Coach Dave Rose expressed an interest in an elevated effort in the second. Haws tried, but no matter how many behind-the-back dribbles, spins and Eurosteps he offered, every time he raised his head to shoot there was Rahon staring him in the face.  Haws finished with seven points on 3-10 shooting, and Gael fans insist that two of those scores came after egregious traveling violations that the referees seemed unable to see.

Hermanson was no less grudging in his defensive effort against another BYU high-flyer, Emery. While Emery took his usual number of unwise three-pointers, only one of them went in, and he finished with nine points on 3-8 shooting. Mica, Emery and Haws are about all BYU has to offer offensively, and the Gaels succeeded in removing two of them from contention. Rose’s squad is struggling to replace the mobility and scoring punch provided down low by forward Kyle Davis, out with a knee injury.

True freshman Childs cuts a forbidding figure, with his muscled 6-7 frame and leaping ability, but has yet learned to tailor those attributes to an offensive game. Houston transfer L.J. Rose seems lost at the point guard position and seems destined to be replaced by Elon transfer Elijah Bryant. Bryant scored 11 points, and looks talented enough to eventually give BYU a fourth option beyond Mika, Haws and Emery. Until then, BYU is vulnerable against teams that take defense seriously.

Odds and ends

A few random items from the Saint Mary’s-BYU game:

Bennett forgot Ford. Bennett’s stewardship of this Saint Mary’s team has been brilliant, so one doesn’t want to carp over small points. Still, coach, please don’t forget Jordan Ford and your resolution to give him decent floor time regardless of how  brilliantly — or not — Naar is performing. Bennett had seemed to settle into a pattern of inserting Ford for Naar with around three minutes left in the first half, then later as the game situation provided.

Naar does show signs of fatigue as the game progresses, and Thursday night was no exception. With a time out called at the 3:50 mark of the first half, Bennett had a golden opportunity to remember his Ford Resolution and give Naar a breather with halftime coming up. Except he didn’t. Naar stayed in and the following occurred: he missed a wide-open three-pointer, followed that up with a missed tear drop, then dribbled into trouble against the quick-handed Emery. Gael fans think Emery gave Naar a forearm to the chops that was not called, but nevertheless, Emery stole the ball and the Gaels’ chance to increase their 44-36 halftime margin. Naar ended he night with four assists and five turnovers.

Media spotlight. Thursday’s game marked the first national TV exposure for the 2016-17 Gaels, with the game carried over ESPNU as part of a double-header including the Gonzaga-San Francisco game preceding it. Even though it was one of those cheesy broadcasts that features two talking heads watching the telecast from their basement or someplace instead of actually showing up in Moraga, it was national exposure. ESPN carried taped highlights on its main Web page, and a national audience had its first opportunity to assess the Gaels.

Almost every Gael game from now on will be carried over ESPNU, ESPN2 or one of the Comcast channels. Hello, world.

In the house. ESPN Insider Jeff Goodman was among the healthy crowd on a freezing night in Moraga (really, game time temperature was just above freezing). He tweeted about the Mika-Landale matchup (“so much fun to watch”), the “cool gym and atmosphere” and then dropped one nugget that could be important for the Gaels in March. Michigan State Athletic Director Mark Hollis was also in the house, Goodman said, and Hollis is chairman of the NCAA men’s basketball committee — you know, that lovable group of guys known as the Selection Committee. At least if they turn us down for the Dance this year, we will know the main man saw the team up close on a good night.

The Gaels’ Jock Landale, shown above in an earlier game, was outstanding against BYU Thursday night, scoring 26 points, grabbing nine rebounds and handing out six assists — brushing up against a triple double. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.



2 thoughts on “Mano a mano in Moraga

    1) as always, love the articles.
    2) wanted to mention that I thought Evan played well. Think he also had 6 rebounds.
    3) common sense tells me that Naar and Rahon would benefit having 1-2 minutes rest in each half. But I got to assume RB considers his options.


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