The rivalry begins

by Michael Vernetti

Forget for a moment Saint Mary’s 63-52 win over San Francisco on Saturday — the better team won after an intense struggle against a valiant underdog.

Consider instead the rivalry that lies ahead between these two charter members of the West Coast Conference. They are both coached by men with character, passion and dedication; both coaches know how hard it is to reverse a period of mediocrity and achieve prominence; both hate to lose.

Thus, Randy Bennett’s Gaels versus Kyle Smith’s Dons looms as a perennial marquee match-up in Bay Area sports. Add the personal back stories and the drama deepens:

— Smith was by Bennett’s side as Bennett revived a 2-27 team and took it to the Sweet Sixteen in 2010;

— Smith left the Gaels to revive a slumbering Columbia squad;

— Smith is married to a former star of the Gael women’s team, the former Katie Davis, whom he met coaching in Moraga while Katie was an academic counselor in the athletic department;

— Smith’s number one assistant, Todd Golden, was a starting point guard for Bennett’s Gaels who is fondly remembered for his six-for-six three-point barrage in an 89-85 overtime win over Gonzaga in 2008.

Smith will bring San Francisco to parity with Saint Mary’s. Their rivalry will develop until a split between two conference games will be considered the norm. The seemingly inviolate supremacy of Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU atop the WCC will be shattered by San Francisco’s emergence as a contender or favorite.

This prospect may bring equal parts pride and dread for Saint Mary’s fans who have enjoyed Bay Area hegemony in the WCC for years, but it portends a new era with the potential for even greater accomplishments by the two schools. Suddenly a pre-conference Bay Area tournament featuring Saint Mary’s, San Francisco and the two local Pac-12 teams, Cal and Stanford, becomes not only a possibility but a promoter’s dream.

The San Francisco and national news media will capitalize on the attraction of the Bennett-Smith rivalry. The two teams will push each other to new heights, recruits will want to become part of a great national story, both will have opportunities to make deep NCAA tournament runs. All that lies ahead.

About the game

You could see glimpses of the future on Saturday night in the Dons’ venerable War Memorial Gymnasium, where San Francisco star Bill Cartwright looked on and the memories of Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Russ Gumina, Winford Boynes, Phil Smith and many others lingered in the air. It will come, and Saturday night’s fierce struggle was a portent.

From the Gaels’ perspective, you could view the game in two ways: a gritty road win by a superior team facing an aroused rival; or a disappointing let-down after the solid 81-68 win over BYU two nights ago. Whatever your take, the facts remain.

The Gaels were flat at the outset, and two of their stars, Calvin Hermanson and Emmett Naar never got untracked. A Gael triumvirate of Jock Landale, Dane Pineau and Joe Rahon accounted for virtually all of the scoring (48 of 63 points). The turnover story, which is a template for evaluating Gael success, was once again dismal: 15 turnovers to 12 assists.

Here’s how the game began: Hermanson missed a wide-open three-pointer; a Don defender swatted away the first attempted entry pass to Landale; Evan Fitzner had his first shot blocked; Hermanson was called for a charge on a drive to the basket; Fitzner missed a bunny; Naar caused a turnover by stepping out of bounds and re-entering the court to receive a pass.

All that activity produced a 6-2 San Francisco lead after four minutes. In the first seven minutes the Gaels committed five turnovers and had scored nine points. Naar’s offensive contribution was especially missed. After scoring 17 points against BYU on a nice combination of drives and three-pointers, he missed a short tear-drop and had a drive blocked by the Dons’ active forward Nate Renfro in the early going. Naar scored his first point at the nine-minute mark of the second half — the first of six free throws. He would not make a basket in the entire game.

Hermanson made one three-pointer for his only scoring, and Fitzner went 0-3 on the night. Those two accounted for 21 points against BYU.

Defense saves the day

With all that offensive calamity, the Gaels’ defense did not waver. They held the Dons to the third-lowest opponent total of the year, 52 points, especially impressive considering San Francisco scored 80 points against Gonzaga two nights earlier (Gonzaga dropped 95 on the Dons). As the Gaels mounted some semblance of a decent attack in the second half — scoring a respectable 37 points — they held the Dons to 24 points on 29% shooting. That kind of defense will offset even the shakiest of offensive performances.

The combination of Landale in the post and Pineau alternating between forward and post back-up to Landale was dominant on a night when the Gaels’ usual outstanding guard play was lacking (Rahon did chip in a crucial 13 points to partially offset Naar’s deficiencies). Both recorded double-doubles, Landale scoring 21 points and grabbing 11 boards, Pineau contributing 14 points and 12 rebounds.

The rotation for the Gaels seems set. Although Fitzner will probably continue starting at power forward, Pineau will enter the game after four or five minutes whether Fitzner contributes immediately or stumbles as he did initially against San Francisco. Tanner Krebs will go in fairly early to sub for Hermanson, and Kyle Clark will sub in for whoever is playing power forward.

Bennett remembered Jordan Ford in the San Francisco game, subbing him for Naar with about five minutes left in the first half after overlooking him against BYU, but mysteriously kept him on the bench as Naar continued to struggle in the second half. Naar’s physical condition is a continuing unknown, as he seems to roller-coaster between a good game and a poor one. It would behoove the Gaels to incorporate Ford more into their game-planning, but Bennett’s substitution pattern is inconsistent.

The win over San Francisco began a tough, three-game road trip that ends up in Portland and Spokane next Thursday and Friday. The Gaels visit the improved Portland Pilots (9-6, 2-1 in WCC) on Thursday and the dominating Gonzaga Bulldogs (15-0, 3-0 in WCC) on Saturday. Portland has looked good at times under new head coach Terry Porter, but suffered a baffling 70-42 loss to Santa Clara in its last WCC game. A Saturday contest against Gonzaga was postponed by snow storms in Portland.

The Saturday showdown against Gonzaga will give Bennett’s charges an opportunity to display whether they are more like the team that defeated Dayton on the road and BYU at home, or the one that dropped a home game to Texas-Arlington and stumbled against San Francisco. Naar’s condition will play a big role against Gonzaga, and Gael fans hope that he is fit to make a maximum contribution.

The Gaels need a solid contribution from Emmett Naar as they take on Portland and Gonzaga on the road next Thursday and Saturday. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

1 thought on “The rivalry begins

  1. That’s quite a prediction about the future of the USF program. It has taken Randy Bennett quite some time and a fabulous recruiting connection with Australia to elevate the Gael program. Yet even at this point when the Gael program is arguably at its apex considering the consecutive weeks in the top 25, it has yet to fully capture the attention of the bay area sports media and tickets at 3,500 seat McKeon are available on game day for most games. One would think that the Gael program should have reached the point where it could play some games in a pro arena but when I spoke to Mark Orr about this a little over a month ago, he indicated that such events have not yet even been discussed.

    USF has had two eras where it really was “big time” even though it was quite some time ago. If they are able to achieve what you predict, it will be with players who have the kind of character that has characterized most WCC teams and certainly most Gael teams over the years. The program will not resemble the mess that forced the USF President to shut it down in the 1980s. Getting a program to a high level with real college student athletes is not easy but Gonzaga and SMC have been able to do it. If USF is able to pull it off, it would set up the scenario that you suggest and it would be a victory for ESPN as well in its effort to morph the WCC into sort of a West Coast Big East. But I doubt that it will happen overnight.

    Although Santa Clara hasn’t had the same success as USF this year, they do have a “name” coach. If you are right about USF, the Broncos might also be a future part of the bay area promoter’s dream that you are predicting.


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