by Michael Vernetti

Saint Mary’s has weathered scoring outbursts from opposing players in the past. The Portland Trail Blazers’ outstanding guard Damien Lillard blistered the Gaels for 36 points when playing for Weber State in 2011.

In Tim Derksen’s final regular-season game for San Francisco last year, Dirksen went for 27 against the Gaels, despite everyone knowing he was going to shoot every time the Dons had the ball.

Just last Thursday, BYU’s outstanding post man Eric Mika dropped 28 on the Gaels. It happens.

In all those instances, the Gaels withstood the outstanding individual efforts and won each game handily. Not so Saturday night in Spokane.

On paper, Nigel Williams-Goss’s 19 points in Gonzaga’s 79-56 lambasting of the Gaels doesn’t look so great compared with the success others have had. Nineteen points on 8-14 shooting — a big night, but nothing spectacular. Forget what it looks like on paper — in actuality it was devastating.

Williams-Goss struck early and midway through the second half, and each outburst either set the stage for periods of Gonzaga superiority or deflated Gael comeback attempts. It wasn’t just the numerical effect of his scoring. The fact that he scored over the Gaels’ best perimeter defender, Joe Rahon, and that he did it with Rahon in front of him with a hand in his face made his effort even more damaging.

By the time Williams-Goss took advantage of a screen by one of the Zag bigs and sank a three-pointer to put the Zags up 16-12, he had scored nine of Gonzaga’s 16 points. That three-pointer was his only one of the night, as he did most of his damage in the lane, with Rahon either draped over him or nearby. He has a deft touch in the paint, and made a series of floaters  or step-back short jumpers to confound Rahon and damage the Gaels.

Rahon is a battler, and he seemed to figure out Williams-Goss after his initial burst and keep him from scoring until the Gaels made a 12-2 run to start the second half and cut a nine-point halftime lead to 48-44 with fewer than 15 minutes left. Williams-Goss came alive, making one floater to push the lead to 52-44, another to extend the lead to 54-47, another to increase the Zags’ lead to 56-47, then two more to open the floodgates at 63-52.

Five buckets over a 10-minute stretch that decided the game. To eliminate any doubt, he stole the ball from Jock Landale and fed a streaking Johnathan Williams for a dunk that pushed the lead to 67-52 at the 4:50 mark and ended any chance the Gaels had of staging a comeback.

Gael miscues

Aside from Williams-Goss’s brilliance, the Gaels made several contributions to their own demise. At each crucial point they faltered to give the Zags new life and cut off any hope off a victory. The first turning point came with 4:35 left in the first half. After weathering a blistering Gonzaga offensive onslaught that saw the Zags make their first five shots, the Gaels tied the game at 18-18 on a Calvin Hermanson three-pointer. Not only did this give the Gaels life, it shocked ESPN announcer Sean Farham, who was dying to proclaim Gonzaga the “only remaining unbeaten team in college basketball” and, perhaps possessor of a number one ranking on Monday.

With Gonzaga shooting 67%, Saint Mary’s battled them evenly for the next seven minutes, even though Landale had departed after about eight minutes with his second foul. With Dane Pineau and Jordan Hunter filling in admirably for Landale, the Gaels got steals, blocked shots and rode two three-pointers by Evan Fitzner to narrow leads of 25-23, 28-27 and 30-29.

When Pineau grabbed an offensive rebound and fed Naar streaking into the paint for a lay-up to put the Gaels up 32-31, Gael fans envisioned another slugfest such as the two that resulted in victories over the Zags in Moraga and Spokane last season. It was not to be, however, because of an inexplicable mix-up on transition following Naar’s basket.

Someone forgot Jordan Matthews, the Cal transfer who has been knocking down three-pointers regularly for Gonzaga this year. Left alone in his favorite short corner, Matthews drained his third three-pointer of the night to restore the Zags’ lead at 34-32 and seemingly deflate the Gaels.

There followed a steal off Naar, a shot clock violation, a traveling violation and a 10-0 Zag run that pushed the score to 41-32 just before the half, which ended with Gonzaga up by nine, 43-34.

Another aborted comeback

Given Landale’s absence for most of the first half, Saint Mary’s could feel hopeful about their chances to start the second. Landale came out smoking, scoring on a short jumper just outside the paint, a put-back, a driving lay-up against Przemek Karnowski and then a baby hook over Karnowski’s back-up, freshman sensation Zach Collins. Eight points for Landale in about six minutes, cutting the lead to 48-44 and producing a NOW! moment to seal the deal.

Instead, the Gaels sealed their own fate, as Landale picked up his third foul with a little more than 11 minutes left, then his fourth a minute or so later and went back to the bench. The damning fouls, similar to one he picked up in the first half, were the mindless hip-check variety, in which Landale extends his hip on a screen to impede a Zag defender. This is a foul that has plagued both Landale and Pineau in their careers, but Landale picked an absolutely terrible time to fall victim to it.

Although they rallied to crawl back to a manageable deficit of 58-52 on a Hermanson three-pointer with 8:38 left, the Williams-Goss show kicked in, Landale received his fifth foul and the Zags were off on a tear. It was all over except the shouting, or crying if you were a Gael fan.

Rematch hope

Although the eventual 23-point victory margin was deflating, the Gaels have several bright spots to think about as a Feb. 11 rematch in Moraga comes into view. First of all, Landale proved better than Karnowski or Collins in the post, and the combination of Landale and Pineau was an effective antidote to the Gonzaga front court contingent of Karnowski, Collins, Williams and Killian Tillie, who played only seven minutes and didn’t score.

Landale’s absences in both the first and second half were crucial, and fans can hope he knocks off the hip-checks and competes for more than 19 minutes in Moraga. In addition, Jordan Hunter continued his impressive series of short stints with seven effective minutes. He is growing more comfortable in the paint, and contributed a basket, a rebound and an assist in his brief time.

The Gaels will shoot better than 39.7% in the friendly confines of McKeon Pavilion, and it is unlikely the Zags will match their 65% effort, including 54% on three-pointers, when the teams meet again. I  think the Moraga Rematch will be an epic battle and that the Gaels have a decent chance of pulling off an upset.

Jordan Hunter, shown above competing in the Gaels’ intra-squad game early this season, was a pleasant surprise against Gonzaga. He may have a larger role when the teams meet again on Feb. 11 in Moraga. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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