by Michael Vernetti
Fans are always celebrating an outstanding team performance that, to their minds, indicates the team has “turned the corner.”
After said turn, said team is supposed to crush all remaining opposition and reach unprecedented heights.
The truth is, it seldom happens like that. Teams lurch along, experiencing highs and lows and occasionally exceeding expectations. But the notion that once turned that corner can’t crop up up again is false.
That’s why I use the term loosely in describing the Gaels 85-65 win over Pepperdine Saturday night. Saint Mary’s did some good things, including beating somebody by 20 points for the first time since the 74-33 thrashing of Portland on Jan. 12. The turnover/assist ratio was in good territory at 17-9, and the team shot 57% for the night.
Most importantly, the Gaels shrugged off two periods of slow play, once in each half, and responded with dominating runs. In the first half, after going ahead by 29-19, the Gaels saw Pepperdine launch an 8-0 run to close to 29-27. They were unconcerned by the surge and finished on an 18-6 run to close the half up 47-33.
Similarly, in the second half the Gaels experienced a hiccup after going up 21 (72-51) with 8:52 left. The Waves went on a 12-0 run over the next four minutes to cut the deficit to 72-63, but again there was no panic among the Gaels. They dominated the last five minutes of the game (13-2) to win 85-65.
Around the next corner lurks the super-motivated San Francisco Dons, who come to McKeon next Thursday. The Gaels defeated San Francisco in a hard-fought 63-52 contest on Jan. 7, but coach Kyle Smith is not about to give up on his dream of knocking off his former mentor, Randy Bennett, and the Gael program. This one will tell a lot about whether a corner has been turned or if the Gaels are still finding their way.
In addition to the big picture highlights against Pepperdine there were some small nuggets that could portend a corner-turning moment:
— Tanner Krebs scored on his first drive and lay-up that I can remember. Krebs has an excellent handle and is confident of his ability to finish at the rim, but several earlier attempts had gone unrewarded. He repeated the feat later in the game, but his lay-up was negated because of a foul before the shot.
Krebs as a driving threat, coupled with Krebs the outside bomber, is a development Gael fans should relish.
— Evan Fitzner recorded a rousing slam-dunk in the second half, the first such throw-down I can remember in his one-and-a-half years as a starter. Fitzner is not much of a back-to-the-basket player, but he is a tough guard in close because of his long arms and soft touch around the basket. If he decides he is a stud driver as well as a three-point threat, that could be as exciting as Krebs’ driving success.
— Calvin Hermanson continues to be a leader of the Gaels. Hermanson is so quiet, despite his gaudy goggles-bandana-mouthpiece ensemble, that his contributions are often overlooked. It was hard to overlook his line from Saturday night, which read 8-10 (3-5 on three-pointers) for 19 points. Like Fitzner, Hermanson rattled the rim on one baseline dunk in the first half, and weaved his way to two more lay-ups in the second. He also finished an alley-opp in transition off a perfect lead pass from Emmett Naar that was a thing of beauty.
— Joe Rahon, the guy who doesn’t care about scoring, suddenly cared Saturday night, to the tune of a team-leading 22 points on 9-13 shooting, which included a perfect 3-3 on three-pointers. Rahon shrugged off the performance in a post-game interview, saying he was just taking advantage of open looks, but the truth is he often ignores those open looks in favor of passing to a teammate.
Could this performance presage a more aggressively-scoring Rahon, a reaction, perhaps, to the continued mediocre play of back court mate Emmett Naar (2-7, including 1-5 on three-pointers)? Gael Coach Bennett sounded wistful after the game in commenting on the array of Gaels who have demonstrated scoring prowess lately.
“Hopefully, he (Naar) can get it rolling a little bit.”
Odds and ends
A few other interesting tidbits from the Pepperdine game:
Murray madness: Lamond Murray was simply unstoppable Saturday night, accounting for 29 of Pepperdine’s 65 points — 19 in the second half when he was virtually the Waves’ only option. This is not a reflection on the Gaels’ defense, which alternated Hermanson and Krebs on Murray, both of whom kept a hand in his face throughout the night. Murray was averaging 25.3 PPG in the four games leading up to Saturday.
Murray, the son of ex-Cal and NBA star Lamond Murray, is an NBA player stuck in a college program. He will have to play guard in the pros, and will be challenged to improve his handle to thrive against players as quick and explosive as him, but I wouldn’t count him out.
Ford back. The troubling sight of Jordan Ford in a sweatsuit instead of a Gael uniform was ended Saturday, as he suited up and participated fully in warm-ups. He didn’t play, however, as he is nursing an ankle sprain suffered in practice before the Pacific game and wasn’t needed against the Waves.
Reyes regrets. Gael fans might have engaged in a little “what if” thinking about Pepperdine forward Chris Reyes. Reyes, who was stuck in a support role in two years at Utah, has been unleashed by Marty Wilson at Pepperdine, and has responded by scoring nearly 16 PPG this year. The former Gael recruit displayed strong moves around the basket in scoring eight points, but was held in check partly because he picked up two quick first-half fouls trying to guard Jock Landale.
Joe Rahon, shown launching a three-pointer earlier this season, led the Gaels in scoring with 22 against Pepperdine. Rahon is already the Gaels’ best perimeter defender, unchallenged floor leader and leading assist-maker, so a scoring outburst as that against Pepperdine is a bonus. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.