by Michael Vernetti
There are many ways you can look at Saint Mary’s 66-46 win over San Francisco Thursday night in Moraga (or Sydney, as it might have been mistaken for with all the Australia Day festivities):
— It was the Gaels’ second 20-point win in a row;
— It featured a dominant defensive second half in which Saint Mary’s held San Francisco to 16 points;
— It was a game of contrasts, as the Gaels stumbled out of the gate, making only four of their first 12 shots, then made 18 of their next 25.
But I prefer to think of it as the return of Emmett Naar to the Gaels’ offense. Gone, at least for one night, was the wobbly-kneed Naar who passed up driving the paint and took only wide-open three-point shots. Naar was energized and aggressive from the outset. In the Gaels’ second possession, he moved into an open spot just beyond the free-throw line and confidently sank a jumper.
He followed that up a few minutes later with a strong drive down the middle, drew a foul and sank both free throws. A moment later, he found Jock Landale underneath for a bunny and a 6-4 lead, having had a hand in each of the Gaels’ first three scores. Naar cemented his return to prominence with three key plays on the way to an 18-point, six-assist night in which he made 6-9 shots:
— With a little more than 3:30 left in a slow first half, with the Gaels trailing 25-22, Naar took a pass off a Dane Pineau steal (there were four of those on the night) and went coast-to-coast for a bucket to bring his team within one point. The finish was vintage Naar, as he kept the Dons’ 6-8 Remu Raitanen on his hip, dribbled underneath the bucket and sank the lay-up without breaking his dribble.
— Later, as the Gaels were beginning to get separation in the second half at 39-34, Naar pulled up in transition and drained a three-pointer to push the lead to 42-34. This was a statement basket by Naar, as his recent performances would have dictated passing off to a teammate and looking for an easier basket later in the possession. Naar wanted to drive the nail into the Dons’ coffin himself, however, and celebrated the make with a minor show of elation — he slapped a teammate’s hand with a little extra gusto. These Gaels are a stoic lot.
San Francisco then contributed to its own demise with a bench protest of a no-call on a missed Nate Renfro dunk. A technical foul was called on the team — Coach Kyle Smith was strenuously protesting himself — and Naar sank the ensuing two free throws to give the Gaels their first double-digit lead at 44-34.
— In perhaps his signature play of the night near the 10-minute mark of the second half, Naar stole the ball off Don center Matt McCarthy and raced up-court. Dons’ guard Miaden Djordjevic picked him up and engaged him in a neck-and-neck race to the hoop. Djordjevic is no jackrabbit, but he is a solidly-build 6-3 and didn’t give an inch, pressuring Naar on every dribble. Naar never flinched, taking the ball strongly to the hoop for a basket and a 55-38 lead.
A few minutes later, Calvin Hermanson sank his fourth three-pointer of the night to push the lead to 60-40 with less than ten minutes left in the game. Hermanson’s bucket capped an extraordinary 30-10 second-half run by the Gaels, and made the remaining nine minutes or so meaningless — both sides scored only six more points each.
Bennett senses a spark
The affable but hardly inspirational Comcast TV crew of Barry Tompkins and Dan Belluomini made a contribution to understanding the Gaels’ season through a pre-game interview with Gael Coach Randy Bennett. Bennett, one of them reported — they are largely indistinguishable — stated that he thought his team “was really starting to get in gear.”
That could be passed off as just coach-speak to get through another interview, but Gael fans have seen what Bennett was talking about in the past two games. The Gaels have been crisper and more efficient on offense and consistently tenacious on defense against both Pepperdine — an 85-65 win — and San Francisco. Although the Waves broke through the 60-point barrier, holding San Francisco to 46 points put Saint Mary’s per-game scoring average for the two games at a little over 55 PPG — close to their year-long average of 57 points and change, which ranks them second in the nation.
Bennett also gave the slightest hint of a Naar resurgence after the Pepperdine game, with a nebulous statement that, “Hopefully he (Naar) gets it going a little.” Naar didn’t do much against the Waves — nine points on 2-7 shooting — but Bennett may have seen signs in recent practices that Naar is over the season-long knee injury that has dropped him from last season’s position as team high-scorer (14 PPG) to a pedestrian 9.8 PPG.
As the Gaels complete the first half of WCC play with an 8-1 record, a game behind Gonzaga, it is an excellent time to start fine-tuning their play with an eye toward the WCC Tournament and the post-season. Santa Clara, fresh off a 76-68 win over BYU at home, would love to derail the Saint Mary’s Express, however, and will get its first shot Saturday night in Santa Clara. Due to a quirk in the Gaels’ schedule, they played San Francisco twice in the first half but didn’t engage the Broncos. That means Saint Mary’s kicks off the second half against them and will finish conference play against them Feb. 25 in Moraga.
New Broncos’ Coach Herb Sendek, a veteran of post-season play after years at North Carolina State and Arizona State, has Santa Clara in a strong position at 6-3 in WCC play. The win over BYU reversed a 30-point loss (89-59) to the Cougars in Provo last month, and gives the Broncos a two-game winning streak. After the Saint Mary’s game, Santa Clara embarks on a four-game road trip, including stops in Spokane and Portland, so Sendek would dearly love to position his team for a challenge to BYU for a possible third-place WCC finish. A win over the Gaels would accomplish that feat nicely.
Odds and ends
A few additional tidbits from the San Francisco game:
Courtside celebrities: Watching the Gaels’ win Thursday was NCAA President Mark Emmert and WCC Commissioner Lynn Holzman. Emmert’s visit follows one by Michigan State Athletic Director Mark Hollis — he is chairman of the NCAA Selection Committee — at the BYU game, and punctuates a publicized effort by the NCAA to bring equity to selection of teams for the NCAA Tournament. The Gaels are 2-0 in spotlight games, for whatever advantage that gives them.
Also on hand (again) was Warriors’ assistant (and former Cleveland Cavaliers head coach) Mike Brown, who is a buddy of Bennett’s.
Calvin’s rampage. Calvin Hermanson was not happy with his minimal contribution to the Gaels’ Jan. 7 win over San Francisco, in which early foul trouble limited him to three points in nine minutes played. So, he has done something about that night — stringing together five straight outstanding games in which he has averaged 18.3 PPG. During that streak he has made 19-37 three-point attempts, a gaudy 51%. Stay angry, Calvin.
Sticky hands Pineau: The stat sheet against San Francisco credits Dane Pineau with four steals (to go with three blocks and six rebounds). Pineau’s banditry was a key part of the Gaels’ late first-half run against the Dons, as he repeatedly stepped into attempted screens to swipe the ball away from unsuspecting Don ball-handlers. He actually had five steals, but the most impressive one didn’t make the stat sheet. That was a clean steal from San Francisco’s leading scorer Ronnie Boyce that, unfortunately, bounced off someone else’s hands after Pineau liberated it and rolled out of bounds. Four or five, it was a great night’s work for the underrated Pineau, who played 36 minutes to Jock Landale’s 26, allowing Landale plenty of time to think about bad things he can do to Santa Clara.
Does Randy Bennett have his outstanding point guard Emmett Naar back at full strength after a season-long battle with a balky knee? If so, that bodes well for the Gaels as they embark on the second half of the WCC race. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.