by Michael Vernetti
Following the 72-59 Saint Mary’s win over Santa Clara Saturday night, one can imagine Bronco star guard Jared Brownridge having a recurring nightmare: whatever he did — eat breakfast, brush his teeth, listen to music — Joe Rahon would turn up with a hand in his face.
You can’t blame Brownridge, who in the four games preceding the Saint Mary’s contest had averaged nearly 26 PPG and shot right at 50% on both three-pointers and regular field goals. He was on a roll, and Santa Clara needed him to continue rolling if it was to upset the Gaels. That’s where Rahon came in.
Hounding Brownridge mercilessly, fighting through the myriad screens Santa Clara set to get their ace free, Rahon ended up where he wanted to be as Brownridge received a pass and contemplated a shot — with a hand in Brownridge’s face. At the end of the first half Saturday, Brownridge had made one two-point shot and two free throws. He ended the game going 3-14, 2-8 from three-point land, and two of his 13 points were a gift from Referee Horace Shields (more on that later).
Rahon was not alone in shutting down the engine of Santa Clara’s offense. Back court mate Emmett Naar also had a daunting task in guarding Santa Clara’s explosive point guard, KJ Feagin. Feagin managed 11 points, but took 15 shots to sink five buckets. Combined, Rahon and Naar held Brownridge and Feagin to 8-29 shooting — a meager 28%.
Not a thing of beauty
Excellent guard play aside — Rahon and Naar also totaled 14 assists against three turnovers — the game was not the exercise in efficiency that two previous Gael wins over Pepperdine and San Francisco had been. The difference was playing on the road against an aroused opponent. Santa Clara was feeling good about itself after beating BYU two nights earlier and ending the first half of the WCC conference race tied with the Cougars at 6-3. They were sensing a win over Saint Mary’s before going on the road for four straight games, including the dreaded Pacific Northwest two-step against Portland and Gonzaga.
The Gaels denied Santa Clara the upset it was hoping for, and it was excellent team defense that prevailed over sometimes erratic offensive play and some brain-dead moments. As the game unrolled, the Gaels looked unstoppable. Notwithstanding a quick start from Santa Clara — the Broncos made their first five shots — the Gaels rolled to a 26-11 lead at the eight-minute mark. The possibility existed of a 16-20-point first half for the Broncos and the path to a rout.
What happened instead was a lesson in how teams stop themselves when their opponents seem unable to do it. After Santa Clara made its first basket in seven-and-a-half minutes to cut the score to 26-13, the following ensued:
Jock Landale, with 14 first-half points en route to a 20-11 night, committed a turnover by traveling under no particular pressure; Even Fitzner passed up an open look on the Gaels’ next possession, leading to a shot clock violation; Landale traveled again, giving Santa Clara another opportunity, which the Broncos gladly accepted. They ran off eight straight points following the Gael miscues, and climbed back in the game at 27-19.
Then the Gaels went to sleep on Santa Clara’s undersized forward Nate Kratch (listed at 6-8 but looks more like 6-6). Kratch should have registered on the Gael radar with a 16-point, four three-pointer effort against BYU. Indeed, he sank an early three-pointer on Saturday, but Saint Mary’s still ignored him. He repaid that effort by scoring nine points down the stretch of the first half to bring Santa Clara to a manageable 35-30 deficit at halftime. Opportunity for rout wasted.
Second half repeat
The second half bore a strong resemblance to the first: the Gaels streaked ahead by 15 points (47-32) with less than five minutes gone, then frittered that lead away. This time it was the resurgence of Bronco Center Emmanuel Ndumanya, who was victimized several times in the first half by his team’s insistence on doubling up Naar or Rahon as they executed pick and roll plays. Ndumanya was consistently found out of place, and Rahon and Naar dropped dime after dime on Landale or Dane Pineau.
I call the next eight minutes the Revenge of Ndumanya, as the 6-10, 260-pounder from Nigeria made up for first-half lapses and then some. Landale seemed to go to sleep after a dominating first half that saw him score 14 easy points, mostly on bunnies created by Ndumanya being out of position. In succession:
— Landale missed a bunny with Ndumanya on his back, and seemed bothered by the miss, but Ndumanya hustled down court for a run-out dunk with Landale nowhere to be seen. A four-point swing.
— Landale, again pressured by Ndumanya on an entry pass, made a weak pass that was intercepted.
— After making his final field goal of the game at about the 10-minute mark, Landale missed another bunny with Ndumanya guarding him. On the next possession, Ndumanya scored easily over Landale in the paint, but the Gaels still had a comfortable margin at 53-39.
— The next possession was crucial, because Ndumanya again swatted away an entry pass to Landale (a turnover for Naar, but partially caused by Landale’s lack of aggressiveness). This turnover led to a run-out by Brownridge and his first three-pointer of the game, which energized the Broncos and the crowd, and brought the score to 53-42.
— Then Ndumanya simply knocked the ball out of Landale’s hands, leading to another Brownridge three-point attempt. Here’s where Referee Shields took center stage, as Brownridge missed the shot with Rahon taking a swipe at the ball from behind. Replays clearly showed what everyone in the crowd saw — Rahon did not come close to touching Brownridge, but Shields called a foul and sent Brownridge to the line for three free throws.
Shields shows off
Rahon was apoplectic over the call, which clearly wounded his pride because he is the last person to foul a jump-shooter on a three-point try. Even though he had blown the call, Shields assumed the posture that used to drive WCC fans crazy when it was exhibited by former referee Ken Ditty: he puffed out his chest and seemed to stare down Gael Coach Randy Bennett while gesturing forcefully that Rahon had committed the foul. It was the attitude as much as the blown call that enraged Gael fans, just as Ditty used to do.
Brownridge made two free throws, cutting the lead to 55-44, but Bennett was beside himself over Landale’s several minutes of boneheadedness and he replaced Landale with Fitzner. Fitzner rewarded Bennett’s confidence in him by losing Ndumanya on a switch and allowing the big man to score on a bunny of his own. Landale went back in and Fitzner avoided Bennett’s gaze as he returned to the bench.
Landale was still nonplussed, either by Ndumanya or life in general, as he proceded to commit two unnecessary fouls, then miss two free throws when he himself was fouled. Back to the bench, Jock, but this time Fitzner rose to the occasion. After Brownridge sank his second three-pointer of the game to close the gap to 55-50 with six minutes left, Fitzner hit a crucial three-pointer to push the lead back to eight.
Rahon strikes back
Calvin Hermanson, who had a quiet night of 13 points following five superb games in a row, hit another clutch three-pointer a little later to give the Gaels the cushion to ride out the victory. All that was left of drama fell to Rahon, who enjoyed a delicious moment of revenge on the referees.
With little more than a minute left and Santa Clara pressing aggressively, Rahon was cut off on the sideline by Brownridge and the ball dribbled out of bounds. The referee, not Shields unfortunately, called it out on Rahon and awarded the possession to Santa Clara. Rahon didn’t bat an eye, but instead made a circling motion with his finger that called for a review of the play, which is allowed in the final two minutes of a game.
A replay showed that Rahon was right and the referee wrong, and the call was reversed. So, to cap off a night when he played all 40 minutes, shut down one of the most prolific shooters in the nation and chipped in two crucial three-pointers of his own along with five assists, Rahon assumed the duties of game referee. And did it better than the professionals had done.
Emmett Naar (left above) and Joe Rahon didn’t wear bow ties to Santa Clara Saturday night, but they hog-tied Santa Clara’s high-scoring back court to key a hard-fought road win. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.