by Michael Vernetti
The Gaels played well. Really.
Fans may look at Thursday’s 74-70 win over Pacific in Stockton as a squeaker against a team with a poor record (8-16) — and it was. But there are squeakers and there are squeakers.
Saint Mary’s did not squander a big second-half lead through blunders, inattention or poor execution. They didn’t turn over the ball excessively (12 for the game); they got a massive game out of Jock Landale, which was a nice response to his second half swan dive against Santa Clara last Saturday.
And they had Joe Rahon when they needed him.
Tigers get hot, Gaels go cold
The factors contributing to Pacific’s 16-4 run that closed a 58-39 gap at the 12:43 mark to 62-55 at 6:40 were twofold: aggressiveness by Pacific on the offensive boards and a near-crippling inability of Saint Mary’s to make a three-pointer.
The run began innocently when Pacific executed a good play out of a time out: a down screen on the Gaels’ Dane Pineau to free Jack Williams for a long three-pointer. Williams, a 6-8 sophomore transfer from Long Beach State, didn’t play in the Gaels’ 62-50 win over Pacific in Moraga on Jan. 19, but was a factor on Thursday (eight points, nine rebounds). Even though Pineau recovered in time to get a hand in Williams’ face, Williams made the three-pointer to give Pacific a life at 58-44 (Pacific had made two free throws previously).
Pineau retaliated with a lay-up underneath on the Gaels’ next possession to make it 60-44, and the Gaels seemed back in control. They had widened a 41-34 halftime lead to 16 points, and were executing crisply. Landale, in particular, was a beast after the break, scoring 10 points in the first six minutes, several on thunderous dunks. He was not the timid, turnover-prone player from the Santa Clara game, who either couldn’t catch an entry pass or do anything with one when he caught it.
He had reverted to the mindset that I described, perhaps a bit indelicately, as “See basket, put ball in basket.” Little did the Gaels know, however, that Landale was finished offensively at the 14-minute mark.
The biggest factor in Pacific’s comeback was 6-4 junior guard D.J. Ursery. Gaels’ Coach Randy Bennett seemed unsure how to guard Ursery, switching between Calvin Hermanson and Tanner Krebs, but Ursery made two quick jumpers in the paint and a pair of free throws to close the gap to 60-50. He flummoxed the Gaels because of his elusiveness and ability to hit pull-up jumpers.
Three-point options disappears
The Gaels simply could not retaliate, missing three straight three-point attempts, two from a snake-bit Krebs, who ended up the night going 0-5 from the three-point stripe. Landale, suddenly denied entry to the basket from the paint, even stepped out to clank a three-pointer of his own.
During this period, Pacific did not shoot particularly well — 30% in the second half — but they kept possessions alive by tipping missed shots and keeping rebounds out of the hands of the Gaels’ usually greedy rebounders. Pacific’s leading scorer, T.J. Wallace — kept in check (5-15 shots made) by another excellent defensive effort by Rahon — cashed in on one extended possession to cut the lead to 60-55 with about seven minutes left.
On the ensuing possession Rahon was fouled with a one-and-one opportunity facing him, and Gaels fans probably were of two minds: “OMG, it’s Rahon, who shot only 54% last year!” Or, “Relax, this is the new and improved Rahon, who has upped his free throw percentage to 77% this year.”
The new and improved Rahon stepped confidently to the line and swished both attempts to give the Gaels some breathing room at 62-55. It was their first score in nearly six minutes. Rahon then cemented Player of the Game honors with a driving lay-up against a hard defensive effort from Wallace. Wallace fouled him on the shot, and then became embroiled in some extra-curricular pushing and shoving underneath the basket with Landale.
After an interminable video review by the referees, the decision was made to assess a technical foul against both Wallace and Landale, with no free throws coming to either. Rahon then stepped to the line and converted his free throw from the Wallace foul, and the Gaels were up 69-61 with 3:20 left.
The last three minutes were hardly a thing of beauty, as the Gaels rode 3-4 free throws by Naar (7-8 for the night) and another by Rahon to hold off Pacific. Gael guards had to call three time-outs in a row after one Pacific basket just to inbound the ball, then Rahon made a terrible pass to Jordan Ford, coming off the bench as he did against Santa Clara to add ball-handling expertise in the closing minutes. Ford barely got his hands on the ball as he fell out of bounds, but the scorekeeper ruled it a turnover against him instead of Rahon.
Because the Gaels left Pacific immediately for a quick trip to San Diego for Saturday’s game, it is unlikely that Bennett will have time to review tape of the Pacific game. If he did, he would undoubtedly concentrate on what went wrong on the defensive boards for his team. Pacific is not big, as 6-5 Anthony Townes logged most minutes in the paint, but they are quick off their feet. Although the Gaels dominated the boards by a 20-9 margin in the first half, Pacific reversed that to a 25-16 advantage in the second, to end just a little behind at 36-34.
Williams, Townes and Tonko Vuko were the leading boardsmen (20) for Pacific, with Vuko tipping in one perplexing miss with about five minutes left that cut the lead to 62-59, the smallest of the night. It was not lack of effort by Landale or Pineau down the stretch, it was a combination of Pacific’s interior quickness and some long bounces off missed threes that kept the ball out of their hands.
Bennett may also revisit his decision to keep Evan Fitzner glued to the bench in the second half — he logged only nine minutes on the night — especially considering the Gaels’ shooting woes. Fitzner canned his only three-point attempt in the first half, and he was dialed in on defense as well. Pineau’s tenaciousness and effort on defense seemed to sway Bennett more than Fitzner’s offensive promise, however, even when Pineau picked up his fourth personal foul. He stayed in to the end, and Fitzner will have to hope for greater opportunities against San Diego.
It’s becoming a frequent habit for the Gaels’ outstanding senior guard Joe Rahon — bailing out his teammates with stellar defensive and offensive efforts. His 14 points and six assists against Pacific were matched by a gritty defensive job on explosive Pacific guard T.J. Wallace. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.