by Michael Vernetti
Last March in the WCC championship game against Gonzaga, the Gaels’ Emmett Naar scored 25 points, dished out six assists and committed only two turnovers.
He drove the Zag bigs, Damontas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer, almost at will, and made two of five three-pointers to boot. At that point in the season, Naar was the dominant player on a 27-5 Saint Mary’s team.
Saturday afternoon, Naar went two for 11 for five points, and turned the ball over (four times) as often as he made assists. This is not to blame Naar for the Gaels’ lackluster effort in losing to Gonzaga 74-64 — believe me, he had plenty of help — but it does underscore some hard realities facing Saint Mary’s.
For one, the Zags’ current front court of Przemek Karnowski, Johnatnan Williams and subs Zach Collins and Killian Tillie, is superior to the Sabonis-Wiltjer combo. Naar attempted a couple of drives — at least probes — but backed out on most of them. The sheer bulk of Karnowski was too daunting, and either Williams or Collins was lurking as a secondary defender.
Secondly, the Gaels’ offense has changed dramatically since last year, when Jock Landale was a little-used substitute and Pineau, the dominant post option for the Gaels, was not a major factor — he attempted only three shots against Gonzaga in the championship game. Everything goes through Landale now, and that cuts off some opportunities for Naar and back court mate Joe Rahon to drive the lane.
That being said, the Gaels must face the reality that Naar is not nearly the force that he was last year. The extent — or the existence — of an injury to his left leg or knee has been discussed informally, but there has been no definitive news from the coaching staff. Nor will there be, if past experience is any guide.
Ford in their future?
A snapshot should not be used as evidence of a trend, but consider this vignette with less than a minute left in Saturday’s game when Jordan Ford was inserted into the lineup for the first time. Ford made a nifty move to elude the Zags’ Jordan Matthews, drove the baseline and drew attention from Collins. Ford dropped off a nifty pass to Landale, who went up for a dunk or lay-up. Collins, recovering too late, fouled Landale and Landale made both free throws to cut the Zags lead momentarily to eight points at 72-64. Unfortunately, there were only about 30 seconds left in the game.
That was only one play among scores throughout the game, but one couldn’t help wonder if some creative guard play might not be effective in breaking down the Zags’ front line. Gael Coach Randy Bennett has to decide whether he is going to stick with Naar no matter how little he contributes, or whether he is going to take a chance with the talented Ford. The Gaels cannot be thought of as serious challengers to Gonzaga in a potential WCC championship rematch with an ineffective Naar in the lineup.
The rest of the story
What to make of the Gaels’ overall play against Gonzaga? One is tempted to say they cut a 23-point pasting in Spokane to a 10-point loss in Moraga, and cite that as progress. It is true that Saint Mary’s limited the damage done by the Zag guards from 46 points in the first game to 32 on Saturday — and that is progress. But Karnowski scored at will during his 25 minutes on the court, scoring 19 points on 9-13 shooting. He had only nine points in the previous game.
And the Gaels continued to have no answer for Williams, the talented transfer from Missouri. Williams improved his 14-point total in the first game to 17 in the second, and more than anyone was responsible for the Gaels’ inability to get stops against the Zag offense. Calvin Hermanson and Dane Pineau were seemingly unable to decide whether to help out the Gael front line or stick with Williams or one of the guards Hermanson was guarding. Every time one or the other tried to double-team Karnowski or Collins, the ball would come out to Williams (or Josh Perkins or Silas Melson) and he would stick a jumper — he shot 7-9 in the game.
Indecision over one of the major strategic points of the game — how to play the Zag front court — typified the Gaels’ spasmodic play. After some preliminary skirmishing, Gonzaga reeled off 10 straight baskets to take a 2-2 game to 21-12 with about 13 minutes left in the first half. Karnowski did most of the damage with a variety of soft hooks and put-backs after gaining position over Landale. He had 10 of the Zags’ first 12 points, and Collins continued the assault when he relieved Karnowski. In nether of these possessions did Landale receive any help guarding Karnowski or Collins, other than some ineffective ball swipes from Hermanson.
To the Gaels’ credit, they refused to wither under this initial assault, and fought back to a 23-23 tie at the 9:24 mark. Then Zag Coach Mark Few made a strategic move that proved decisive throughout the game — he called time out. It is indicative of the Zags’ character that they came back from the few Gael runs with a vengeance. After the 23-23 tie, they went on a 17-2 tear to increase their margin to 40-25. Only a personal 6-0 run from Landale allowed the Gaels to go into the halftime break with some semblance of hope, trailing 40-31.
Second half blues
The second half was more of the same, with the Gaels constantly fighting back from large deficits, but never achieving the continuity needed to actually pressure the Zags. Some examples:
–Landale started the second half where he left off in the first, sinking a 15-foor jumper for his eighth straight point and cutting the lead to seven points. On the ensuing Zag possession, Pineau got caught helping out down low and left Williams wide open for an uncontested three-pointer. Instead of shrinking the lead, the Gaels allowed Gonzaga to increase it to 43-33.
— A little later, the Gaels made their only (somewhat) sustained push by getting some defensive stops: after a steal, Hermanson made a difficult pass to Naar in traffic and Naar converted the tough lay-up (his only score of the second half). After another stop, Hermanson finally sank a three-pointer — he was 1-5 from distance for the game — and the Gaels had cut the lead to 49-44 and given the crowd something to cheer about. Then Few called time-out.
The Zags rallied behind Nigel Williams-Goss, who was guarded more effectively by Rahon in this game than the first. Williams-Goss sank a floater in the lane, then a Rahon pass was intercepted, leading to a wide-open corner three by Melson to put the lead back up to 10, 54-44. There was more basketball to be played over the next 12 minutes, but Melson’s three-pointer essentially settled things.
One ensuing play epitomized the Gaels’ frustration Saturday afternoon. After the Zags’ Matthews helpfully missed two free throws, Williams grabbed the rebound between two Gaels and scored to push the lead to 58-45 with 10:40 left.
The play of Gael reserve post man Jordan Hunter deserves attention. As Landale, who was brilliant with 24 points and eight rebounds in 25 minutes, got in some foul trouble, Hunter provided stellar back-up. He scored seven points and grabbed four rebounds in 13 minutes of play, but more than that brought some energy to the game that his teammates strangely lacked. On one possession, he drove Collins, picking up a foul and converting two free throws to bring his team within nine points at 58-49.
The Gaels then gave up a floater in the paint by Melson to dull that initiative and put the Zags back in control. Landale sparked one more push with his best play of the game, a strong drive on Karnowski that resulted in a bucket and free throw to bring the Gaels within 10 at 64-54.
Naar then missed wide-open floaters in the paint on two successive possessions, and Pineau flubbed a pass from Naar that led to a Zag run-out and a Melson free throw. And so on and so on, throughout the remaining four minutes. Gonzaga showed a persistent inability to put away the game, but the Gaels just as consistently refused to capitalize — a missed bunny by Pineau off a Landale miss, missed corner three-pointers by Rahon and Naar and another errant pass by Rahon, who may have shown signs of fatigue for the first time in memory. When Rahon scored on a driving lay-up in the waning minutes, it was his only basket of the second half after a strong start — seven points in the first half.
That brought the total contribution from the Gael guards in the second half to four points on a lay-up each. The Gaels will beat no one of substance down the stretch with that kind of production.
Jock Landale made a heroic effort against Gonzaga, but his teammates offered little assistance in a 74-64 loss to the Zags on Saturday in Moraga. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.