by Michael Vernetti
Saint Mary’s breezed past the preliminary bout, but now comes the main event.
After throttling Loyola Marymount by 81-48 Thursday night in Moraga, the Gaels face BYU on Saturday in the decidedly unfriendly Marriott Center. BYU is in a familiar position heading into the last week of WCC play — stuck perilously close to irrelevance at 10-5, but unwilling to throw in the towel. They have mounted late-season runs in past years, and would consider a win over Saint Mary’s as, at least, vindication for a disappointing season.
For Randy Bennett’s Gaels, the agenda is different. After losing a chance to virtually guarantee an NCAA bid by beating Gonzaga last Saturday (L74-64), Saint Mary’s is looking to run the table straight through to the WCC championship game March 7 in Las Vegas. There they can expect to meet Gonzaga for a third time, and can hope to win an automatic NCAA bid by defeating them. Odds are, they would secure an at-large bid just by playing well in the championship match-up.
Step one was beating LMU, and there was reason to wonder how the Gaels would respond to the deflating Gonzaga loss amid the hoopla of facing the number one rated team in the country before the scrutiny of a nationwide audience.
They responded well.
Jock Landale got some shooting support that was lacking against Gonzaga, with Evan Fitzner, Calvin Hermanson and Tanner Krebs loosening up the LMU interior defense enough for Landale to dominate. He had 16 points by halftime, Fitzner had 13 and Krebs had seven in a two-minute stretch: he made four free throws after being fouled twice while shooting and sank his first three-pointer in five games to end an 0-16 streak from long distance.
Oddly enough, neither Landale nor Fitzner scored in the second half, but the point was moot since the Gaels kept up the defensive intensity that held LMU to its lowest point total of the season and a 38% shooting percentage. Bennett cleared his bench, with even Iron Man Joe Rahon taking a seat for the last five minutes or so. Jordan Ford got an extended run at the point for Saint Mary’s and acquitted himself well overall, sinking two three-pointers and coughing up the ball only once against a frantic LMU press. He had another turnover when the Lions’ Munis Tutu swiped the ball out of his hands after an inbound pass, but generally played smart and confidently with the ball in his hands.
There is clearly an undeclared competition between Ford and longtime star Emmett Naar for the back court position alongside Rahon. The minutes against LMU were distributed heavily in Narr’s favor, 27 to 13, but Bennett benched Naar with nearly six minutes left in the first half when he was ineffective. Before sitting down, Naar had missed two wide-open three-pointers and had not penetrated LMU’s interior defense.
In one stretch, he forced a pass inside to Landale that was intercepted, then made a halfhearted drive with the shot clock winding down that was easily defended by Steven Haney of LMU. Before Gael fans could even start up a demand to insert Ford, Bennett did just that. Naar converted a couple of lay-ups early in the second half, but as he did against Gonzaga, also missed two easy shots in the paint before Bennett benched him for Ford with about 12 minutes left. Ford stayed in the rest of the way.
It’s becoming apparent that there will be no miracle recovery by Naar, whether from an undisclosed injury or just a season-long funk. I have fallen for the “Naar is back” narrative, particularly against San Francisco on Jan. 26 (W66-46), when he had 18 points and six assists and looked like his old self. He has not replicated the energy and effectiveness he displayed in that game, however.
The Gaels’ next opponent after BYU is Pepperdine in Malibu, a game that was shaping up to be as contentious — or more — as BYU. Leading up to Thursday’s home encounter with Santa Clara, the Waves had won three in a row, including a 99-83 drubbing of BYU. It looked like a nightmare scenario for the Gaels — get past BYU on the road and then face a team that dropped nearly 100 points on the Cougars — also on the road.
Inexplicably, Santa Clara annihilated Pepperdine on Thursday, 106-55. I don’t know what is more remarkable about that result — that Santa Clara could score 105 in a single game, or that Pepperdine could play so poorly. Santa Clara made an astonishing 22 three-pointers (61%), with Nate Kratch leading the way with five three-pointers and 32 points overall.
The Santa Clara result may or may not affect Pepperdine’s effort against Saint Mary’s, but certainly coach Marty Wilson will try and rally his troops with memories of the Waves’ two victories over the Gaels last season — victories that may have been the key reason Saint Mary’s did not receive an NCAA at-large bid despite compiling a 27-5 record with two wins over Gonzaga before Selection Sunday.
If Pepperdine proves no more difficult than LMU, the Gaels are still not out of the woods. Their last home game of the season on Feb. 25 is against, you guessed it, the suddenly invigorated Santa Clara Broncos. Santa Clara coach Herb Sendek has survived some ups and downs, but has his team sitting at 9-6, one game behind BYU for third place in the WCC. If the Gaels knock off BYU on Saturday, Santa Clara may be playing for undisputed possession of third place in the Feb. 25 encounter with the Gaels.
Happy end-of-season, Gaels.
It’s been a long time since Evan Fitzner (above in a game from last year) had a strong performance in his sophomore season, but he came up big against LMU with 13 points on 5-8 shooting in only 23 minutes. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.