by Michael Vernetti
It was cloud cuckoo land in the WCC Saturday night.
With Jock Landale present mostly as an observer, Saint Mary’s relentlessly plowed to a 69-44 lead over BYU in Provo before relaxing for the last seven minutes on the way to a 70-57 win.
Meanwhile, Santa Clara celebrated its momentous 106-55 destruction of Pepperdine on Thursday by succumbing to San Diego 60-58 in two overtimes. That’s right, the Broncos struggled to score 58 points — 48 in regulation — two days after scoring 106. Consistency, thy name is not Santa Clara.
All the collapse cost Santa Clara was a tie with BYU for third place in the WCC. BYU fell to 10-6 with the loss to Saint Mary’s and the Broncos now sit at 9-7. They could have matched BYU at 10-6 with a win over mighty San Diego, losers of seven of eight coming into the Santa Clara contest. Go figure.
Back to our boys, who are now on track to complete the conference season at 16-2 if they can get past woeful Pepperdine in Malibu and erratic Santa Clara in Moraga. That would produce nice momentum for the WCC tournament March 2-7 in Las Vegas, where an opportunity for a third shot at undefeated Gonzaga awaits.
The drubbing of BYU was a big step in setting up the potential Gonzaga showdown. The Gaels did it not with their usual inside game built upon Landale, but with consistent three-point shooting by Calvin Hermanson, Evan Fitzner, Emmett Naar, Joe Rahon and Tanner Krebs, who combined for 10 three-pointers in 26 tries, and stifling defense.
Introducing Evan Fitzner
Hermanson was the overall star, as his four three-pointers and 17 total points more than compensated for a seven point, 14-minute effort by Landale. Close behind came Fitzner, whom coach Randy Bennett seems to have discovered in the last two games (28 points) after relegating him to semi-oblivion in favor of workhorse Dane Pineau. Fitzner made only 3-10 three-pointers, but his three driving lay-ups demonstrated great versatility and energized his teammates. Bennett noticed, too, as he left Fitzner on the floor for a Rahon-like 36 minutes.
As the game announcers pointed out, Fitzner this year had been averaging 10 minutes a game fewer than during his stellar freshman season, and his scoring had been almost halved from nearly 10 PPG to a little more than five. Bennett, seemingly realizing what fans and helpful critics have been pointing out all season, said afterwards, “We are a little different team with Fitzner out there and the way he spaces the floor.” Ya think?
Landale, perhaps bothered by the altitude in Provo or the raucous fans (or solar flares — who knows), was never in the game. He picked up two quick fouls on BYU star Eric Mika, was replaced by Pineau, who was as ineffective against Mika as Landale had been, then came back in to flub a pass to a cutting Naar. The best break the Gaels received in the game came when Landale went to the bench for good with about 12 minutes left in the first half.
Since Pineau also had two fouls, Bennett called on sophomore Jordan Hunter to man the post against Mika, and the difference was evident. Instead of playing Mika not to foul him as Landale had done — and picked up two fouls anyway — Hunter harassed the BYU big man. On one possession, Hunter swatted the ball out of Mika’s hands two times before Mika finally got off a closely-contested shot — and missed.
Soon after, Hunter was seemingly trapped under the basket by the BYU bigs, but managed to squeeze out a pass to Hermanson alone in the short corner. Hermanson converted the three-pointer for a 26-18 lead that demoralized the BYU fans for one of several times during the game.
After Hermanson sank his third three-pointer of the first half to push the Gaels’ lead to 29-23, there followed a series of Gael possessions in which Hunter played like a seasoned veteran. He spun around Mika for one score, then converted a beautiful pick and roll pass from Naar for another basket to give Saint Mary’s a double-digit lead at 36-26. It seemed nothing could stop Hunter until the referees took on the assignment.
Defending Mika well outside the restrictive circle that determines the difference between a block and a charge, Hunter was flattened as Mika made a move to the basket. Mika received the benefit of the doubt, and Hunter was called for a foul. A few minutes later, Mika and Hunter were battling for a rebound when he refs decided that Hunter’s actions deserved another foul — his third.
Although unfair to the Gaels’ emerging star, it mattered little in the big picture, as Hermanson was fouled by Yoeli Childs while attempting another three-pointer and sank all three free throws to give Saint Mary’s a 41-30 halftime lead. The Gaels had held on to, and increased, the nine-point lead they enjoyed when Landale went to the bench.
Second half blitz
Given a chance to redeem his first-half stumbles, Landale flubbed the first pass to him in the second. He then lost Mika on an out-of-bounds play and Mika converted an alley-oop. Fate was then unkind to the Gael big man who has been so instrumental to the team’s success this year, as Landale finally seemed to gain an advantage over Mika and scored a bunny in the paint. Ignoring the point of the restrictive circle, the referee called Landale for a charge on the shot because his and Mika’s bodies collided.
Not only was Landale well inside the restrictive circle, he was in the shadow of the basket when he went up for the shot. Incredulous, Landale pointed to the spot on the floor that he occupied before the contact with Mika, but it was in vain. Bennett yanked him with his third foul.
The Gaels shrugged off the setback, riding an opportune three-pointer by Rahon — his only attempt of the game — a tough lay-up by Hermanson against two BYU defenders and Fitzner’s first three-pointer of the game after several first-half misses. Pineau also started to gain ground on Mika, who started to wear down after carrying his team throughout the game.
Pineau defended Mika on two straight possessions, then forced a turnover and raced down court to receive a pass from Naar and convert a tough lay-up. That pushed the score to 60-40 with 10:39 left, and the nails were waiting for BYU’s coffin. After Landale made still another effort to have a positive impact on the game, he instead fouled Mika for the fourth time and went back to the bench.
It mattered little, as BYU was self-destructing from the impact of the Gael defense. One of the BYU spark plugs, Nick Emery, was held to four points on 2-10 shooting, and although high-scoring TJ Haws fared a little better with 11 points, it was not enough. When Fitzner drained the three-pointer that pushed the score to 69-44 with fewer than eight minutes left, the game was all but over.
“I haven’t seen Saint Mary’s play so well,” said dispirited ESPN announcer Adrian Branch, who obviously came to Provo to call a rousing BYU win and could barely hide his disappointment. At one point when Mika missed a free throw, Branch commented “Tough miss.” How is a blown free throw a “tough miss”? Were there blinding lights interfering with his vision? Was Hunter sending him evil thoughts?
Gaels on a roll
By holding BYU to its lowest score of the season, the Gaels completed a five-game stretch of holding opponents to 48, 41 and 27 points, marred only by the 74 they gave up against Gonzaga. The defense is clicking, and Bennett may have discovered some offensive spark by using Fitzner for extended minutes. If he adjusts his rotation to use Pineau solely as back-up to Landale — with Hunter available for emergency duty — that will clear the way for Fitzner to stay on the court long enough to do some good.
The other bugaboo facing the Gaels is the state of Naar’s play — and health. Although he scored on all three attempts in the first half — including a now-rare three-pointer — Naar was shut out in the second. He did a yeoman’s job guarding Emery, but can’t seem to muster the energy or physical strength to affect the game offensively — especially in the second half. Similar to the underused weapon represented by Fitzner, Bennett has the option of spelling Naar with Jordan Ford — but seems unwilling to utilize it.
It would seem that Ford had established himself with 13 solid minutes against Loyola Marymount Thursday night, but he didn’t get in against BYU until the final minute. At one point, Bennett kept Krebs on the floor as a guard alongside Rahon, but Naar still played for 37 minutes and Ford remained glued to the bench.
The Gaels have an opportunity to finish the season strong and give themselves a shot at an NCAA Tournament berth either by defeating Gonzaga for the automatic WCC bid or earning an at-large bid by dint of outstanding overall play. The resurgence of Fitzner in the past two games underscores the benefit of unlocking underused assets, and Gael fans hope that process continues with additional opportunities for Ford.
Calvin Hermanson, shown above in an earlier game, came up big against BYU, leading the Gaels in scoring with 17 points, including four three-pointers. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.