by Michael Vernetti
Comes now Saint Mary’s, fresh off a resounding victory over BYU, rising to 18th place in the coaches’ poll (20th in the AP Poll) and eyeing a WCC Tournament championship rematch with mighty Gonzaga.
Are the Gaels to be knocked off their perch — and robbed of their destiny — by the likes of Pepperdine this Thursday in Malibu or Santa Clara this Saturday in Moraga? Let’s consider the possibilities.
Regarding Pepperdine, the inclination is to say, “No way!” and point to dismal recent performances by the Waves: a 106-55 shellacking by Santa Clara last Thursday in Santa Clara and an 82-61 loss at Loyola Marymount on Saturday. Apparently deciding that guarding three-point shots is too draining for its depleted roster — three starters are injured — Pepperdine gave up a WCC-record-tying 22 three-pointers against Santa Clara and another 16 against LMU.
But…one can easily overlook the fact that Pepperdine was riding a three-game winning streak — including a 99-83 drubbing of BYU — heading into the Santa Clara game. In a hyperbolic burst of enthusiasm, the school’s promotional department called the Waves “the hottest squad in the WCC outside Gonzaga.” Seven minutes into the Santa Clara game, however, the Waves’ double-double machine, erstwhile Gael Chris Reyes, went down with an aggravated foot injury, and it may have been the straw that broke the Waves’ back.
The Waves were already short-handed, having lost starting two-guard Amadi Udenyi to an Achilles tear and promising sophomore forward Kameron Edwards to a jaw injury before the season began. Reyes had been a lifesaver for Pepperdine, routinely racking up double-doubles and following scoring machine Lamond Murray Jr. as the Waves’ second leading scorer. Reyes sat out the LMU game and his current status is “day to day.”
Reyes did not rattle the Gaels, who had recruited him out of high school but cut him loose after a redshirt season, in a Jan. 21 game in Moraga, as he scored only eight points following 13 straight double-double performances. Saint Mary’s cruised to an 85-65 win, withstanding a 29-point barrage by Murray.
Assuming Reyes is back for the Saturday rematch in Malibu, Pepperdine must be considered a potential headache, particularly after defeating the Gaels twice last season. Murray and senior point guard Jeremy Major comprise a potent one-two punch, and if Reyes is back and the Waves sense an opportunity to play spoiler, it could be an unpleasant evening in Malibu.
Realistically, however, I can’t see the Gaels allowing Pepperdine to upset them. Saint Mary’s should easily exploit Pepperdine’s weakness against the three-ball, and the Gaels’ three-headed post contingent of Jock Landale, Dane Pineau and Jordan Hunter should dominate the Waves’ Nate Gehring, Nolan Taylor and Reyes — if he plays. The Gaels are on a quest to sweep everyone in the WCC besides Gonzaga, and Pepperdine doesn’t seem the force to stop them.
Bucking the Broncos
As for Santa Clara, a reasonable question might be, “Which Bronco squad will show up?” After dropping 106 points on Pepperdine, Santa Clara entertained San Diego at the Leavey Center with the table set for a momentous evening. The Broncos knew Saint Mary’s was playing BYU on the same night, and knew that a win over San Diego coupled with a Saint Mary’s win would bring the Broncos even with BYU for third place in the WCC at 10-6.
And they lost, to a struggling San Diego team that had lost five in a row and six out of seven, including an embarrassing 71-27 loss to Saint Mary’s. It took two overtimes and a buzzer-beating jumper by Tyler Williams to do it, but San Diego beat Santa Clara 60-58. That puts Santa Clara in a tie with San Francisco for fourth place in the WCC at 9-7, and could make the Saint Mary’s game a battle for fourth with San Francisco or even a long shot bid for third place if BYU stumbles in its last two games — road contests at Portland and Gonzaga.
Despite the San Diego stumble, Santa Clara has two things going for it against the Gaels. First, they know the 72-59 Saint Mary’s win at Santa Clara on Jan. 28 was closer than it looked. And second, they don’t like Saint Mary’s very much and would love to be the squad that upset the Gael express heading to the WCC Tournament.
Under new coach Herb Sendek — new only to Santa Clara after a long career including stops at North Carolina State and Arizona State — the Broncos have weaned themselves away from over-reliance on brilliant shooting guard Jared Brownridge, and have emphasized an inside game featuring, primarily, Nate Kratch, and occasionally Emmanuel Ndumanya.
Ironically, Kratch has optimized his inside game by developing into a consistent three-point shooter as well. He was the star of the Broncos’ assault on Pepperdine, scoring 32 points, including 5-7 three-pointers. The Gaels learned of this expertise, apparently to their surprise, when they beat Santa Clara in January. Evidently disbelieving rumors of Kratch’s long-range ability, Gael defenders Pineau and Evan Fitzner left him alone and waved as his initial three-point attempts settled comfortably into the basket.
Before they began taking him seriously, Kratch had sunk three of five three-pointers en route to 19-point game in which he shot 9-12 overall. The Gaels, in the person of Joe Rahon, did not sleep on Brownridge, however, holding him to 13 points. Overall, the Gaels held Santa Clara to 6-22 on three-point attempts, so they probably won’t face a Pepperdine-like barrage.
In addition to the final stop on its push for a 16-2 conference record, Saturday night marks the final home appearance for Gael stalwarts Rahon and Pineau, with parents, flowers, photographs and maybe a few tears sharing the McKeon Pavilion floor. It is hard to conceive they would mar such an auspicious occasion by suffering a defeat by Santa Clara.
Gael fans are well aware of the brilliance of Joe Rahon, shown above in a game against Stanford last year, but they have their last chance to see him in Moraga on Saturday night against Santa Clara. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.