by Michael Vernetti
As gratifying as was Saturday’s 70-56 win over Santa Clara, Saint Mary’s finds itself ensnared in the drama created by BYU’s shocking 79-71 win over Gonzaga in Spokane.
Last week in Provo, BYU was rendered nearly comatose by the totality of the Gaels’ 70-57 win. News reports indicated BYU was in shock, doubting itself and understandably worried about the rest of the 2016-17 season. Facing a hard charge by Santa Clara, BYU could envision losing its exclusive hold on third place in the WCC: Santa Clara had the opportunity to finish at 11-7 (wth a win over Saint Mary’s), which would match BYU’s record if, as expected, BYU lost at Gonzaga.
BYU coach Dave Rose is not often compared with Knute Rockne (or Slip Madigan) in the ranks of inspirational speakers, but either he rallied his troops or they found something within themselves. They bounced back from the Saint Mary’s defeat with a forceful 97-78 win over Portland Thursday and then downed Gonzaga for the third time in three years to end the Zags’ undefeated season and put themselves right back in the WCC Tournament picture.
As a third seed, BYU will face Saint Mary’s in the WCC semis next Monday, assuming both teams get past their opening-round games against conference bottom-feeders. For the Gaels, advancing to a championship showdown against Gonzaga on Tuesday night will mean defeating the suddenly-aroused BYU for the third time this season.
As the Gaels’ 85-75 loss to Gonzaga in last year’s WCC Championship indicates, beating good teams three times in the same season is not easy. So, the Gaels face not only a potential showdown with Gonzaga for their own shot of redemption, but another showdown against BYU. Got your tickets to Las Vegas?
About Santa Clara
The BYU-Gonzaga furor will drown out any accolades Saint Mary’s might have earned by compiling its best-ever record of 26-3 with the Santa Clara win. If the Gaels win at least two games in Las Vegas, someone will probably note that 28-4 is a pretty good record considering three of the four losses came from the number one team in the country. If they run the table in Vegas, astounded scribes will probably marvel that this undervalued team earned a fourth seed or better in the NCAA Tournament. Such is the lot of under-the-radar teams.
The Gaels were not about to let Santa Clara derail them on the way to Las Vegas, even though the Broncos had more riding on the outcome than Saint Mary’s. As noted, the Broncos came into Moraga hoping for an upset and a Gonzaga victory over BYU. That would have given first-year Santa Clara coach Herb Sendek a tremendous record of 17-14 and 11-7 in the WCC.
Just as they have in every game since losing to Gonzaga 74-64 on Feb. 11, however, Saint Mary’s ratcheted up the defense and scored just enough to win convincingly. They fought to a 41-29 halftime lead that presaged a 20-point-or better victory margin, but struggled through a poor second-half offensive performance (29 points) to win by 14.
The most encouraging sign for the Gaels was the inspired play of up-and-down guard Emmett Naar. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but we might have witnessed a turning point with Naar’s performance. He led the team in scoring in the first half, going 4-4 from the floor and missing out on an additional three-pointer because of a bone-headed moving screen by Jock Landale. This wasn’t one of Landale’s occasional slightly-too-hard bumps on a screen — he wiped out the Santa Clara defender to enable Naar to get off the shot.
Undeterred, Naar came right back on the next possession and buried a three-pointer without interference from Landale. Of his 11 first-half points, however, a drive at the seven-minute mark was the most spectacular, perhaps his best move of the season. Driving against the Broncos’ 6-8 Nate Kratch, Naar made a cross-over move and finished with his left hand. It was the kind of play we saw over and over again from Naar last year but that has been missing for most of the current season.
Second half blues
Naar slowed down in the second half to finish with 13 points and four assists, but he was joined by most of his teammates. After a promising start by dropping a dime on Dane Pineau for a bunny on the Gaels’ first possession, Naar and his mates struggled through seven straight possessions without a basket. The slump included such beauties as a Pineau travel, a Calvin Hermanson charge and two missed bunnies by Pineau. Landale mercifully ended the drought with a soft hook over Santa Clara big man Emmanuel Ndumanya for 45-33 lead.
Keeping Santa Clara from capitalizing on this dry spell was the Gaels’ now-expected crushing defense. Although Saint Mary’s only scored five points in the first eight minutes, Santa Clara scored only seven in nearly 11 minutes. Thus, the Gaels were up by 19 at that point, and extended it to 20 (62-42) on a Hermanson three-pointer with seven minutes left. The only drama down the stretch was Joe Rahon’s twisted knee with about 10 minutes left.
The ultra-competitive Rahon initially didn’t want to come out, although he was obviously in some pain and was limping noticeably. He finally removed himself, went to the locker room and let the suspense build. Less that two minutes later, Rahon came trotting out of the locker room, went right by the Gaels’ bench and coach Randy Bennett and presented himself at the scorers’ table.
It was vintage Rahon, combining swagger with the knowledge that his status with Bennett doesn’t include quibbling over such things as whether to go back into the game or not. He played a few more minutes before heading to the bench one last time, capping a spectacular two-year run in Moraga that included 55 wins and counting. There was no official word on his condition, but no Gael fan in the land expects Rahon to miss any action in Las Vegas.
The WCC tournament
The Gaels begin WCC Tournamnt play next Saturday, March 4, with a 9 p.m. game against the winner of the San Diego-Portland game — a toss-up if there ever was one. BYU and Gonzaga precede the Gaels with contests against Loyola Marymount for BYU and the Pepperdine/Pacific winner for Gonzaga. It would be a shock, indeed, if any of these games knocked out Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga or BYU.
The action then resumes on Monday the 6th, allowing for the required Sunday day-off in deference to BYU. Gonzaga, by virtue of its number-one seeding, has the better match-up against the winner between Santa Clara and San Francisco, while the Gaels will meet BYU.
There is no telling how much BYU’s win over Gonzaga will energize the Cougars, who have experienced not only doubt but harsh fan and pundit criticism over their six losses in WCC play (21-10 overall). Although it is hard to imagine LMU could upset BYU in the first-round game, the Gaels can only hope that the confidence they gained from defeating the Cougars decisively in two previous contests will propel them to the championship game.
Where all they’ll have to do is defeat a Gonzaga team smarting from the BYU loss that cost them their hopes for an undefeated season and, possibly, their number one national ranking. Piece of cake.
Emmett Naar, shown above in an earlier game, resembled his old self against Santa Clara, scoring 13 points and dishing out four assists. The Gaels will need him in top form to get through the upcoming WCC Tournament successfully. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.