by Michael Vernetti
It was Baylor all over again.
Just as in the 2010 Sweet 16 game, when Saint Mary’s laid a giant egg in Houston’s Reliant Stadium, losing 72-49 to a talented, athletic Baylor team, the Gaels fell flat in a big game in the WCC Tournament championship game in Las Vegas.
The 18-point loss to Gonzaga, 74-56, followed two dominating wins over Portland (81-58) and BYU (81-50). In 2010, the shellacking by Baylor followed two rousing wins at the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence, RI, over Richmond (80-71) and number-two seed Villanova (75-68).
The empty feeling in fans’ stomachs, the sense of incredulity, the shock were the same Tuesday night in Las Vegas as they were on that day in Houston seven years ago. How could this happen? What happened to my team? Will they even come out for the second half? These were questions roiling the scattering of Gael fans in the Gonzaga-fan-dominated Orleans Arena.
Given Coach Randy Bennett’s speechlessness in the opening minutes of the post-game news conference, one can imagine Bennett didn’t have a lot to say at halftime after his charges fell behind by 39-18. Maybe he remembered his words from 2010 when the halftime damage totaled 46-17, but in either case it was probably irrelevant. After complete meltdowns such as occurred in Houston and Las Vegas, it is up to the players to find whatever redemption they can.
It is to the Gaels’ credit that they mounted a 14-5 start to the second half, and kept up the pressure until the 10-minute mark when a three-pointer by Evan Fitzner brought them to within five points at 51-46. They had held Gonzaga to 12 points at that point, but the dam burst shortly thereafter as Gonzaga — led by the dynamic Nigel Williams-Goss — went on an 11-2 run to end any hopes of a dramatic comeback.
Outscoring Gonzaga 38-35 in the second half was small consolation to the Gaels considering their first-half incompetence. Ten turnovers and 21.4% field goal percentage (6-28) were the statistical lowlights, but one didn’t need to know any numbers to realize that Saint Mary’s was completely out-played from the opening tip-off. Although they battled the Zags’ valiantly on defense, their offensive malfeasance rendered defense excellence meaningless.
They couldn’t dribble, pass, catch or shoot, making one think they had expected a different team from the ruthless Gonzaga gang that was waiting to make them pay for every miscue. Zag rebounders pounced on the seemingly endless clunkers hoisted by Gael shooters and raced down court to capitalize. No defense can withstand such an onslaught from a talented team, and Saint Mary’s soon withered under the Zag attack.
Broncos did better
Watching the Gaels tie themselves into knots driving into the paint, finding no one open to receive a pass and either committing a shot clock violation or a turnover, one thought back on the effort made by Santa Clara against Gonzaga the night before. Santa Clara Coach Herb Sendek didn’t expect his undersized (Nate Kratch) and moderately-talented (Emmanuel Ndumanya) front court to butt heads with Zag stars Przemek Karnowski, Zach Collins and Johnathan Williams, so he devised a different strategy — isolating guards Jared Brownridge and Matt Hauser on the Gonzaga bigs. And it almost worked.
Brownridge was brilliant, scoring 32 points on 12-25 shooting. Hauser was less successful, scoring 13 points on 5-17 shooting, while Kratch chipped in with nine points on 4-9 shooting. The effect was to deny Gonzaga the opportunity to create momentum from blocked shots and to limit turnovers — the Broncos committed only five for the game. Although eventually unsuccessful, the 77-68 loss was a lot less disheartening to Santa Clara than the Gaels’ defeat was to them.
Saint Mary’s seemed flustered by the Zags’ defense, even though Tuesday night’s game was their third try against Gonzaga. Dane Pineau, a tiger on defense, was an almost total loss offensively (two points, 1-5 shooting). As the ball settled into his hands on rotation, the Zags sagged so far off Pineau looked lonely. Yet he refused to take the numerous open three-pointers they offered him, missing on two attempts.
Meanwhile, the Gaels’ brilliant three-point shooter, Evan Fitzner, spent most of the night on the bench. When he did get floor time (19 minutes), he connected on three of three long-range attempts. Bennett must resolve the season-long conflict between Pineau’s defense and Fitzner’s offense before the post-season begins, or the Gaels may face other offensive breakdowns.
Vegas as a whole
The Gonzaga disaster aside, Saint Mary’s did reach several of its goals during the WCC tournament. By throttling Portland and especially by dominating BYU, the Gaels took two opportunities away from skeptics who might have been looking for reasons to eliminate them from the NCAA Tournament. A 28-4 record with three of the losses coming to an outstanding Gonzaga team constitutes a commendable resume, better even than the 27-5 mark they offered the NCAA Selection Committee last year at this time (and which the committee not-so-politely rejected).
Saint Mary’s improved its out-of-conference schedule, winning road games against Dayton and Stanford and home games against two potential conference champions in Nevada of the Mountain West and UC Irvine of the Big West. Gonzaga solidified its claim to a one seed in the West Regional, and the Gaels were the runner-up to them in the WCC. Bennett should get some more opportunities to unstick his sometimes-grindy (his word) offense in the NCAA Tournament.
The Gaels probably won’t schedule a fan-watching ceremony for Selection Sunday on March 12, but the televised presentation of the tournament brackets should help remove the bitter taste from the Gonzaga defeat.
Evan Fitzner, shown above in a game from last year, seemed like an antidote to Gonzaga’s shutdown of in-the-paint opportunities, but he played only 19 minutes against the Zags, sinking all three three-pointers he attempted. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.