A fine line

by Michael Vernetti

The conventional wisdom following Arizona’s 69-60 win over Saint Mary’s Saturday in the second-round NCAA Tournament game is that the result was inevitable: Arizona is too big, too deep and too athletic not to triumph over Randy Bennett’s overachieving Gaels.

There is no denying that the Wildcats’ one-two punch on the front line, twin 7-footers Lauri Markkanen and Dusan Ristic, and their guard corps of Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins and Kadeem Allen gave the Gaels fits: Markkanen and Ristic totaled 29 points and 13 rebounds to 24 and 15 for Saint Mary’s Jock Landale and Dane Pineau, while the guard threesome scored 32 points against eight points for Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon.

That’s a definite advantage, especially in the back court where Rahon and Naar’s smaller size was mismatched against the sturdy Alkins, Adams and Trier. But still…

Even with Trier coming alive in the second half after sulking his way through the first, scoring all 14 points after the break, and even though Markkanen seemed to live at the foul line in the second half (9-10 free throws), the Gaels never wilted. It was inevitable that the dizzying 10-point lead Saint Mary’s achieved twice in the first half — at 22-12 and at 24-14 — was going to come under attack.

This was never going to be anything but a dog fight down the stretch, and a close look at several late-game turning points shows the Gaels were close to pulling off a stunning upset. The first came at the 12:36 mark, with the Gaels ahead 44-42 after a Pineau lay-up from a Rahon dime.

Rahon boo-boo

The Gaels got a stop, and Rahon was confidently bringing the ball up-court with an eye to increasing the advantage. Rahon then got sloppy, leaving a dribble-pass for Calvin Hermanson to retrieve. Rahon and Naar make that type of exchange often during games and it usually goes off without a hitch. But Hermanson is a forward, not a guard, and he seemed confused by Rahon’s move, allowing Arizona’s Allen to scoop up the ball and sprint down court for a slam to tie it at 44.

Rahon, who was his usual brilliant self in directing the Gaels throughout the game  (eight assists, three turnovers) didn’t sulk, penetrating the paint for a lay-up to put the Gaels back up 46-44. Crisis averted.

The next several minutes went to the Wildcats, as Trier suddenly came alive with a three-pointer, a two-pointer and a pair of free throws to give Arizona a 51-46 lead. It was another opportunity for the Gaels to wilt, but Hermanson made a strong drive into the paint and sank a contested lay-up to break the Arizona run.

When Arizona continued to press its advantage with a lay-up by Alkins and another Trier jumper, Landale answered with a tough move in the paint to cut the margin to 55-52 with about six minutes left. Then came another turning point.

The Wildcats tossed the ball into Ristic, with Landale pressing him. Ristic made a power move over his left shoulder and caught Landale in the nose with that shoulder. Ristic made the bucket and the refs called a foul on Landale, giving Ristic a three-point play at a crucial moment. Gael fans undoubtedly groused among themselves that Landale was called for fouling Ristic with his nose, but he was actually called for having both arms draped around Ristic before he made his move. It was a legitimate call.

That could have been a momentum-changer that paved the way for Arizona to put the game away with less than five minutes left. But Tanner Krebs had other ideas, sinking a three-pointer at the 4:01 mark to pull the Gaels back into contention at 58-55. Krebs was brilliant throughout the game, just as he was on Thursday against Virginia Commonwealth, scoring 12 points on 4-6 shooting, including 3-5 on three-pointers.

When Arizona opened the lead to 63-55, the Gaels again staved off disaster, this time with an Evan Fitzner cut into the lane to convert a Landale dime for his only score of the game. It was a  big one, giving the Gaels life at 63-57. With just under two minutes left, Hermanson pressed the Gaels’ advantage with a three-pointer to cut the lead to 65-60 and provide Saint Mary’s with momentum. Then came the crusher.

What could have been

Rahon made what could have been the play of the game with less than two minutes left on the clock, swiping the ball from an Arizona guard and sprinting down court with a chance to cut the lead to two or three points. Rahon had botched a transition opportunity in the first half by making a sloppy alley oop pass that the Arizona defender intercepted, but he wasn’t going to make that mistake again.

Rahon pulled up and fired the ball back to the trailing Krebs, who had set up at the three-point line for what Gael fans have affectionately come to know as an Aussie lay-up (think Matthew Dellavedova or Clint Steindl converting countless three-pointers off transition). Krebs was wide open and had made three of four previous three-pointers, but he was off on this one and the Gaels lost a glorious opportunity to cut the lead to 65-63 and put serious pressure on Arizona.

The Wildcats then caught an enormous break courtesy of the refs, who seemed disposed to protect Arizona from any possibility of a foul — the Wildcats shot 23 free throws to eight for the Gaels. Jordan Hunter had entered the game to give the Gaels a fresh pair of legs on rebounds, and he was shoved in the back in the scramble to corral Krebs’ missed shot. Hunter tumbled into another Arizona player and the referee blew his whistle to signal a  foul on Hunter.

It was a stunningly bad call, and sent Trier to the line for a pair of free throws to extend the Arizona lead. A sequence that could have ended with the Gaels trailing 65-63 instead saw Arizona increase its lead to 67-60, two off the final margin.

Looking ahead

So, the Gaels opportunity to advance to the Sweet Sixteen failed, but it would be a mistake to label the 2016-17 season anything other than a smashing success. Saint Mary’s improved last year’s glittering 29-6 record to 29-5, and suffered four losses to top-10 opponents Gonzaga and Arizona. No Pepperdine slip-ups this year, and Bennett could say as he likes to do that his team didn’t lose any games it should have won.

The Gaels return four starters next year (Pineau was not officially a starter, although he played far more minutes than the nominal starter, Fitzner), and have four outstanding prospects joining the roster: redshirts Elijah Thomas and Jock Perry and recruits Kristers Zoricks and Angus Glover. With Landale coming back as a probable pre-season all-American in the post, Bennett is poised to equal or exceed his success for another season.

Indeed, Bennett’s main challenge in the immediate future might be staving off a serious push by Cal-Berkeley alums and administrators to hire him to revive the sinking fortunes of Cal basketball. Sources are hinting strongly that Cal will open its wallet to lure Bennett from Moraga to Berkeley, and it seems probable that the 16-year Gael coach will at least listen to their arguments.

In the end, though, it is hard to see any major benefit from making the move, other than increasing his tax load with a giant paycheck. Saint Mary’s is loaded, Bennett should get his long-awaited training facilities with the renovation of McKeon Pavilion, and the Gaels have improved their reputation among hoops insiders. A comparable record next year should propel the Gaels into a four-seed or better in the NCAA Tournament, which will prevent a second-round match-up against a two-seed.

This is no time to give up on the Moraga experiment in disrupting expectations for small college hoops.

Jock Landale, shown above in an earlier game against Gonzaga, will be the undisputed leader of the Gaels in 2017-18. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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