by Michael Vernetti
Season prospects for the Saint Mary’s Gaels have changed dramatically after a two-loss weekend in the Wooden Legacy Tournament in Fullerton, CA.
Gone is the lofty (#21) national ranking; drastically narrowed is the Gaels’ path to the NCAA Tournament; smashed in a blizzard of three-point shots is their reputation as a strong defensive team.
By falling to eventual Wooden champion Washington State — a 93-86 winner over San Diego State in the title game — and SEC middle-of-the-pack contender Georgia by 83-81 in overtime Sunday afternoon, Saint Mary’s left itself some daunting prospects. With no other Top 100 foes on the schedule besides Gonzaga, the Gaels know their only viable way to get into the NCAA Tournament is by winning the WCC Tournament in March and wresting the WCC’s automatic bid from Gonzaga.
Gonzaga, the team that spent the same Thanksgiving weekend battling No. 7-ranked Florida in a double-overtime loss and beating Ohio State and Texas. Yeah, let’s tackle them for a ticket to March Madness.
But there is a lot of season left before March considerations enter the Gaels’ brains. For the present, they must figure out what kind of team they are going to be — a scoring juggernaut that can’t defend, or a tougher defensive squad that will battle for every stop and every rebound to salve their self-respect.
Coach Randy Bennett tried several different approaches in the losses to Washington State and Georgia, but couldn’t field players who could slow down three-point scorers. WSU’s Malachi Flynn, certainly a capable outside shooter, shredded Jordan Ford, Cullen Neal and Emmett Naar for 26 points; Tyree Crump, a backup sophomore guard for Georgia, scored a career-high 17 points, including two crucial jump shots in the final minutes after Bennett had substituted the 6-6 Tanner Krebs specifically to stop him.
Bennett even flirted with a front court of Jock Landale and Jordan Hunter for a few short stretches in the Georgia game, and it wasn’t bad. Hunter defended well inside, kept several possessions alive by swatting missed shots out to his teammates, and scored on a nifty feed from Landale. More importantly, Hunter avoided the excessive fouling that has kept him on the bench for most of the early season and gave a glimpse of a possible patch for a leaky interior defense.
Fitzner gets the nod
For most of the Georgia game, however, Bennett stuck with Evan Fitzner against Georgia’s consensus all-conference forward, Yante Maten. Playing by far his most minutes in the last two years, 42, Fitzner made Maten work for 16 points while scoring 14 himself. Whether Bennett’s decision to leave him in against the formidable Maten was because he believes Fitzner is the Gaels’ best option at the 4, or whether it was a desperation move after Kyle Clark re-injured his knee against Washington State, only time will tell.
After all the carnage wrought upon his defense, the dogged play of Fitzner and the promising play of Landale and Hunter together offered Bennett some hope for increased inside toughness. Ah, but what about the perimeter?
Naar was brilliant against Georgia, scoring 21 points and handing out nine assists, but was matched against the Bulldogs’ 6-4 junior, Turtle Jackson, who scored 15 points, including a crucial driving lay-up that tied the game at 71-all in the final seconds of regulation. On that play, Naar turned his ankle and couldn’t fight through a screen to stop Jackson, but he also gave up several buckets to Crump throughout the game.
The Bulldog back court combo of Jackson, Crump and Juwan Parker totaled 46 points against the Gael back court’s 24. That’s right, Naar’s back court companions, Ford and Neal, scored three points between them. Another Gael scoring threat, Calvin Hermanson, was limited to only three shots against Georgia, making two, but Hermanson held Georgia’s prized recruit, 6-8 forward Rayshaun Hammonds, to zero points in a stirring mano a mano battle.
It is a testament to the excellence of the two-man game between Naar and Landale, who scored 33 points while snagging 11 rebounds, that the Gaels were in the Georgia game at the end.
Which brings us to the end-of-game play and strategy, which was dodgy against Washington State and equally shaky against Georgia. After Crump’s most damaging three-pointer pushed Georgia ahead 81-77 with less than a minute to play in overtime, Naar answered with one of his 10 layups to bring the Gaels within two points at 81-79. Georgia, which had played Landale straight up throughout the night, finally fouled him on the low post, giving him a one-and-one opportunity to tie the game.
He missed the front end, forcing the Gaels to foul Jackson, who converted both free throws to put the Bulldogs up by four with fewer than five seconds left. Whether by strategy or by default, the Gaels wagered everything on a Fitzner three-point attempt, which missed. Landale followed with a meaningless put-back at the buzzer.
In crunch time against Washington State the day before, the Gaels pulled within three points of the Cougars, 80-77, on a Ford three-pointer with 47.3 seconds left. The Gaels then declined to foul, allowing the Cougars to work for a Robert Franks lay-up that put the game away
The Gaels were tested mightily in the Wooden Tournament. Whether those tests will make them better in the weeks to come is unknown.
Remember Calvin Hermanson, the Gaels leading three-point shooter at better than 43%? His teammates seemingly forgot him during the Wooden tournament, but the photo above from last season reminds Gael fans of what he can do when fully involved in the offense. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.