by Michael Vernetti
UC-Irvine Coach Russell Turner is a proud man with an outstanding eight-season reign with the Anteaters, winning 114 games over the past five seasons and going to some sort of post-season tournament in each of those years (CIT, NIT, NCAA). It can be expected that he did not enjoy the 84-53 pasting Saint Mary’s put on his team last year in Moraga, when the Anteaters were rebuilding after losing four starters from the previous year’s team.
His resentment showed in the gritty play of his charges Saturday afternoon, when they fought their way to a seven-point loss, 73-66. The Gaels never led by double-digits, and found themselves trailing 40-37 with a little more than 13 minutes left in the second half. Irvine out-rebounded (36-32) and out-shot (48.1 per cent to 41.1 per cent) the Gaels, but couldn’t overcome another dazzling two-man show by the Gaels’ Jock Landale and Emmett Naar.
Landale posted 25 points and 10 rebounds, while Naar chipped in with seven assists and 15 points to give Saint Mary’s just enough lift for the win. Landale also fouled out two of Irvine’s big men, the 6-10, 280-lb. Brad Greene and the 6-9, 275-lb. Elston Jones, as Turner’s strategy was to throw as much size at Landale as he could muster. Also contributing to the attempt to slow down Landale was former Salesian High standout Jonathan Galloway, a 6-10 junior who is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in the Big West.
Landale withstood the bumps, hacks and shoves from these hearties to shoot 8-16 and dish out four assists. He also had a blocked shot, but did not stick around to sweep out the stands. His effort was particularly impressive because his usually dead-eyed support team of Naar, Tanner Krebs, Calvin Hermanson, Jordan Ford, Cullen Neal and Evan Fitzner went a combined 5-16 from three-point range.
The lack of outside shooting, which has plagued the Gaels periodically throughout the pre-conference season, was particularly telling at the start of each half. To open the game, Krebs missed two wide-open three-point attempts and Hermanson missed one, leaving the Gaels with a 7-6 lead at the 14-minute mark, a score that could have easily been 16-6 and might have altered the course of the game.
Opening the second half, the Gaels misfired on four straight three-point attempts and found themselves trailing 40-37. Hermanson recovered to make two big three-pointers in the second half to put the Gaels up by six at the 5:49 mark and by nine with just a few minutes left.
Sizing up the win
Gaels fans were not impressed by Irvine’s 4-8 record entering the game, nor were they thrilled by the narrow victory. But fans aren’t always the best judge of their team’s performance, and the mostly negative verdict of the Irvine game is a good example of that.
The Irvine guards, sophomore Evan Leonard out of Cerritos High School and Eyassu Worku from Los Alamitos, were prized recruits for Turner last year. Leonard, who has been leading the Anteaters in scoring this year with 10.5 PPG, averaged more than 22 PPG as a senior, and Worku was a McDonald’s All-American selection and Orange County’s Player of the Year. Another pain in the Gaels’ side, 6-5 junior forward John Edgar Jr., was first-team all-CIF and Player of the Year at Ayala High School in Chino Hills.
The twosome of Leonard and Worku went 10-21 for 23 points against various Gael defenders, mainly Ford and Naar, and, while less than stellar, that effort was not horrible either. Ford did fall into a bad habit of going under screens while guarding Worku, which left Worku free for a seven-point burst, including his only three-pointer of the night, in the second half. That earned Ford a seat on the bench where Bennett broke out the whiteboard to describe (one assumes) how good defensive players fight through screens.
Ford earned redemption on a key play late in the game, when he faced Leonard on a breakaway drive to the bucket. Ford maintained his position in front of Leonard, and earned a charging call for his effort. Turner almost went berserk over the foul, which did take away Irvine’s momentum, but it was not an obvious blown call. Leonard initiated contact with Ford and cleared some space to allow himself to bank in a runner, and various referees might or might not have called an offensive foul. But this one did, and the Gaels breathed a sigh of relief.
In sum, Turner has a good team developing at Irvine, and it would not be surprising to see it compete for honors in the wide-open Big West Conference against the likes of UC-Davis, Cal State-Fullerton, Hawaii, Long Beach State and UC-Santa Barbara. Because of the rugged trio of front-court players and excellent guard play, Irvine was an excellent test for the Gaels as they head into conference play a week from Thursday against Loyola Marymount.
The Gaels will ramp up activity next week to a conference-like two-games-a-week schedule, facing Dayton on Tuesday and UNC-Asheville on Friday. That will break them out of the pattern of week-long preparation they had for the Seattle and Irvine games, and should increase their energy and anticipation for the WCC challenge.
Bits and pieces
Some interesting sidelights from Saturday’s game:
Naar’s assist race. The Gaels’ Naar is in a tight contest with an old foe, UT-Arlington’s outstanding point guard Erick Neal, for the national lead in assists. Including the Irvine game, Naar has 98 assists compared to Neal’s 94, but Neal did not play in Arlington’s Saturday game due to personal reasons. Naar’s seven assists against Irvine dropped his average to 8.9 APG, while Neal was averaging 9.4 before this weekend.
However Neal’s failure to play affects the standings, Naar is still way ahead of every other guard in America with an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 4-to-1.
Fitzner/Krebs. It appeared the season-long competition between Evan Fitzner and Tanner Krebs for the starting power forward position had been decided in Krebs’ favor. The Irvine game was Krebs’ fourth in a row as starter, and it seemed he had solidified his position with a sensational, 23-point performance last week against Seattle.
Krebs bombed against Irvine, however, while Fitzner made several solid plays to help ensure the Gaels’ win. Krebs missed two wide-open three-point attempts in the early going against Irvine, and took some air out of the Gaels’ enthusiasm with another miss as the first-half clock ran out. Naar had set him up with a drive and dish that left him open at the top of the key, but he banged the shot off the front of the rim.
Gael Coach Randy Bennett wasted no time subbing Fitzner in for Krebs as he struggled, and Fitzner responded with one of the Gaels’ rare first-half three-pointers at the 4:22 mark. He followed up that shot with a good defensive effort against Irvine’s 6-8 forward Tommy Rutherford, forcing a wild shot as the shot clock expired. He later scored inside on Rutherford, giving the Irvine forward his fourth personal, and sinking the free throw for a three-point play.
Later in the second half, Fitzner missed on a drive, but recovered his miss and scored on a put-back to increase the Gaels’ lead to 68-59 with less than three minutes left. He capped his effort on the night by making a clean block that led to Hermanson’s final three-pointer that put the Gaels up by nine points.
There is little doubt that Bennett will start Krebs against Dayton, and Gaels fans will be rooting for him to put the Irvine goose-egg (0-4) behind him. But it is comforting to know that Fitzner remains capable of providing excellent minutes in reserve.
Gael center Jock Landale, fresh off being named national Player of the Week for his efforts against Sacramento State and Seattle, was back in beast mode against Irvine. Landale, shown above against Arizona in last year’s NCAA Tournament, registered a double-double against the Anteaters with 25 points and 10 rebounds. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.