by Michael Vernetti
The conventional wisdom regarding Saint Mary’s 69-54 win over Dayton Tuesday night was that the Gaels overcame a disappointing first-half deficit and cruised to a 15-point win on the strength of an overpowering second half.
Fair enough considering a first-half score of 31-29 Dayton compared with a second-half score of 40-23 Saint Mary’s. But I had a feeling that the Gaels’ win was inevitable, and that Dayton was just buying time with a combination of opportunistic three-point shooting and dubious Gael defensive strategy.
Case in point: Dayton guard Jordan Davis, not to be confused with putative team leader Darrell Davis, drilled three three-pointers in the first half and was never heard from thereafter. On each of those shots the Gael guarding Davis sloughed way off him and basically dared him to shoot. Bad scouting report. The same thing happened on a three-point bucket by John Crosby — nary a Gael in sight.
That’s 12 points the Gaels conceded the Flyers out of some mistaken theory that the shooters in question were not capable. Like Davis, Crosby was not heard from after the Gaels re-thought their strategy.
The 11-point run the Flyers made to go from trailing 13-9 to leading 20-13 was also a combination of opportunistic play and favorable bounces. On a woefully off-target three-point attempt by Dayton, the rebound fell into the hands of Dayton star Josh Cunningham, who scored a put-back and a free throw. When the Gaels’ Emmett Naar misfired on a three-point attempt a few seconds later, the long rebound fell into the eager hands of the Flyers’ Jalen Crutcher, who scored on a nifty Euro-step drive to the hoop. Crutcher would have reason to savor that moment given what was in store for him the rest of the night.
The Flyers’ spurt of success was ended with a pair of driving runners by Naar, which pulled the Gaels to 20-17. When Tanner Krebs sank a three-pointer at the 1:33 mark, the deficit sank to 28-27 and the Gaels seemed back in charge. Only Davis’ third three-pointer — again sparked by a Gael guard sloughing off — gave Dayton the half-time edge.
The halftime report
That Dayton’s halftime lead was tenuous was evident from the fact that Jock Landale was all but invisible in the first half, scoring only two points. Furthermore, three-point ace Calvin Hermanson was 0-5, and the team made only 3-12 three-point attempts. Cue the second-half adjustment
The Gaels went inside to Landale for a dunk on their first possession, then repeated the tactic only to have Landale’s second dunk negated by a foul before the shot. Hermanson sank his first three-pointer to put Saint Mary’s up 34-31, then the Gaels turned up the defensive pressure. Jordan Ford, who had carried the Gaels early by scoring 10 of his team’s first 13 points, raced down court to strip Crutcher on a run-out to an apparent lay-up. Landale then stuffed a Cunningham shot at the hoop, and scored on the other end off a feed from Naar.
Landale repeated his dominance over the badly-outsized Cunningham — he’s just 6-7 — with another inside score, and the Gaels went up 38-33. Dayton went 1-7 during this stretch, and the template for the second half was set. One of the defensive heroes was Hermanson, who shut down the Flyers’ leading scorer, Darrell Davis, an 18-point-per-game leader heading into the Saint Mary’s game. Davis’ line for the night: 0-11, no points scored and only the prospect of seeing Hermanson’s no. 24 jersey in his nightmares as a memory of Moraga. Plus, Calvin sank four three-pointers after his scoreless first half en route to a 17-point performance.
Ford was also magnificent on defense, cutting off any chance Crutcher may have had to penetrate the key. Ford looked as if he owned Crutcher in the second half, and, indeed, Crutcher was 1-6 on the night, his only goal being the lay-up off a run-out. Ford scored 16 on 6-10 shooting, bringing the Gaels’ scoring advantage over two of Dayton’s best players to 33-2.
The beat went on until the Gaels’ reached an 18-point lead, 66-48, with 2:30 left. The rest was a mop-up operation, and Saint Mary’s seems to be peaking as the WCC season looms next week. They will finish up the pre-conference phase of 2017-18 on Friday against UNC-Asheville, then prepare for a difficult week with Loyola Marymount at home next Thursday, then BYU in Provo on Saturday.
What does it mean?
Much of the commentary after the Dayton game was that the Gaels stepped up against a quality opponent, but I’m not so sure about Dayton’s excellence. The Flyers are 4-6 on the season, and I wonder where consistent scoring is going to come from. Cunningham was the Atlantic-10 Player of the Week last week following a 29-point effort against Georgia State, and my reaction was, Georgia State? Cunningham is awfully small to be the team’s leading inside threat, and Xeyrius Williams, although taller at 6-9, is skinny and likes to shoot from outside. Cunningham and Williams had only nine rebounds between them, while Landale had 11 of his own.
Darrell Davis will likely not face a defender as rugged as Hermanson too many times this season, but he did not respond like a team leader. Hermanson’s persistent pressure seemed to spook him, and that is not a reaction you want from your designated top scorer. Same for Crutcher against Ford.
This is not to berate Dayton, which has an excellent history and may be finding its way this season under first-year coach Anthony Grant, late of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder and a former head coach at Alabama. Grant succeeds Dayton legend Archie Miller, who bolted to Indiana of the Big 10 after six successful season at Dayton, including an Elite eight appearance in 2014.
Th point is to gauge where the Gaels are in their development, which has been intermittent. Saint Mary’s has a chance to enter WCC play at 11-2, which is just one game off last year’s stellar performance. Are they ready to challenge Gonzaga for the WCC title? They are getting better defensively, having held two of their last four opponents under 60 points, and surrendering only 63 points to a high-scoring California team. Rugged defense was the hallmark of last year’s 29-5 squad, and if the Gaels are approaching that level the road ahead could be eventful.
The question is whether Dayton was a true test or just another pre-conference win.
Bits and pieces
Here are some interesting sidelights from the Dayton game:
Neal’s star turn: Although overshadowed by other events of the night, Cullen Neal’s solid contribution resonated with his teammates, who are clearly rooting for the former New Mexico and Mississippi star to find his way with the Gaels. Neal rattled home a three-pointer at the five-minute mark to give Saint Mary’s its first 10-point lead, then tossed a perfect alley-oop pass to Landale for a thunderous dunk. He followed up with a driving runner against intense pressure, and the Gaels coasted to the finish.
More than his seven points and assist, the fact that Neal made a positive contribution seemed to enliven him. He was relishing the ribbing and praise from his teammates at game’s end, and enjoyed his best night as a Gael so far.
Greek Freak II: Dayton’s redshirt freshman, Kostas Antetokounmpo, draws attention because of his skinny frame — 6-10, 197 lbs. — and his lineage as the brother of NBA star Ioannis, aka the Greek Freak. Little brother started strongly, sinking a fade-away jumper on his first attempt, then driving the lane for a bucket over Gael reserve Jordan Hunter. He was 0-3 on three-point attempts, however, turned the ball over twice and eventually fouled out.
Freak II is a raw talent, and may come along enough to give Dayton another scoring option. With he and Williams on the court at the same time, Dayton has a pair of long, thin bigs who can disrupt opponent offenses and score. The Freak’s development is just one of the puzzle pieces that Grant must figure out if this Dayton team is going to challenge for the Atlantic-10 title.
Jordan Ford, shown above sinking a three-pointer against Dayton, carried the Gaels offense early on, and played tough defense throughout the game. Ford totaled 16 points on 6-10 shooting, including 2-4 from three-point range. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.