by Michael Vernetti
When the score went to 30-7 on Jordan Ford’s third straight three-pointer about halfway through the first half, Loyola Marymount Coach Mike Dunlap probably knew it was all over for his eager but out-manned troops. Saint Mary’s was on fire Thursday night in the WCC opener in Moraga, and it didn’t cool off until the whistle blew on an 87-59 romp.
Dunlap has had some contenders during his four years of trying to bring LMU back to its glory days, but this year’s team of six freshmen, four sophomores and a couple of transfers doesn’t seem close. The thought that crossed my mind watching LMU flounder against the Gaels was that the Lions, Pacific and Santa Clara are going to have a fight among themselves to stay out of the conference cellar (although Santa Clara did surprise Pepperdine — another cellar contender — with a 72-65 win Thursday after going 3-9 in the pre-conference slate and falling to 345 out of 348 DI men’s teams in the RPI).
Ford looked as if he could have handled LMU all by himself in the early going, adding a coast-to-coast lay-up, an assist on a Calvin Hermanson three-pointer and stifling defense on LMU’s scoring leader, James Batemon, to his three treys in the first 10 minutes. Gael Coach Randy Bennett may have shown some sympathy for Dunlap’s troops when he yanked Ford at that point in favor of Cullen Neal.
Neal responded by fouling LMU’s Jeffrey McClendon on a corner three-pointer and tossing a pass into the back-court in his first minutes on the floor, giving LMU a brief respite. It was back to the romp shortly thereafter, however, as Saint Mary’s rolled to a 44-18 halftime lead on 58% shooting, including 8-13 on three-pointers. As Emmett Naar and others became increasingly crafty in their dissection of the Lions, the Gaels totaled 13 assists on 16 made baskets.
Naar signaled that the Gaels weren’t going to let up as the second half got underway by flummoxing the Lions’ gigantic center, Mattias Markusson — he’s all of 7-3 — with a cruel pass. Weaving into and out of the paint in an effort to drop another dime on Gael center Jock Landale (Naar had eight assists on the night), Naar finally bounced a pass between Markusson’s long legs that Landale fielded and stuffed before the perplexed Swede could recover. Landale and Naar were each smiling as they retreated on defense with the crowd roaring and the slaughter continuing.
On a roll
The LMU win was the Gaels’ seventh straight, including a gritty 74-63 win at Cal, and the second in a row — following Friday’s 95-69 rout of UNC-Asheville — in which they looked every bit the juggernaut of last year. They are playing fast and loose, with Tanner Krebs growing more and more comfortable as the starting power forward and Ford emerging as a star as Naar’s back court partner.
Krebs scored only eight points in his 25 minutes on the floor against LMU, but he was very efficient — 3-5 from the floor, including the only three-pointer he attempted — and added four assists and another steal. He now has nine steals on the year, and gets his hands on balls in other ways that disrupt the opponents’ flow — defensive rebounds, for instance. He grabbed eight misses against LMU, and is now second on the Gaels with more than five rebounds per game.
Ford’s 17 points against LMU moved him to fourth place among Gael scorers at 9.5 per game, and he and Krebs (7.6 PPG) are just a few points shy of bringing all five Gael starters to a double-digit average. In addition, Ford’s three-point percentage (.488) is almost equal to his overall shooting (.495). Bennett continues to give Neal significant minutes in relief of Ford — 18 against LMU — but Ford is becoming increasingly difficult to pull off the floor.
Bennett was able to rest all his starters Thursday night, a welcome move in advance of a gigantic challenge at 1 p.m. Saturday in Provo. BYU warmed up for the Gaels by blasting Portland 69-45 Thursday, a game that showcased the Cougars’ new emphasis on better defense and a more controlled offensive pace with the departed Nick Emery out of the lineup.
Bruising sophomore front court presence Yoeli Childs had 26 points and guard Elijah Bryant, emerging from Emery’s shadow, had 22 in the Portland win. The usually high-scoring TJ Haws settled for eight points, as he is developing into a pace controller and offensive director for the new-look Cougars. BYU will be smarting after the Gaels swept them in all three encounters last year, and the Marriott Center will be its usual hospitable venue.
Saturday evening will be a good time to check the validity of the Gaels’ current high-flying performance.
Bits and pieces
A few other items of interest from Thursday night:
Thomas rolling: Redshirt freshman Elijah Thomas continues to gain floor time, and he continues to impress each time he is in. The highlight of his 14 minutes Thursday was a steal that led to a fast break in the second half. Thomas tossed the ball ahead to Neal, then raced down the court to receive a lob from Neal. The crowd came to its feet as Thomas effortlessly slammed home Neal’s pass.
Gael fans can look ahead to next season when Thomas may have a prominent role on a vastly different Gael team playing without long-time stalwarts Naar, Hermanson and Laandale. A possible lineup includes Thomas replacing Hermanson at the 3, transfer Malik Fitts at the 4 and newcomer Mattias Tass at center. Of course, holdover centers Jock Perry and Jordan Hunter will have a role on the front line as well.
Clark out: I had a chance to chat with injured forward Kyle Clark before the game. He is out for the season following surgery to repair the meniscus in his right knee. With the buoyant attitude that has marked his play for Saint Mary’s, Clark said he planned to take a redshirt this season and was looking forward to coming back next year.
Jordan Ford, shown above finishing off a coast-to-coast drive and lay-up, scored 17 points against LMU on 6-9 shooting, including 4-6 three-point attempts. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.