by Michael Vernetti
The prevailing point of view concerning Saint Mary’s 74-64 overtime win over BYU Saturday afternoon in Provo was, “Gritty Gael effort overcomes suddenly aroused BYU defense to win big road game.”
I’m okay with the “gritty Gael effort” part, but I’m not sold on the BYU defensive renaissance. There is no question BYU is selling this idea, as could be learned from the ESPNU broadcasting team of former Maryland star Adrian Branch and Some Other Guy. Whenever a team hosts a TV crew there is ample opportunity for peddling snake oil. Branch and his sidekick were obviously sold on the idea that BYU got religion after Saint Mary’s waxed them 81-50 in last year’s WCC Tournament.
Much was made of the 2017 hire of Heath Schroyer, a former assistant to BYU Coach Dave Rose from 1997-2001, who has also served as head coach at Wyoming, Portland State and Tennessee-Martin and as an assistant at North Carolina State last year. Schroyer is known for his intensity and belief in tenacious defense, and his effect on BYU this year has been a frequent topic of media coverage.
Fine. It’s a good idea to bring in new blood, especially with a team like BYU, which has been declining and suffered the premature loss of two of its stars from last year — Eric Mica to pro ball somewhere and Nick Emery to fatherhood (it’s a long story). But, after two reviews of the Saint Mary’s-BYU game I’m still not convinced that BYU is all that tough defensively. Slower and more deliberate on offense, absolutely, but let’s look for evidence of greater defensive prowess.
Gaels can’t shoot
One explanation for BYU’s two runs that put them ahead by eight points in each half was wretched Saint Mary’s shooting. Ah, but were the Gaels just lousy from the floor or did BYU defense them into 3-13 (23%) three-point shooting in the first half and a respectable but not scintillating 4-11 (36%) in the second?
Evidence shows the Gaels defended themselves better than BYU did.
Saint Mary’s started the game with three-point misses by wide-open shooters Jordan Ford, Tanner Krebs and Calvin Hermanson, before Krebs drained one. In all four cases, the shooters worked themselves open with ease and faced no apparent Herculean effort by BYU defenders to stop them.
After the Krebs make, Hermanson and Ford each missed additional wide-open three-pointers and Emmett Naar missed another. Krebs ended a 12-0 BYU run that brought them from 21-19 down to 29-21 up with his second made three-pointer with about three minutes left in the half. Pressing their advantage as they often do to break an opponent’s momentum, the Gaels worked Ford free for another three-pointer that would have narrowed the BYU lead to 29-27.
Ford again missed a wide-open shot.
BYU did have some good minutes on defense during its run. Payton Dastrup, the 6-10 former Ohio State commit who played sparingly in support Mica last year, stole a lame entry pass by Evan Fitzner, then blocked a shot under the bucket by Jordan Hunter, who had replaced Jock Landale after Landale carried the Gaels’ offense throughout the first half. Showing he could defend against the first team, Daystrup a little later blocked a Landale effort.
But even during that run, the Gaels helped out BYU with careless dribbling and a boneheaded play by Hunter on defense. Both Naar and Ford coughed up the ball after decent pressure from BYU’s TJ Haws. Hunter then left BYU’s star, Yoeli Childs, to pick up a BYU guard who had juked Naar, and the BYU guard tossed a pass to Childs for the easy stuff. Cue Landale to get off the bench.
Krebs’ run-ending three-pointer and another by Cullen Neal as the first-half clock wound down gave the Gaels some momentum going into the locker room down by only 31-29. They failed to capitalize after the break, however, and the reason again was poor three-point shooting.
Krebs persistent, but misfiring
Whether Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett thought it was necessary to keep Krebs’ confidence up after his rocky first half, or Krebs just took things into his own hands, the result was disastrous. After Hermanson missed a three-pointer of his own, Krebs tossed up three in a row — clink, clank, clunk — and the Gaels were on their way to another eight-point deficit, 38-30. At that point, Saint Mary’s was 0-6 from the floor, scoring only on a Landale free throw in the first four minutes of the second half.
Putting aside the Krebs experiment, Naar and Landale took over and began whittling away at the BYU lead. Landale scored inside to cut the lead to 40-34, then BYU lost track of Hermanson on the next possession. Left alone in his favorite short corner, Hermanson sank a corner trey at the 13:37 mark to bring the Gaels within three points, 40-37.
Naar kept the momentum going by sinking a crucial three-pointer to bring the Gaels within one point, 50-49, at the 7:23 mark. Seemingly on the brink of a run that would put them in control, the Gaels still couldn’t shoot straight, as Krebs incredibly missed his fourth in a row and Ford matched him in futility. Only a key contribution from erstwhile starter Evan Fitzner kept the Gaels on track as the game wound to a close — Fitz tossed in a three-pointer with a defender actually guarding him to cut a six-point deficit to three, 55-52.
As if to show he can still be relevant despite giving up his starting job to Krebs, Fitzner nailed another gut-check jumper a little later to give Saint Mary’s the lead at 56-55. Fitz wasn’t the only Gael to make the trip from dog house to penthouse, as none other than the embattled Krebs sank a three-pointer at the 1:39 mark to give the Gaels a 60-58 lead. One can only speculate about the gumption, confidence or just plain stubbornness that led Krebs to take that shot, but the Gaels were glad he did.
Rolling in OT
The Gaels finally assumed control of the game in overtime after Hermanson missed a three-point attempt at the end of regulation with the score tied 60-60. With Landale rolling relentlessly toward 31 points (to go with 13 rebounds) and Naar and Hermanson chipping in three-pointers, the Gaels went on an 8-0 run of their own and coasted to a 10-point win. Piece of cake.
The BYU game reminded me of the lackluster Sacramento State win (70-54) on Dec. 4 in that Landale had to carry almost all the Gael scoring load — 37 points against Sac State, 31 against BYU. No one was talking about Sac State’s great defense in that one, and I don’t think BYU has much to hang its hat on after Saturday’s loss to the Gaels. Saint Mary’s is vulnerable to scoring droughts, and is just as susceptible to them at home as on the road. Find an answer to that one and Bennett will rest easier this season.
Evan Fitzner, shown above from earlier in the season when he was a starter, came up big in reserve against BYU with seven clutch points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.