Back to normal

by Michael Vernetti

Saint Mary’s did just what it should have done in its 81-57 dissection of Santa Clara on the road Thursday: got separation early, defended stoutly and cruised to a 24-point win that could have easily been a 30-point blowout.

The tone of this one was set right off the bat, when Calvin Hermanson sank a corner three-pointer that eluded him — and his teammates — in a desultory 70-63 win over San Diego last Saturday in Moraga. The Gaels then forced a turnover and Hermanson found his partner in recent three-point futility, Tanner Krebs, for a  corner three-pointer of his own — bingo, a 2-4 deficit became an 8-4 lead in the blink of an eye.

Emphasizing how these early three-pointers energize Randy Bennett’s Gaels, they then worked Jock Landale for a right-hand hook shot in the paint over Santa Clara’s 6-10 Emmanuel Ndumanya, Krebs struck again from distance and Jordan Ford — another important Gael contributor who was forgotten in the San Diego game (10 minutes playing time) — drove Santa Clara’s Henry Caruso for a gritty lay-up.

The score was 15-6 in the Gaels’ favor at the 13:11 mark and Santa  Clara Coach Herb Sendek called timeout before things got any worse. It was already too late, however, as the Gaels had established all the elements of their offense — three-point shooting, Landale dominance underneath and guard penetration — and held Santa Clara to three buckets by an overworked KJ Feagin.

With all offensive elements clicking and their defense continuing the steady improvement it has shown during an 11-gaame winning streak, Saint Mary’s compiled the statistical superiority that indicates it is in a groove:

55.2% field goal shooting; 50% shooting (9-18) on three-pointers; held Santa Clara to 40% shooting; totaled 24 assists (11 of them by Emmett Naar) to only nine turnovers — all coming in the first half; and out-rebounded the Broncos 33-26.

The Gaels are in good shape to finish phase one of a two-week road schedule on Saturday night in Malibu, as they take on Pepperdine, winless in the WCC at 0-5. Then comes a road gantlet against Gonzaga and suddenly-aroused Pacific next week before they return home for a return engagement against BYU on Jan.25.

Ford and Fitzner shine

In the midst of the general team excellence demonstrated against Santa Clara, two Gaels who have been in the shadows lately emerged brightly. As mentioned, Ford barely registered a pulse against San Diego, taking only one shot and missing that in his brief appearance. Ford had suffered through an 0-8 three-point shooting slump in the two games preceding San Diego, and his early emergence as a capable stand-in for the departed Joe Rahon was beginning to come into question.

If Bennett’s benching of him during the San Diego game was a message, Ford clearly received it. He was excellent in defending Santa Clara’s only reliable weapon, Feagin, and went 3-4 from the field, including the only three-pointer he attempted, along with dishing out two assists and grabbing three steals.

Feagin ended up with 19 points to lead Santa Clara, but he did on 6-15 shooting and did most of his damage when other Gaels were guarding him.

Fitzner has a longer history of agony as a Gael than Ford, having endured periods of instant benching despite starting every game in his freshman and sophomore seasons and, more recently, being replaced in the starting lineup in favor of Krebs. He came into the Santa Clara game with less than four minutes gone in the second half when Hermanson used his chin to break a fall after a strong drive to the bucket.

Fitzner was Bennett’s choice to substitute for Hermanson on the free-throw line after Hermanson’s injury necessitated a trip to the training table for a couple of stitches. Before Fitzner could shoot, however, Bennett had to convince the officials that Hermanson actually shed blood with his face plant.

Apparently the rules state that if a player is bleeding, his coach can substitute anyone the coach chooses to take a free throw. If, however, there is no blood, the opposing team’s coach can choose the substitute free-throw shooter. It what looked like a scene from “There Will Be Blood,” Bennett had to get in the ref’s face and point to the spot on the floor where Hermanson’s blood was evident before Fitzner stepped to the free-throw line.

He made the shot.

Fitzner wasn’t finished affecting the outcome, however. Taking a pass from Landale — who had five assists to go along with 19 points and 10 rebounds — Fitzner sank a soft floater amidst a crowd in the paint and was fouled. He sank the free throw for his fourth point in less than two minutes.

A few possessions later, Fitzner backed down his defender and sank a soft left-handed hook to put the Gaels up 50-33 with less than 14 minutes remaining. There followed a runout by Ford after he and Krebs teamed up to strip Feagin, which resulted in Ford sinking one of two free throws, and then a corner three-pointer by Cullen Neal, who had come in for Ford.

Sendek called another time out as the score blossomed to 57-36, but it had about the same effect as the one in the first half. Game over, essentially.

On to Malibu, dude.

Jordan Ford, shown above scoring on a lay-up against Loyola Marymount, posted a strong effort against Santa Clara on both offense and defense. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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