by Michael Vernetti
After struggling with several possible themes — Jock Landale’s dominance, senior experience (Landale, Calvin Hermanson and Emmett Naar), contributions by lesser lights (Jordan Ford, Tanner Krebs) — I decided perseverance was the key.
The Gaels resolutely kept to what they do best, and eked out a 74-71 win over Gonzaga Thursday night in the visitors’ death dome known as the McCarthey Athletic Center. Despite being down by nine and seven points at two different times in the second half, despite an other-worldly performance by a player they hardly knew, Rui Hachimura, and despite the legacy of last season’s 3-0 sweep by the Zags, the Gaels kept chipping away.
Although they would win the second half by a score of 36-29 (and hold the Zags to 38% shooting), the half couldn’t have begun any worse for the Gaels. Landale missed two free throws to start things off, and the Zags’ Killian Tillie sank a three-pointer over Krebs. Just like that, a manageable four-point deficit to end the half turned into a scary-looking seven-point deficit (45-38).
Even though Ford got the three-pointer back with one of his own — he was 2-2 from distance as part of an overall excellent game — the Zags’ Johnathan Williams knocked down a three-pointer against a sloughing-off Landale, then Zach Norvell drove Naar for a lay-up to increase the Zags’ advantage to 50-41 with 16:32 left. Not good, Gaels.
Unperturbed, Landale calmly sank a left-handed hook over Willliams, then laid in a bunny off a jewel of an assist from Naar wrapped around a Tillie score inside. Tillie undid some of the good from that effort by fouling Krebs on a three-point attempt, and Krebs converted two of three free throws. Getting better at 52-47.
Defining senior grit, Hermanson then sank a clutch three-pointer to bring the Gaels within two points at 52-50 and end a 7-2 run with 13:05 left on the clock. A hectic back-and forth ensued, with the Zags scoring on two Hachimura jump shots and the only three-pointer of the night by the Zags’ beleaguered point guard, Josh Perkins (1-9, six points). At the 10:43 mark, the Gaels were back in a seven-point hole at 61-54.
Many teams might have crumbled on the road facing such a barrier, but the Gaels leaned on Hermanson to weather the storm. Benefiting from a Zag coaching decision to give some play to freshman Corey Kispert, Hermanson schooled the rookie on two straight drives to the hoop. Kispert fouled him on one, giving Hermanson two free throws, then Hermanson converted the second drive for a lay-up to bring the Gaels within five at 63-58. Have a seat on the bench, Mr. Kispert.
On the defensive end, Hermanson next blocked a shot attempt by Williams, leading to a transition opportunity for Krebs. No bigger three-pointer has been made by a Gael this season than the one Krebs drained to cut the Zags’ lead to 63-61 t the 8:12 mark. Landale then made one of the sweetest shots of his career, a spinning fade-away jumper over Williams to tie the game at 63-all with 6:53 left.
Pressing the advantage, Ford lofted a pass off the backboard for a trailing Landale to flush, and the Gaels went up for the first time since halfway through the first half, 65-63. Williams scored inside to end the Gael run at 9-0, but the Gaels’ confidence was up after the comeback. Only a Gael miscue on the next Zag possession prevented the Gaels from closing out the game at that point.
Ford fouls Perkins
Although Perkins had struggled with his shot all night, and although the shot clock was winding down, Ford fouled Perkins on a desperate three-point heave, sending Perkins to the free-throw line. Perkins sank all three free throws, stalling the Gaels’ momentum temporarily and giving the Zags a 68-66 lead. That lasted until the next possession, when Landale again scored underneath to re-tie the game.
Facing another key possession, Landale blocked a drive by the Zags’ Silas Melson that gave the Gaels the ball without a Zag score. Zag fans and the TV announcers criticized the no-call on Melson’s drive, but if the call was wrong the Gaels had one coming. Fueling a Zag surge in the first half was a flurry of questionable calls against them, including an undetectable Landale foul on a screen that nullified a runner by Cullen Neal, and an even-more ticky-tack screening foul on Hermanson that robbed them of a possession right after the Landale call.
On the Gaels’ next possession, Hermanson scored on still another power drive to put the Gaels up 70-68, but Hachimura — who went 11-16 on the night for 23 points — tied it at 70-all with another jumper. Until Hachimura sank that jumper, the Zags had gone 0-7 from the floor.
No problem, Gaels, just go inside to you-know-who. Landale made a nifty juke on Williams, then converted inside with his left-hand to give the lead back to the Gaels. Williams threw up his hands after defending Landale closely on the play, and no one could blame him. Although a good jumper and athletic in every other aspect, Williams at 6-8 was simply over-matched against Landale, who ended up with 26 points, 12 rebounds and three assists.
Inserting Williams for the departed post tandem of 7-1 Przemek Karnowski and 7-0 Zach Collins is the Zags’ single biggest vulnerability, and the Gaels exploited it mercilessly.
The Zags made it interesting at the end after Norvell sank one of two free throws to bring the score to 72-71in the Gaels’ favor with 41:8 seconds to go. Gonzaga Coach Mark Few tried to coach his team out of pickle and only made things worse. Few turned to seldom-used reserve Jeremy Jones to guard Hermanson, but the move back-fired.
After the Gaels broke the Zags’ pressure and advanced the ball up-court, Hermanson set a pick on Perkins to give some space for the ball-handling Krebs. It was quite a pick, sending Perkins sprawling to the ground and apparently shocking the newly-inserted Jones.. Jones, now defending Krebs, reeled backwards upon seeing Perkins on the floor, which gave Krebs perfect court vision.
Krebs spied Williams fronting Landale underneath the bucket and tossed a perfect lob to the Gael center. Another bunny conversion by Landale put the Gaels up 74-71, where it remained following a desperation heave at the buzzer by Hachimura It was one of the few shots the emerging star missed.
Jock Landale assumed the beast mode he showed in last year’s NCAA Tournament game against Arizona, pictured above, with a dominating, 26-point, 12-rebound effort against Gonzaga. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.