After a tough, four-game road stretch…

by Michael Vernetti

The Gaels are feeling pretty good about themselves. All alone in first place in the WCC at 8-0, a game ahead of Gonzaga (7-1) and two ahead of BYU (6-2).

Oh sure, it would have been nice to handle Pacific more like the 74-56 thumping they administered on Jan. 4 in Moraga than the 72-69 hand-wringer they endured at the Spanos Center on Saturday, but the upset gods were working overtime to snare the Gaels in Stockton.

Pacific was in perfect shape to upset the high-flying Gaels two nights after their exhilarating 74-71 victory over Gonzaga in Spokane. Instead of the late Thursday night flight to Concord and bus trip to Stockton facing Saint Mary’s, Pacific was waiting comfortably at home after dispatching a woeful Pepperdine squad 92-78 on Thursday.

That win was Damon Stoudamire’s squad’s fourth in a row following the loss in Moraga, and the Tigers were gaining confidence after beating BYU (67-66) and San Diego (74-70) at home. The team Stoudamire has assembled in his second year at the Tigers’ helm is rounding into shape and looking more formidable each week.

At its heart are two newcomers, who are getting better as they play more together: guards Jahlil Tripp from Brooklyn by way of a Texas JC, and Lafayette Dorsey, a true freshman out of Dorsey High School in Los Angeles. Tripp, a muscled 6-5, 190 lbs., is a natural floor leader, who is willing to de-emphasize scoring in order to distribute and run his team’s offense.

He was the Gaels’ toughest guard Saturday, as Coach Randy Bennett scrambled to find someone who could slow him down. Calvin Hermanson drew the most minutes on Tripp, and he would have happily given the honor to someone else. As well as Hermanson has played on defense against guards the past two seasons, he simply could not keep Tripp out of the lane. The Gaels should be happy Tripp took only six shots (making five),

Dorsey scored more than Tripp — 18 points on 6-11 shooting — but he is streaky and was having one of those nights that talented offensive players sometimes have. The Gaels’ own freshman, redshirt Elijah Thomas, was on Dorsey in crunch time, and may have freaked him out as he flew over to defend Dorsey’s last-second three-point attempt to tie the game. At any rate, Dorsey missed and the Gaels escaped without going to overtime.

Three-point drought

The Gaels have suffered through a variety of three-point shooting slumps this season, but against Pacific they managed to go the entire first half without making one (0-6). They recovered with a 4-8 second half, and it was just enough to prevent disaster. As he did against Gonzaga, Tanner Krebs swished a dagger late in the second half that kept the Gaels in the game. It was his only “make” of the night, and the broadcasters were amazed at his nerve in taking such a tough shot and skill in draining it. So was I, but it is becoming more and more evident that Krebs is crowding the Gaels’ Big Three — Jock Landale, Emmett Naar and Hermanson — as an indispensable cog in the offensive machine.

Krebs’ performance is all the more remarkable when you consider he is playing out of place on defense as an under-sized power forward. At a slender 6-6, Krebs is usually matched up against taller, burlier players, but he has battled admirably to minimize the disadvantage. Gael fans can be forgiven if they think ahead to next season when transfer forward Malik Fitts, a 6-8 natural forward, will be available on the front line.

Under the WCC’s unusual 2017-18 scheduling, Saint Mary’s now can look forward to three home games following four straight on the road. They will face a revenge-minded BYU this Thursday, then will meet Portland and San Francisco for the first time on the following Saturday and Thursday.

Because the Gaels’ first-half schedule was front-loaded with road games, they are in good position to defend their first-place status against BYU and Gonzaga at home. They do face a difficult challenge in traveling to San Diego on Feb. 3, followed by a jaunt across the Bay Bridge to face San Francisco on Feb. 13. Both the Toreros’ Lamont Smith and the Dons’ Kyle Smith — both former members of Bennett’s coaching staff — will be looking to inflict late-season damage to the Gaels’ championship drive.

But, heck, so will everyone else.

Tanner Krebs, shown above taking his deadly three-point jump shot in an earlier game, has emerged as a clutch performer for the Gaels. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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