Staying the course

by Michael Vernetti

It would have been easy to overlook Loyola Marymount Thursday night in Los Angeles, looking ahead to the momentous clash with Gonzaga on the horizon for Saturday.

But the Gaels didn’t fall into that trap, playing smart and efficiently to build a comfortable lead and outscoring the Lions by 12 points in the second half (43 to 31) by shooting a scorching 71% en route to an 83-62 win.

LMU helped the Gaels focus by upsetting BYU (76-69) a week ago on their home court, but the Lions were no match for this Gael team that seems laser-focused on winning the WCC title and positioning itself for a strong performance in the NCAA Tournament. Jordan Ford, who came off the bench in the final minutes last Saturday to lead the Gaels to a squeaker (65-62) over San Diego, provided the initial spark against LMU.

Ford scored twice on driving lay-ups before most fans had settled in their seats, and ended up with 13 points in the first half on 6-8 shooting in 17 minutes. Ironically, 17 minutes is the exact amount of time Ford spent on the bench in the second half against San Diego, as his teammates labored into a precarious position in the waning  minutes. Given 30 minutes of playing time against LMU by Gael Coach Randy Bennett, Ford matched his season high of 20 points for the game.

Maybe there’s a theme here: if he plays, he scores.

Fitzner again effective

Another positive for the Gaels was the continued effectiveness of Evan Fitzner off the bench. As happens periodically when Tanner Krebs, who has supplanted Fitzner as the Gaels’ starting power forward, is over-powered by a bugger, stronger opponent, the Lions’ Eli Scott was having his way with Krebs in the early going. As he did against Isaiah Peniero at San Diego, Fitzner slowed Scott down and broke LMU’s early momentum.

The Gaels were dominating so much, racing to a 24-10 lead  by the 10-minute nark of the half, that LMU Coach Mike Dunlap called a timeout to stop the bleeding. It worked, as LMU scored four straight three-point possessions to pull within 31-22. Part of the run could be called a fluke, as Zafir Williams, one of Dunlap’s prized freshman recruits, hit only his fourth three-pointer of the year to start the comeback.

But James Batemon, LMU’s leading scorer after transferring from North Dakota State, is no fluke, and six points of the run came from him, three on a conventional three-pointer and another three on a spin drive in the paint that lost Ford and caused Fitzner to foul Batemon in desperation. Batemon sank the free throw and seemed poised to give the Gaels trouble throughout the game, although he ended up with only nine points on 3-12 shooting.

Dunlap had settled down his charges, and LMU could be said to have regained momentum by cutting the Gaels’ lead to 40-31 at the half. Saint Mary’s did not falter in the second half, however, as Emmett Naar, perhaps embarrassed by his nine-turnover effort against San Diego, piled up 12 assists to surpass a fellow named Dellavedova as the Gaels’ all-time assist maker (he has 769 if you’re counting). Naar committed only two turnovers in the game, and one of them was a traveling call on a made basket that I didn’t see after rewinding the replay several times. The referee also took away the bucket.

Jock Landale, coming off monster games against San Diego and San Francisco — 60 points total — sat out a considerable portion of the game after committing four fouls. He settled for what for him was a humdrum game — 21 points and nine rebounds — but there was a silver lining in that result. Jordan Hunter turned in a superb game in Landale’s absence, scoring seven points on 3-3 shooting and pulling down three rebounds in 12 minutes of play.

Hunter did not get off the bench against San Diego, but had a strong line in the San Francisco game as well, making all three shot attempts and grabbing four rebounds in seven minutes. Hunter also seemed more effective against the Lions’ massive center, 7-3 Mattias Markusson, than Landale had. The game announcers said Markusson has grown from 7-1 as a freshman to 7-3 this year. If that keeps up, LMU might have quite a specimen in the post by his senior year.

Down the stretch

Saint Mary’s has positioned itself well for the five-game stretch run that will decide a lot about its national ranking and NCAA seeding — if the Gaels get into the tournament. The Gonzaga game Saturday night in Moraga is huge, of course, but win or lose, it hardly concludes things for the Gaels.

The week following the Gonzaga game, Saint Mary’s goes on the road to San Francisco and Portland, then finishes up at home against WCC bottom-feeders Pepperdine and Santa Clara. San Francisco will be nursing a huge grudge after the Gaels smothered them 79-43 last week in Moraga, and Portland is dangerous at home. The Pilots sneaked by LMU (68-66) after the Lions had upset BYU, and will be loose and dangerous in the Rose City on Feb. 17.

Gonzaga has a more difficult path after the Saint Mary’s game, finishing up on the road against San Diego and BYU — no box of chocolates for the Zags. But the Gaels do not want to rely on anyone else to pave the way to a WCC regular-season title, and will be looking for a sweep against Gonzaga Saturday night, as well as the WCC Tournament crown that will guarantee an NCAA bid.

The Gaels are going for all the marbles, and don’t want any consolation prizes.

Jordan Ford, shown above from an earlier game, tied his season high with 20 points against LMU Thursday night. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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