by Michael Vernetti
If it’s one thing the Gaels have learned in their many encounters with Gonzaga, it’s, “Don’t let them get a big lead.” Playing from ahead, the Zags are more confident and aggressive, and their scorers let it rip.
Case in point, Saturday’s 78-65 beat-down by the Zags in the Gaels’ house in Moraga.
The Zags dropped three three-pointers by three different players over three different Gael defenders in the game’s opening minutes: Perkins scored over Jordan Ford, who played his worst defensive game of the season at a bad time, Silas Melson beat Emmett Naar and Zach Norvell Jr. dropped a three-ball on Calvin Hermanson for a 9-2 lead seemingly before the Gaels realized a game was underway.
The Zags weren’t finished with that opening salvo, scoring on a Johnathan Williams lob over Jock Landale; a coast-to-coast drive and lay-up by Norvell off a Hermanson miss in which Naar resembled a bemused spectator; then another bucket by Williams caused by Hermanson’s inability to stay with Norvell, forcing Landale to close on the guard. Norvell dished to Williams, the Zags were up 15-4 and Bennett called a timeout.
It had little effect, as the Zags continued to exploit a frighteningly soft Gael defense: a Killian Tillie three-pointer over Hermanson, another Williams put-back off a Perkins drive, one of many buckets in the paint by the sensational Rui Hachimura, then another inside score by Williams over Landale.
By the time the score went to 24-8 with 11:38 left in the first half — yes, the Zags tripled the Gaels in under nine minutes of play — Saint Mary’s had executed one efficient offensive possession. Landale reacted smartly to a Zags’ double-team, and passed out to Cullen Neal who sank a three-pointer. That’s something the Gaels have done repeatedly this season as various opponents have attempted to double-team Landale.
Contrary to popular opinion, there was nothing special about the Zags double-team, nor anything deficient about Landale’s response to it. He stayed calm under pressure and found Gael shooters to make the Zags pay for over-reliance on stopping him. The shooters let him, and the Gaels, down: Hermanson missed a short jumper from the side of the lane, then a wide-open three-pointer, and Evan Fitzner did the same when he had an opportunity to force Gonzaga out of the double-team strategy.
Making those shots — or at least some of them — could have turned the tide of the game, but the Gaels weren’t up to it this night. They did rally before the first half ended, and pulled within seven points, 28-21 with a little more than five minutes left to play. This was a good position from which to mount a comeback that could have resulted in a tie or lead going into the halftime break — but the Gaels weren’t up to the challenge.
Hachimura, who will be playing in the NBA next year or I don’t understand what the pros look for in college talent, continued to bedevil the Gaels, scoring on five occasions after the Gaels got close. His 10 points in the closing minutes of the half were the main component of the Zags’ 42-30 halftime lead.
No halftime adjustments
Gael fans who have become accustomed to see their team bounce back after disappointing first halves probably expected a more productive effort in the second half, but none was forthcoming. It is unknown what Gael Coach Randy Bennett told his charges during the break, but it had no effect. In fact, they played worse in the second half, falling behind by as many as 22 points (72-50) with a little more than nine minutes left.
If there was a turning point, it came when Bennett made a bold move, subbing in center Jordan Hunter for Fitzner at the 9:10 mark after Fitzner committed another foul (he ended with four) attempting to guard Hachimura. With Hunter on the floor for most of the way down the stretch, the Gaels outscored the Zags 15-6 to cut that 72-50 margin to the final margin of 13, 78-65.
Hunter immediately defended against a Hachimura drive, then Landale did the same thing to Killie underneath the basket, paving the way for a three-pointer by Neal, the only Gael who shot effectively in the game (3-4 on three-pointers). Although Ford was excellent offensively, repeatedly driving the lane for lay-ups and floaters, he went 0-5 on three-point attempts, several of them coming at points when a rousing three-pointer could have turned the tide somewhat. He joined Hermanson (0-2) in the three-point futility brigade.
After Neal’s three-pointer, Hunter and Landale teamed up to defend Hachimura, giving Neal another opportunity to score on a run-out. Neal, however, was fouled egregiously by Melson on his drive, but nothing was called. The Zags came roaring back, with Norvell taking flight for an expected dunk.
Except Hunter met him in mid-air and slapped away his attempt in the best posterizing fashion. Shortly thereafter, Hunter, playing away from the basket in the stretch-4 position, found Landale under the basket for Landale’s only bucket of the second half. A little later, he tipped in a Neal free-throw miss for his only bucket of the night, then finished up with a block of a Perkins drive.
In seven minutes of play, Hunter scored two points, grabbed five rebounds and blocked two shots — the best line of any Gael. He gave Bennett food for thought if the Gaels and Zags meet for a rubber match in the WCC Tournament that could determine whether Saint Mary’s gets in the NCAA Tournament.
Could Hunter start for either Krebs or Fitzner, neither of whom has been tearing it up at the four? Fitzner was solid offensively, scoring eight points on 3-5 shooting, including 1-2 on three-pointers, but he was over-matched against Hachimura. Maybe a combination of Hunter and Fitzner at the four in the hoped-for Gonzaga rematch would energize the Gaels and prevent an early meltdown as they experienced on Saturday.
Bennett made another unusual move in the face of the growing Zag onslaught in the second half, benching an ineffective Naar with more than 12 minutes left in the game. As has been evident in many of their other games, the Zags are vulnerable to quick guards penetrating the lane. Ford and Neal were the Gaels’ best weapons against the Zags, and Bennett may have to re-think his “Naar for 40 minutes” strategy in March — if the Gaels get the rematch opportunity.
All is not lost
Despite the understandable sense of gloom following Saturday’s loss, the season is far from over for Saint Mary’s. They have a tough challenge in San Francisco Thursday night, followed by a road game against Portland that could get dicey if the Gaels fail to aggressively guard the Portland shooters. Two final games at home against Pepperdine and Santa Clara could bring the Gaels’ WCC record to 17-1 and season record to 28-3 heading into the WCC Tournament.
Those are excellent numbers, but the Gaels find themselves in a familiar spot with the NCAA selection gurus — bereft of a compelling out-of-conference road record. Wins over Cal and San Jose State don’t count for much. Thus, the need to work through the WCC Tournament and face Gonzaga again for the conference title and automatic NCAA bid that goes to the winner.
Saturday’s loss gives Bennett’s charges reason for concern, but there is also room for hope. The Gaels have four games to work on Hunter playing alongside Landale, and to recommit themselves to playing tough defense from the opening tip. Bringing both of those elements to Las Vegas for the WCC Tournament should be enough to get the fan base excited again.
Cullen Neal, shown above against Pacific earlier this year, was the only Gael who did not suffer from three-point paralysis against Gonzaga, sinking 3-4 shots from afar. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.