by Michael Vernetti
Question: do wins over three WCC bottom-tier teams compensate for a dispiriting loss to San Francisco and make the Gaels ready for the WCC Tournament and beyond.
Answer: meet me in Las Vegas.
The Gaels showed no outward signs of a letdown after dropping a home game against Gonzaga on Feb. 10 and then heading across the Bay Bridge to face San Francisco. They started briskly against the Dons, rolled to a 10-point lead with fewer than three minutes left in the first half and seemed to be gathering momentum.
Then the Ferrari Phenomenon occurred (or should it be the Ferrari Fhenomenom?)
Frankie Ferrari had been bothersome but not disruptive up to this point in the game, benefiting from foul trouble on the Gaels’ Jordan Ford to find some breathing space after Ford sat down at the 10:08 mark with two fouls. Ferrari immediately scored his first bucket of the game, driving on the Gaels’ Emmett Naar. He followed that by beating Naar to the lane and dropping off a pass to Nate Renfro for a mini-run of 4-0 that pulled the Dons to within 20-16 with eight-and-a-half minutes left.
The Gaels switched Ford’s replacement, Cullen Neal, on to Ferrari, and the junior guard from the San Francisco peninsula promptly sank another jumper. He then beat Neal off the dribble, drew a foul on the rotating Jordan Hunter, and sank both free throws. Gaels’ coach Randy Bennett summoned Ford from the bench to try and slow down Ferraari, but Ferrari sank a three-pointer over Ford to bring San Francisco to within five points at 35-31 with a little more than a minute left.
Showing signs of frustration, if not desperation, Bennett made one more change to get the Gaels to halftime with a decent lead: he brought Tanner Krebs into the game in place of Ford to play guard alongside Naar, Ferrari then sank a jumper over Naar to bring the Dons to within three, 38-35, and seemingly switch the momentum to his team.
Second half disaster
The second half endured by Gaels’ star center Jock Landale might have been scripted by an evil basketball pundit determined to see Landale denied first-team All-American honors or other post-season accolades. The first sign was a questionable if not ludicrous foul on an alleged moving screen, Landale’s third. These moving screen fouls have haunted the Gaels along with other teams, as referees seem to interpret any activity by a screener — including breathing — as unfairly impeding the path of defensive players.
Landale got some practice flashing his incredulous look after the call, and it seemed to rattle him. After scoring 15 points on 6-7 shooting in the first half, Landale missed a dunk on the Gaels’ next possession, then followed up that head-scratcher with a missed bunny, and missed his third in-close shot in a row a few minutes later. He would end the second half going 0-5 from the field, although he sank four of five free throws under throat-clutching circumstances. Offensive woes turned out to be only his second-worst problem, however.
Ford, back in the lineup after the halftime break, continued to be the Gaels’ most effective defender against Ferrari — until he wasn’t. Ford picked up his third personal guarding Ferrari on a drive, then committed the Mortal Sin of Defense by fouling Ferrari on a three-point attempt. That sent Ford back to the bench with his fourth foul, and Ferrari to the free-throw line where he made two attempts to put the Dons ahead 48-47.
Then Landale’s worst nightmare became reality.
San Francisco gets serviceable minutes in the post from a lumbering 7-footer named Jimbo Lull, who doesn’t score much but clogs up the middle adequately and makes opposing centers, like Landale, work for their points. On a possession designed to get Landale back in the scoring column, the Gael center maneuvered in the post for a routine jump hook, and Lull pulled the mother of all flops — one to make a European soccer star blush.
And the referee bought it! He rang up Landale for his fourth foul, sending him to the bench with a little more than nine minutes left in the game. To prove that karma sometimes takes a little longer than we like in straightening out unfairness in the universe, Lull then converted a bunny of his own to put San Francisco up 50-47. That was the first time I thought this one was not going to go the Gaels’ way.
Fizzle down the stretch
It would be easy to say the Gaels’ loss to the Dons was the result of shoddy officiating, which culminated in Landale receiving his fifth foul on an over-the-back call that only the referee could see. But, unfair as it was, that happened with only 1:41 left in the game, at which time the Gaels trailed 62-58 and had not scored a field goal in almost four minutes.
Ferrarii was the main culprit down the stretch, foiling every Bennett effort to shut him down. I think Ford would have been the Gaels’ best bet to guard Ferrari, notwithstanding his prior defensive lapses, but one could understand Bennett being leery of Ford. The 6-6 Krebs was Bennett’s choice for the final minutes, but Ferrari had no trouble getting around the bigger but slower defender. He scored over Krebs to put the Dons back on top after two Landale free throws had given the Gaels a brief 56-55 lead, then hit a three-pointer for a 62-58 San Francisco lead with fewer than two minutes left. As a capper, he drove Krebs again for a lay-up in the waning seconds, bringing his Gael-slayer stats to 20 points and seven assists.
The Gaels’ next stop after bombing out in San Francisco was Portland, where Terry Porter’s stable of quick guards was waiting to repeat what Ferrari and the Dons had done. Saint Mary’s didn’t play much better against the Pilots, and their biggest ally may have been Porter and his temper.
Angered that one of his bigs, Joseph Smoyer, fouled out on an obvious foul against Landale, Porter jawed at the refs. He then went almost ballistic when his other big, Phillip Hartwich, said some choice words to Landale as both players went down court following a Hartwich slam, and Hartwich was called for a technical. Porter was T’d up along with Hartwich, giving Krebs four free throws, which he sank to improve a six-point Gael lead to 10. That was enough to guarantee a 73-61 win, notwithstanding an ankle injury to Naar before halftime that kept the Gaels’ floor leader on the bench for the rest of the game.
It’s hard to know what to make of the Gaels’ final two wins over Pepperdine and Santa Clara because both opponents were weakened by injuries. Pepperdine has been playing short-handed almost all season, which made the decision to terminate Coach Marty Wilson at the end of this season seem unduly harsh. The Waves’ biggest losses were promising big man Nolan Taylor, lost to shoulder surgery, and guard Eric Cooper, the excellent transfer from Nevada.
With Naar’s injury limiting him to 14 minutes, Ford was given major minutes (37), and made the most of them. He registered a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds to go along with four assists without a turnover. Most promising was the return of Ford’s three-point shot, as he went 4-6 from distance after shooting a combined 0-2 against San Francisco and Portland.
Also coming alive were Krebs and Calvin Hermanson, who scored 12 and 14 points, respectively, after they, too, were mostly MIA against San Francisco and Portland.
Santa Clara was another case of the Gaels capitalizing on wounded opponents, as the Broncos’ leading scorer, KJ Feagin, turned an ankle in the first half and was never to return. Santa Clara is offensively challenged even with Feagin in the lineup, so their weak effort in a 67-40 loss was no surprise.
So, the Gaels will travel to Las Vegas next weekend as the conference’s second seed behind Gonzaga, which blew by BYU in Provo in its final league game to finish a game ahead of the Gaels at 17-1. The Gaels’ opening-round opponent next Friday at 9 p.m. will be one of its final opponents, Santa Clara or Pepperdine, who play in a qualifying round on Thursday. Neither of those should cause concern for Gael fans, especially considering the dusting Saint Mary’s applied last week.
The semis may be another story, as the Gaels will meet someone from a group that could include BYU, San Diego, Pacific or San Francisco. Neither of these will be a picnic for the Gael team that bombed against San Francisco, and defeating one of them will almost certainly bring on the possibility of playing Gonzaga for the tournament championship on Tuesday, March 6.
The lackluster effort against San Francisco may mean Saint Mary’s has to defeat Gonzaga to win an automatic NCAA bid, something they haven’t done since 2012. The future is in their hands, but it is unclear how firm a grasp they have at this point.
Gael fans were heartened to see the return of Emmett Naar to the lineup against Pepperdine and Santa Clara after turning his ankle against Portland. Naar went 27 minutes against Santa Clara, scoring 12 points on 4-7 shooting. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.