by Michael Vernetti
Instead of the tentative, foul-plagued squad that wobbled through an opening-season win over McNeese State last Wednesday, Saint Mary’s offered an inspired, efficient version of the 2018-19 Gaels in a 92-63 whup-ass over Utah Valley Sunday afternoon in Moraga.
This is the version fans were hoping for as Randy Bennett’s charges strive to continue the momentum from a three-year run of 88 victories, including a team-record 30 wins last year. As expected, junior guard Jordan Ford led on both ends of the court, racking up a career-high 35 points on a variety of long-range bombs and inside reverses. He also terrorized Utah Valley on defense, holding his opposite number, TJ Washington, to 10 points and setting a personal record with four steals.
Overall, Ford went 11-17 from the floor, including 4-6 from three-point land, and sank nine of 10 free throws. All of those numbers — points, steals, three-pointers, field goals and free throws — were records for the junior from Folsom, CA.
It can be expected that Ford was among the most disappointed Gaels in reviewing the team’s performance against McNeese State. He was dynamic and focused from the start of the Utah Valley game, scoring on three lay-ups, two three-pointers and a pair of free throws in the opening minutes. He also recorded two of his steals, finishing one himself and assisting on a Tanner Krebs lay-up off the second.
Bennett prizes leadership more than any other quality, and Gael fans have seen that leadership take many forms over the years: Matthew Dellavedova’s intense preparation and competitiveness; Joe Rahon’s cocky, take-charge persona; Jock Landale’s obsession to lift his game from average to superior. In Ford, Bennett has a studious, hard-working shot-maker who knows when his team needs a lift and has the ability and fire to provide it.
Hunter also shines
While Ford had a solid game against McNeese State with 23 points and five assists, senior post man Jordan Hunter would probably not mind if Gael statisticians lost the record from that game. It shows that he scored only four points and grabbed four rebounds in 13 minutes on the floor. The reason for his brief appearance was another four — the number of fouls he racked up.
Gael fans know that if their team is to move past the dominating Landale era of paint dominance, Hunter cannot have many games like that against McNeese State. He seems to have gotten the message.
Hunter was everything Gael fans were hoping for in his senior year — active and effective in the paint, scoring 11 points and grabbing eight rebounds in 21 minutes of action, Most importantly, he was called for only one foul in that time. Bennett restricted his minutes not because of foul trouble, but more likely as a way of getting Hunter used to extended minutes after three years of spot duty. If Hunter can average a double-double while protecting the rim as the season progresses, Bennett can give time to promising freshman Matthias Tass, while utilizing 7’1″ Jock Perry as a situational weapon — like when you need a three-pointer from a big.
Tass played much better against Utah Valley than he did against McNeese as well, scoring four points and grabbing four rebounds in 10 minutes of play. His two buckets demonstrated his versatility, as he sank a 15-foot jumper from the baseline on one possession and a contested lay-up in the paint on another. He spent some time at the power forward position when Perry was manning the post, and that combination must intrigue Bennett. Having Tass space the defense as a forward when either Hunter or Perry is playing center greatly increases the Gael options in both scoring and rebounding.
Big test coming
The Gaels face their first big test of the young season Wednesday night against New Mexico State in Las Cruces. Although Saint Mary’s defeated NM State 92-74 last year in Moraga, the Aggies went on to win the regular season and conference titles in the Western Athletic Conference and earn an NCAA bid, where they lost to Clemson, 79-68, in the first round.
New Mexico State is favored to repeat as WAC champions this year, and they have opened with two strong home wins — 73-56 over North Dakota State and 96-69 over UTEP. It is a markedly different team from the one Saint Mary’s faced last year, however, with only two players who saw considerable time in that game — guard AJ Harris and forward Eli Chuha — back. Gone is the peripatetic Zach Lofton, who scorched the Gaels for 18 points and went on to average 19.7 PPG on the season and earn a two-way contract with the Detroit Pistons.
Joining Harris and Chuha in the starting lineup are 6’9″ junior college transfer Mohamed Thiam at forward, another JC transfer, Clayton Henry, at guard and former Newark High School star JoJo Zamora as a third guard. Chuha at 6’7″ and Thiam are the leading front court players, so the Gaels will have a height advantage in the front court with Hunter/Perry/Tass at center and Malik Fitts, 6’8″, at power forward — if he starts.
Bennett has switched between Fitts and Kyle Clark at power forward, but Clark came up limping early in the Utah Valley game and his status is uncertain. Partially because of Clark’s injury, Bennett used Dan Fotu as a sub for both Elijah Thomas at small forward and for Fitts, giving Fotu a total of 24 minutes against Utah Valley. Fotu, a 6’7″ freshman from New Zealand, has become a fan favorite because of his stout defense and tenacious rebounding. He has not found a scoring touch yet, but his activity and athleticism indicate he will find a way to contribute offensively as he has on defense and the boards.
It is early in the season to declare a turning point, but the Gaels’ next six games will go a long way in determining how successful this year may be. After NM State, Saint Mary’s goes to Las Vegas to face Utah State and either Arizona State or Mississippi State, then returns home to face Harvard, UC Irvine and California. The Gaels showed against Utah Valley that they can overcome a spotty outing with a strong one, but it will take an outstanding effort to post consistent winning efforts against formidable opposition.
Jordan Hunter, scoring on a left-handed hook against Utah Valley, showed Gael fans how effective he can be as successor to All-American Jock Landale. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.