For the defense

by Michael Vernetti

Forget the pedestrian 46% field goal percentage; forget Jordan Ford’s 1-7 shooting on three-balls; forget Tanner Krebs’ 0-fer night from the field.

Concentrate on Saint Mary’s holding New Mexico State to 35% first-half shooting and limiting the erstwhile high-scoring Aggies to 23 points. Although New Mexico increased its second-half point total to 35, that shooting percentage stayed almost flat, totaling 36% for the night.

That’s how the Gaels walked away with a convincing 73-58 win in a game the Las Vegas sharpies had listed as “piek ’em,” at altitude, on the road before a full-throated crowd of around 7,000. Defense is going to carry these young, still-figuring-it-out Gaels until they settle into the efficient, smooth-flowing offense that Randy Bennett’s teams are known for.

The 2018-19 Gaels are no longer dependent on an over-matched Krebs bodying up against taller, stronger power forwards, or on Jock Landale’s limited mobility in the paint. With either Jordan Hunter or newcomer Matthias Tass at center and rising star Malik Fitts at power forward, the Gaels’ back line is measurably stronger than last year.

Fitts recorded another standout game, totaling 20 points and eight rebounds in nearly 40 minutes on the floor, after his 19-point, 12-rebound opener against McNeese State.  That gives Bennett stability at a position that featured constant substitutions between Krebs and the defensively-challenged Evan Fitzner last year (to give Fitzner his due, he is becoming a cult hero at Indiana, playing for a loaded team that only needs him to provide instant offense off the bench).

For those who watched Wednesday’s game or perused the box score in their morning paper, lauding Hunter’s defense may have caused you to spill your coffee. Yes, he did record his first foul 17 seconds into the game, just as he did against McNeese State, and, yes, he outdid his 13-minute, four foul performance against McNeese with a foul-out against New Mexico after only 14 minutes.

But, to be fair, he actually committed only three fouls, suffering two egregiously bad calls. The first came as he battled New Mexico’s tough forward Ivan Aurrecoechoa (that’s a mouthful, let’s call him Ivan) in the paint near the end of the first half. Hunter held his ground against the 240-pound Spaniard, and maintained admirable verticality with both arms. After a little jostling, Hunter’s left arm came down a smidge just as Ivan turned into him, causing Ivan’s face and Hunter’s arm to collide.

What should have been a no-call was instead called a foul on Hunter, erasing Ivan’s basket and sending him to the free throw line for a one-and-one opportunity. He missed the front end, costing his team two points but sending Hunter to the bench. The worst was yet to come, however.

With just four minutes gone in the second half, Hunter set a routine screen at the top of the key. He did not move an inch to either side, and, indeed, the New Mexico guard whom he was attempting to screen slid right by him without suffering so much as a ripple to his uniform. Nevertheless, the referee’s whistle rang out and Hunter was relegated to the bench once again. When he picked up his fifth and disqualifying foul with about eight minutes left, a fair record would have tallied three fouls for him at that time.

Enter Mr. Tass

The bright side to Hunter’s foul troubles was the admirable relief performance by Tass, the freshman from Estonia. Tass shook off another questionable foul call shortly after he entered the game in the first half, when a referee took away a put-back on grounds Tass fouled the smaller New Mexico guard who was crawling inside his jersey to prevent him from scoring. Some announcers declare such a call a penalty for being bigger than the other guy, and that description seemed to fit.

While both Hunter and Jock Perry, in a limited appearance, struggled to contain Ivan, Tass succeeded in forcing him further away from the basket than he preferred. Thus, Ivan’s first shot with Tass in his face was taken from near the foul line and clanked off the rear of the rim. Moments later, Tass harried Ivan into making a poor pass that Ford swiped and eventually fed to substitute guard Tommy Kuhse for a dispiriting three-pointer that pushed the Gael advantage to 32-23 at the half.

Tass wasn’t done providing the Gaels a lift, however. When New Mexico made an expected second-half run to cut a 19-point Gael lead to 43-32, Tass sank a three-pointer to take the pressure off and increase the lead to 14. A little later, after the pesky Aggies had crept back to within eight points (50-42), Tass yanked down a defensive rebound and allowed the Gaels to work Fitts open for a crucial three-pointer. That made it 53-42 in favor of Saint Mary’s with about nine minutes left, and blunted the New Mexico charge.

There will be tough games on the road, and hiccups like Ford’s uncharacteristic three-point drought or Krebs’ inability to even attempt a field goal will happen away from the friendly confines of McKeon Pavilion. Notwithstanding the long-range blues, Ford matched his season’s average with 28 points against New Mexico, going 11-11 from the foul line. For his part, Krebs recovered from foul troubles of his own that limited him to 21 minutes on the floor to convert a crucial one-and-one with about five minutes left and snatch several defensive rebounds down the stretch.

They’ll both have better stat sheets in the future, while the Gaels as a whole can point to their stellar defensive effort against New Mexico State with pride. And they’ll wait like the rest of us for the offense to kick into high gear.

Malik Fitts, a redshirt sophomore transfer from South Florida, had a near double-double against New Mexico State with 20 points and eight rebounds. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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