Never say die

by Michael Vernetti

Your coach can drum it into your head — and you know Randy Bennett did — you can watch film and visualize it, but you don’t know how you’ll cope with taller, quicker opponents until you get on the court with them.

Thus, Saint Mary’s, despite a valiant last-minute effort to close within two points with 19 seconds left, fell to LSU 78-74 Saturday night in Las Vegas. Overall, they coped poorly.

The Gaels’ outstanding back court tandem of Jordan Ford and Tommy Kuhse, who had racked up a 40-11 assist-to-turnover ratio in the previous four games, reverted to a disastrous 6-assist-11 turnover performance against the super-athletic Tigers. Ford seemed unnerved by the pressure applied by LSU’s Skylar Mays, a 6’4″ junior guard. Ford not only coughed up or threw away the ball on numerous occasions, but he couldn’t seem to master a basic skill every guard learns early on: lead the man guarding you into screens to get him off your back.

Mays easily danced around attempted high screens, never giving Ford breathing room to drive or score from long-distance. The three-point basket Ford scored in the game’s closing seconds was his first of the night after five misses, and it came out of a scramble when the Gaels forced a back court turnover.

Kuhse seemed equally rattled by LSU’s pressure, and the Gaels posted a negative 9/19 assist-to-turnover ratio for the night. No matter how much practice, no matter how much film…

Bright spots

Despite the miscues, the Gaels did many good things against LSU, like out-rebound the Tigers by 36-27. Jordan Hunter posted his third outstanding game in a row, scoring 15 points on 7-8 shooting and grabbing six rebounds. He fell into an old habit of picking up fouls early, but managed to stay on the court for 32 minutes, including a long stretch in the second half playing with four fouls.

Still, Bennett’s necessity to sit Hunter for several stretches interrupted the single source of consistent scoring the Gaels displayed early on: Hunter scored the Gaels’ first eight points in less than five minutes, then drew a blank until the second half. Keeping him on the floor and foul-free would have bought Saint Mary’s valuable time to calibrate the Tigers’ defense and puncture their confidence with a threatening attack.

The fact that Saint Mary’s fought back from 15-point deficits twice in the second half bodes well for their continued success. They didn’t buckle under the Tigers’ superior athleticism, and showed they can play effectively against good-to-excellent teams. Malik Fitts, the Gaels’ power forward who entered the game averaging more than 15 PPG, recovered his offensive chops with a key three-pointer and a drive into traffic in the game’s latter stages, but it was too little, too late.

Fitts is the key to the Gaels’ chances for a superior season, and he, like Ford and Kuhse, seemed cowed by LSU for most of the game. Gael fans can hope Fitts convinced himself he can be effective in tough circumstances, and that he will play with that resolve as the season goes on.

The Gaels need him to be outstanding.

Despite constant harassment by LSU guard Skylar Mays, Jordan Ford, pictured above from last season against San Diego, managed to score 21 points in the Gaels’ losing effort against the Tigers. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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