The turning tide

by Michael Vernetti

A roughly three-and-a-half-minute segment of Saint Mary’s 76-72 loss at San Francisco Thursday night encapsulated that game and the Gaels’ struggles this season.

The Gaels, as has been their pattern in almost all their losses, fought back from a deep hole (57-44) to tie the game at 60-all with 7:42 left. Jordan Ford, who often seems like a general without any troops, led the comeback with a gutty corner three-pointer and a sensational drive into traffic. He was aided by freshman Dan Fotu, who nailed a corner three-pointer of his own (off a feed by Ford) for the tying score.

But then San Francisco showed why it is ahead of Saint Mary’s at this stage of both teams’ development, rattling off 12 points against one bucket by Jordan Hunter over the next five possessions. Saint Mary’s went 1-7 from the field during that stretch, while the Dons scored off a put-back by Nate Renfro — who dominated the boards all night — a Frankie Ferrari jumper in the paint, and three buckets in close by center Jimbo Lull, who is simply too strong for the Gaels’ Hunter to keep out of the paint.

That put the Dons up 72-62 with 3:15 left, and a final, frantic rush by the Gaels — topped by a stone-cold three-pointer under pressure by Ford — wasn’t enough. Ford actually had a chance to tie the game at 72-all, but his driving lay-up against Ferrari was waved off by referee Kevin Brill. Gael fans undoubtedly screamed in anguish, knowing a call against Ferrari would have sent Ford to the free throw line for a chance to tie the game.

Brill actually had no choice but to whistle Ford for pushing off, as he (Brill) had made an almost identical call earlier in the game against Ferrari on a drive against Tommy Kuhse. Both calls were marginal, engendered by the slightest arm extension by Ferrari and Ford, and the best possible result would have been a no-call in both situations. But college referees are whistle-happy, and call fouls after the slightest contact.

Advantage San Francisco

The Dons’ reaction to being tied in a game they had dominated in stretches illustrated why Kyle Smith’s troops are in better position in the West Coast Conference than Randy Bennett’s. Smith called on his senior leadership (Ferrari, Renfro), superiority in the paint (Lull and Matt McCarthy) and timely three-point shooting from role players Jordan Ratinho and Remu Raitanen. The Dons’ leading scorer coming into the game, Charles Minlend, made only two three-pointers on the night, but they both came at crucial times.

By contrast, Saint Mary’s received only two three-pointers from someone not named Ford, one by Tanner Krebs in the game’s final seconds and the other by Fotu, his only basket of the game. The Gael offense often grows stagnant, with players standing around waiting for Ford to make something happen. Ford was brilliant against San Francisco, scoring 24 points on 9-18 shooting, but he is the Gaels’ only reliable weapon at this point.

Smith, following the Bennett pattern he learned as a top assistant at Saint Mary’s for nine years, has cultivated a core of players over his three years at the helm in San Francisco. Ferrari, Renfro and McCarthy are seniors, and Lull, Ratinho and Raitanen are juniors. Minlend is a redshirt sophomore, but he sat out all last year with an injury, so he, too, has been around for all of Smith’s tenure.

Bennett the alchemist

Bennett, as Gael fans know only too well, is trying to forge gold out of a sometimes leaden bunch of newcomers, the result of last year’s graduation of stars Jock Landale, Emmett Naar and Calvin Hermanson. At different times the Gaels seem to miss Landale most — when Hunter gets into foul trouble and Matthias Tass struggles to score — or Naar — when the Gaels’ once intimidating assist-to-turnover ratio dwindles to the seven assist/nine turnover effort at San Francisco — or Hermanson — when the Gael contingent at small forward, Fotu and Elijah Thomas, contributes just five points on 2-4 shooting as it did against San Francisco.

To be fair, some of Krebs’ 11 points came from the small forward position, but his role demonstrates Bennett’s conundrum. Kuhse has taken over Krebs’ season-opening position at off-guard because, theoretically, Kuhse can better defend small, quick guards. But Kuhse is almost a non-factor on offense (six points against the Dons), so Bennett inserts Krebs to try and generate some offense.

The results are mixed, as evidenced by the San Francisco game. Kuhse was ineffective in guarding Ferrari for most of the game, giving up most of the fiery guard’s 19 points, including crucial baskets down the stretch. Counter-intuitively, Krebs was the Gaels’ best defender against Ferrari, with his superior height — 6’6″ vs. 5’11” — perhaps bothering Ferrari.

But Kuhse is the only facsimile of a play-maker for Saint Mary’s, so Bennett needs to keep him on the floor in hopes that he might give some direction to the offense. That Kuhse led the Gaels with three assists (Ford had only one) underscores Bennett’s problem. At present, the Gaels simply have too many holes to fill and not enough leaders emerging to defeat well-oiled machines such as San Francisco’s.

BYU, the Gaels’ next opponent Saturday in Moraga, is playing at about the same level as Saint Mary’s, rallying after surrendering a 21-point lead to top Pacific Thursday in Stockton, 90-87.  The Cougars have the same 9-7 record as the Gaels, but have fewer excuses since they lost only one player from last year’s rotation, Elijah Bryant, and supposedly welcomed back a superior one in Nick Emery.

Battle for third place (behind Gonzaga and San Francisco)?

Jordan Ford, above, sometimes seems to be the Gaels’ first, second and third option on offense as he did against San Francisco, leading all scorers with 24 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.


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