Third time charm

by Michael Vernetti

Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett changed his starting lineup at small forward for the third time this season in Saturday’s 88-66 win over BYU, going with Tanner Krebs over Dan Fotu, who had replaced Elijah Thomas a few games ago.

Did it turn things around for the Gaels? Not by itself. Did it make a small improvement? I think so.

Krebs’ gifts were on display in the BYU game more prominently than they have been in a long time: he successfully guarded prized Cougar freshman (although one with a completed LDS mission) Connor Harding, nominally a guard but with a forward’s height of 6’6″; guarded BYU sharpshooter TJ Haws as well; and, when matched on offense against true guard Nick Emery, easily drove Emery for a lay-up in the paint.

Krebs thus checked off all the boxes Bennett put beside his name when the season started: defended both forwards and guards, scored well inside and outside (14 points on 6-11 shooting, including 2-5 from three-point range) and rebounded well (seven boards). A good night’s work among several others from his teammates.

Malik Fitts was the star of the game, if you feel that Jordan Ford’s routinely brilliant 23 points was just another day at the office. Fitts personally broke open a 25-25 tie with a little more than five minutes left in the first half, sinking three consecutive three-pointers to firmly re-establish his credentials as a stretch forward and, seemingly, send BYU into shock.

Fitts has shown three-point ability at various points of the season, but was flummoxed by San Francisco forward Nate Renfro’s tight defense in the Gaels’ lamentable effort against the Dons on Thursday. Fitts made only 4-15 shots against San Francisco and went 0-2 on three-point attempts. He started the BYU game by missing his first two three-point attempts, but didn’t call it quits, eventually scoring 18 points and grabbing nine rebounds.

He also accounted for four steals and made his prettiest assist of the year when surrounded in the paint early in the second half. Instead of forcing an awkward shot as he has many times this season, he kept his poise and found Jordan Hunter for a drop-off and dunk. Add “assist” to his portfolio, which, like that of Krebs, was well-rounded against BYU.

Tass in the middle

Another contribution was also significant, although it didn’t register strongly in the scorebook. Freshman Matthias Tass was pressed into action early in the game when Hunter rediscovered his penchant for racking up quick fouls, was whistled for two and headed to the bench. Over an approximate 12-minute span, Tass demonstrated the ability to:

— Find cutters (Elijah Thomas on a back-door cut and lay-up, Fotu on two drives that Fotu failed to convert into baskets but turned into two free throws);

— Kick out to a wide-open shooters, the recipient in this case being Krebs, who sank a corner three-pointer that used to be a staple of thee Gael offense but had seemingly disappeared;

— Defend BYU center Luke Worthington, twice with clean blocks and once with a strip that contributed to the Gaels’ healthy total of 10 steals for the game;

— And finally — thankfully — score in the paint, with four points on 2-4 shooting. Tass has missed more bunnies than Elmer Fudd on a bad day, so maybe he shook that monkey off his back (lot of animal metaphors, I know).

Bennett seemingly forgot about Tass in the second half, going with an ineffective Hunter until Hunter picked up his fourth foul with about seven minutes left in the game. As if to remind his coach of the value that was parked on the bench for most of the second half, Tass immediately fed Ford for a three-pointer to push the Gael lead to 72-55, and then worked a nice give-and-go with Ford that led to Tass’ second bucket.

Ford, because of his value as the Gaels’ primary scoring option, is not a big assist-maker, but he seems to feel comfortable with Tass in the middle. The pair worked a nice pick-and-roll shortly after Tass entered the game in the first half, but Tass let Ford’s pass go through his fingers for a lost opportunity. Still, there are hints of the clever inside passing game that flourished in days past under Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon, a game that results in dunks and other high percentage shots that the Gaels used to feast on.

Is Tass a better option than Hunter in the paint? Will Fitts continue to shoot confidently from distance? Can Krebs keep up his streak of three games in a row in double figures? One would be foolish to bet heavily on any of those outcomes, such unpredictability being the main reason why the Gaels have had such an up-and-down season.

But those are the things to watch for and hope for as the 2018-19 campaign rolls on. With Krebs as a consistent scoring threat, with more continuity in the paint and with Fitts becoming a dominant power forward, the Gaels would present a powerful cast to go along with Ford’s day-to-day brilliance.

It would make their performance throughout the rest of the West Coast Conference season more interesting than just wondering if anyone will beat Gonzaga.

Malik Fitts, shown above from an earlier game, electrified his teammates and fans with a first-half blitz of three consecutive three-pointers, en route to an 18-point, nine rebound game against BYU. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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