by Michael Vernetti
A funny thing happened to Saint Mary’s on the way to an apparent rout of Loyola Marymount Saturday night in Los Angeles. They proved themselves mortal.
Randy Bennett’s Gaels, coming off a 22-point home win over BYU, opened with guns blazing against the surprisingly good Lions, who were 13-3 going into the game, with a true road win over UNLV and a neutral court win over Georgetown under their belts. The Gaels scored on their first five possessions, which included two steals and a coast-to-coast lay-up and free throw by Tanner Krebs.
The score was 12-0 before a stunned LMU Coach Mike Dunlap called time out barely three minutes into the game.
Although LMU took advantage of the time-out to score twice against the Gaels’ soft underbelly — the paint — Saint Mary’s did not back off offensively. Malik Fitts, whose three consecutive three-pointers broke open the BYU game, hit the first of another first half three-point barrage (he went 3-3), Krebs sank a corner trey, Jordan Ford joined the assault from distance and Fitts sank his second trey for a 34-13 lead at the 7:15 mark.
When the half ended with Saint Mary’s up 45-26, the Gaels had shot 63% overall, and a blistering 66% on three-pointers (6-9). Clearly, they couldn’t sustain that efficiency, so the question was, “How would Saint Mary’s navigate the second half and an expected LMU push-back?”
Not so well
The magic disappears
Although the second half started positively on a three-pointer by low-scoring point guard Tommy Kuhse, the Gaels couldn’t sustain their first-half attack. Fitts missed consecutive three-point attempts and would not make another in the game. Jordan Hunter, coming off a spectacular first half in which he went 3-3 from the floor, grabbed four rebounds and blocked a shot, missed a tough jumper against LMU’s 7’3″ Matthias Markusson, and Krebs missed a short jumper in the paint.
LMU, meanwhile, continued pounding the Gaels’ interior, first with a hook shot by Markusson and then with a put-back by power forward Eli Scott. Scott is listed at 6’5″ and 240 pounds, but he consistently overpowered Fitts inside, ending with 14 points on 6-12 shooting.
Ford, who played a restrained but efficient offensive game, gave the Gaels some breathing room with a three-pointer off a scramble for a 51-35 lead at the 15:39 mark. LMU continued to battle, but the Gaels were able to fend off any hopes for a sustained rally. Fitts contributed a steal off Scott, who is a bull in the paint but careless with the ball when away from the basket, then converted two free throws when Scott fouled him.
On the Gaels’ next possession, Fitts drove the paint, missed a lay-up but Hunter tapped in the miss to put the Gaels up 57-43 with time running out. A little later, Krebs sank a three-pointer to put Saint Mary’s up 60-45 at the 7:26 mark. It looked as if the Gaels could push their lead back to the 20-point range, but a spate of turnovers caused by active Lion hands against Hunter and Ford allowed LMU to cut the lead to 64-54 with a little more than two minutes left.
Then came the strangest play of the night.
Ford was dribbling to no apparent effect following two consecutive possessions in which Lion guard Joe Quintana had poked the ball away from him from behind. It looked as if Ford were in danger of creating another turnover by failing to beat the 30-second clock, when the man guarding him, Dameane Douglas, stubbed the toe on his left foot.
It apparently shocked or pained him greatly, because Douglas simply stopped guarding Ford and checked out his foot. Ford took advantage of Douglas’ inattention to bank a runner off the backboard just before the shot clock buzzer. The Gaels went up 66-54 and, except for a misplayed in-bounds pass against the Lions’ press, easily rode out the rest of the game for a 71-60 win.
Give ’em a B
Overall, it was a satisfying win for the Gaels against team that clearly thought the stage was set for a statement win such as San Francisco’s 76-72 conquest of the Gaels on Jan. 3. Dunlap has held the core of his team together after several years of presiding over a revolving door of departing players. He has a strong scoring point guard in James Batemon and a quartet of brutes under the basket consisting of Markusson, Scott, Jordan Bell and Zafir Williams.
The bigs accounted for 37 points, and helped LMU to a commanding 40-28 point advantage in the paint (although SMC out-rebounded LMU by 28-22). Batemon, however, was held to just nine points on 2-8 shooting, about half his season’s average, and the Lions gave up five steals to the Gaels. Kuhse deserves the kudos for slowing down Batemon, and also scored five points and dished out seven assists.
Although Ford and Fitts shared the scoring lead with 18 points each, the 16 points from Krebs was perhaps more gratifying. The LMU game was his fourth in a row with double-digit scoring and he seems to be displaying more and more leadership qualities. That he took and made a tough three-pointer as the vise tightened in the second half was an important statement, and underscored Fitts’ inability to hit from long-distance after his first-half blitz.
The Gaels return home for two games against Santa Clara and San Diego after playing two of their first three conference games on the road, and have moved into a tie for third place in the WCC with San Francisco at 2-1. The Dons battled Gonzaga until the final moments Saturday night before succumbing 96-83, but have played two of their main opponents at home, leaving them to travel to Moraga and Spokane for rematches with the Gaels and Zags.
This thing is just getting started.
With 16 points against LMU Saturday night, Gael forward Tanner Krebs notched his fourth game in a row with double-digit scoring. Photo courtesy of Todd Fierner.