Gaels move to 4-1 in WCC. What’s it mean?

by Michael Vernetti

Against Santa Clara Thursday in Moraga, the Gaels were clumsy, reckless and inefficient, but stumbled to a 20-point win, 75-55.

Against San Diego Saturday night, still at home, they were focused, determined and ruthless, and breezed to a 76-59 win over a tough Toreros squad that had beaten two Pac-12 foes (Colorado and Washington State), and vanquished crosstown rival San Diego State by 73-61.

What happened?

Probably no one can say for sure, including Gaels Coach Randy Bennett, although he had no trouble analyzing his team’s performance against Santa Clara.

“It’s hard for me to feel like we played well when we were that sloppy offensively,” Bennett told Steve Kroner of the San Francisco Chronicle. “We weren’t the normal Gaels offensively, so we’ve got to get better there.”

How abnormal was the Santa Clara effort? I counted 19 instances of careless and boneheaded plays — things like Tanner Krebs dribbling the ball off his foot and out of bounds in the game’s opening seconds, then repeating the miscue a few minutes later; numerous lazy passes and careless dribbling by Jordan Ford, all leading to turnovers; Dan Fotu botching an in-bounds pass, then dribbling off his foot, then fouling Santa Clara’s Josip Vrankic, allowing Vrankic to cut the Gaels’ lead to 48-38 at the 14-minute mark of the second half.

My tally comported nicely with the official stats, which showed the Gaels made just 10 assists against 18 turnovers. Sloppy offensively, indeed.

Presto chango!

The Gaels had just one full day of practice between the Santa Clara and San Diego games, and one can imagine Bennett was single-minded in his preparation for the Toreros.

“From the beginning we wanted to come out with great intensity,” commented Malik Fitts to the Chronicle, in what was undoubtedly an understatement of gigantic proportions.

The Gaels were on fire in the opening minutes of the San Diego game, racing to leads of 13-2, 18-4 and 21-6. Fitts, who was one of the chief malingerers against Santa Clara with just 10 points on 4-7 shooting, was particularly engaged. He had a steal and coast-to-coast score early on, then made a statement play in the paint against San Diego’s premiere power forward, Isaiah Pineiro.

Pineiro, a transfer from Portland State who revitalized San Diego upon his arrival last season, has been a thorn in the Gaels’ side. When Saint Mary’s was forced to play Krebs at power forward last season because of Bennett’s disenchantment with Evan Fitzner, Pineiro had a field day in the teams’ two encounters: identical lines of 9-17 shooting and 24 points scored in the Gaels’ 70-63 win in Moraga (difficult) and 65-62 squeaker in San Diego (harrowing).

Fitts knew it was up to him to try and contain Pineiro, and he succeeded convincingly Saturday night. He relished the opportunity to back down Pineiro in that early encounter, scoring a tough bucket and drawing a foul. Converting the three-point play accounted for the Gaels’ early 21-6 lead, and Fitts went on to score 24 points on 8-15 shooting, and “hold” Pineiro to 19 points on 7-17 shooting.

Pineiro may have vented some frustration over his change of fortune against the Gaels with less than 10 minutes left in the game when he fouled Matthias Tass as Tass went up-court after a change of possession. It was a meaningless and unnecessary foul, and, fortunately for Saint Mary’s, Pineiro’s fourth. It sent him to the bench at the 9:33 mark and seemed to energize Fitts. Shortly after Pineiro’s fourth foul, Fitts took a brilliant pass from Krebs on a cut to the bucket for a lay-up that moved the Gaels’ advantage to 61-43.

Fitts then punctuated his determination not to allow Pineiro to dominate by making another steal and flushing a dunk that almost separated the net from the rim. As Don Meredith used to croon on Monday Night Football, it was time to “Turn out the lights, the party’s over.”

Unsung heroes

While Fitts led the Gaels in scoring and Ford rebounded from a sub-par game against Santa Clara with 21 points of his own (including 4-7 from deep three-point range), two other Gaels also distinguished themselves against San Diego. Tommy Kuhse, the walk-on point guard pressed into duty by a pre-season injury to Kristers Zoriks, had his most confident effort of the season in leading the Gael offense.

Kuhse has found himself alone and flummoxed in the paint on numerous occasions this season, but on Saturday he was purposeful and effective on his forays into the land of tall opponents. He had two early drive-and-kick assists, then brought exclamations of delight from the NBC Bay Area TV announcers. It was a scramble play that seemed doomed to a shot-clock violation — something that has plagued Saint Mary’s often this year — but Kuhse kept his composure and found Tass cutting to the basket for a dunk instead.

In the second half, Kuhse dropped another beauty of a dime on Tass, who again converted to move the Gaels’ advantage to 57-41, and foretell the Toreros’ doom. Kuhse ended the night with five assists and only one turnover, leading the Gaels to a dramatic team improvement of 10 assists against seven turnovers.

Tass, who has shown gradual improvement as the season has progressed, put in his best effort against San Diego and its trio of big, bigger and biggest centers: Alex Floresca (6’8″, 240 lbs), Yauhen Massalski (6’10”, 227 lbs) and Andrew Ferguson (7’0″, 230 lbs). Tass scored nine points on 4-7 shooting and pulled down seven boards in 21 minutes, complementing starter Jordan Hunter’s line of 10 points and six rebounds. Perhaps not incidentally, Tass played four more minutes than Hunter.

The meaning of it all

Since opening WCC play with a face-plant against San Francisco, the Gaels have rattled off four straight wins to pull into a tie for second place (at 4-1) with the Dons behind the undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs. Moreover, they have won decisively against all opponents except San Francisco, beating BYU by 22, Santa Clara by 20 and San Diego by 17. Even an ostensibly close 71-60 win over Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles was deceptive in that the Gaels were never in danger of losing after blasting out of the gate as they did against San Diego.

Saint Mary’s now goes on the road for games against BYU in Provo and Pepperdine in Malibu before returning to Moraga for a re-match against San Francisco on Feb. 2. Gael fans relish the opportunity of facing San Francisco with undisputed possession of second place at stake, but that is not guaranteed. San Francisco, who walloped BYU Saturday night 82-63 at home, has to play San Diego in San Diego before the Saint Mary’s rematch, and the Dons have been shaky on the road, squeaking by Pepperdine (72-69) and Pacific (53-52).

The San Francisco-San Diego game could be a battle for SBG (Supremacy Besides Gonzaga) rights in the WCC, a title Saint Mary’s used to own. The best scenario from the Saint Mary’s standpoint would have both the Gaels and the Dons standing at 6-1 on Feb. 2, giving the Gaels a chance to reclaim SBG status. Stay tuned.

It has seemed that all eyes have been on point guard Tommy Kuhse since he emerged from walk-on status to become the Gaels’ starting point guard. His performance Saturday against San Diego may indicate he is becoming used to the pressure. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

 

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