by Michael Vernetti
Okay, so it took a superlative effort by Malik Fitts — 30 points, eight rebounds — and a hold-your-breath final two minutes for Saint Mary’s to scrape out an 86-80 win over San Francisco Saturday afternoon in Moraga.
Certainly not Gael Coach Randy Bennett, who might have been wondering who stole his team after desultory road losses at BYU (71-66) and Pepperdine (84-77) in the week before San Francisco crossed the Bay Bridge. One thing Bennett — and Gael fans — have learned about this year’s young, inexperienced squad is, “Don’t take anything for granted.”
Before the two road losses, the Gaels had clawed their way to second place in the West Coast Conference at 4-1, and had soundly thrashed one of the rising powers in the conference, San Diego, by 76-59. Corner turned, demons exorcised, right?
While one could write off the BYU loss as an inexplicable act of revenge by the basketball gods, who conspired to limit this excellent three-point-shooting team to 5-20 overall from distance after an 0-9 first half, it is hard to rationalize what happened against the resurgent Pepperdine Waves.
The Gaels’ on again-off again defense simply dissolved in Malibu, allowing the Waves’ elusive and cocky guard, Colbey Ross, to explode for 29 points. Ross went 15-16 from the free throw line, emphasizing the Gaels’ inability to defend him without fouling. Culprit number one was the Gaels’ own star guard, Jordan Ford, who couldn’t contain Ross down the stretch after Ford converted a lay-up to push his team into the lead at 67-66 with 2:26 left in the game.
Ford then fouled Ross on the next two Pepperdine possessions, leading to three points which were just enough to forge a 69-69 tie at the end of regulation. The Gaels weren’t competitive in the extra period, scoring only eight points to the Waves’ 15.
Enter San Francisco
Saint Mary’s desperately needed the week-long break the schedule provided after the disastrous road trip to prepare for a rematch against the Dons, who defeated the Gaels 76-72 in San Francisco on January 3. San Francisco Coach Kyle Smith has primed his squad to unseat Saint Mary’s as the back-up to Gonzaga atop the WCC, and could not afford a third loss as the conference schedule reached its halfway point. San Francisco gave up a 14-point halftime lead to drop a 67-63 decision to San Diego Thursday in San Diego, falling to 4-2 in conference play — a game ahead of the 4-3 Gaels.
There was drama aplenty on a rainy Saturday afternoon as the two coaches with a lot of common history — Smith served alongside Bennett for nine years as an assistant in Moraga — faced off for a badly-needed win. The Gaels promptly deflated dramatic expectations by playing their most dominating first half this season, running to a 47-30 lead behind scorching three-point shooting by Fitts, Ford and, of all people, Tommy Kuhse — he of the 27% three-point shooting percentage.
The Gaels shot 54% overall and 44% from three-point range, led by Fitts’ 19, points, 14 from Ford and 12 from the low-scoring Kuhse — including two-of-four three-point attempts. Redemption, thy name is a made three-pointer.
Just as impressive as the offensive fireworks was the tight defense played on San Francisco’s two big guns, guards Frankie Ferrari and Charles Mineland. Kuhse held Ferrari to eight points on three-of-seven shooting, and Krebs bothered Mineland into a one-for-four performance for a measly three points. Alas, Krebs and Kuhse relaxed a bit — okay, a lot — in the second half, as Ferrari scorched the Gaels for 14 points on six-of-nine shooting, and Mineland was even better, going seven-of-10, including five-of-six from three-point range, to score 33 points between them.
Bennett scrambled to stop the bleeding, switching Krebs onto Ferrari and Fitts onto Mineland, but to little effect. The Gaels simply do not have any consistent defensive stoppers, one of their most nagging deficiencies.
The home stretch
Sitting at 5-3, Saint Mary’s is effectively in a three-way tie for second with BYU and San Francisco. BYU has a temporary half-game lead at 6-3 because it didn’t have a bye in the first half, but that discrepancy will be corrected in the second half. The losses are the key, and none of the three teams can afford to pile on many more. That leads us to look at the remaining schedule and handicap the chances of Saint Mary’s San Francisco and BYU to finish second behind Gonzaga and earn a bye to the semifinal round of the WCC Tournament in March.
The Dons walk into the Lions Den known as the McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane next Thursday and play BYU in Provo on Feb. 21, but should get by the rest of its opponents before facing off against San Diego at home in the final week. Good chance to finish at 12-4.
Saint Mary’s has not one but two games against Gonzaga, beginning next Saturday in Spokane, and will get a chance for revenge against Pepperdine on Feb. 16 in Moraga. It’s conceivable the Gaels could go 6-2 in the second half for an 11-5 conference record, but that would require a win over revenge-minded San Diego on the road on Feb. 23.
BYU has to play San Diego twice, including a league-ending March 2 date in Provo, along with Gonzaga in Spokane and San Francisco at home. It’s not hard to foresee another four losses for the Cougs, which would bring them to 9-7 for the season. So, San Francisco could have the easiest road to second place, Saint Mary’s the next easiest and BYU the hardest. San Diego will be a key to all of their fortunes, and the Toreros stand a decent chance of unseating one of the second-place contenders.
Let the second half begin.
Malik Fitts, shown above in an earlier game, was dominant against San Francisco with 30 points and eight rebounds. Fitts might have NBA scouts returning to Moraga before long. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.