by Michael Vernetti
At halftime of Saint Mary’s 78-66 win over Pacific Thursday night in Moraga, Malik Fitts had two points and three fouls, Pacific had shot 67% from the floor and the Gaels needed a three-point heave at the buzzer by Jordan Ford to go ahead by 42-39.
Had ’em just where you wanted ’em, eh Coach Bennett? Probably not.
Whether basking in the memory of last Saturday’s 86-80 win over San Francisco or looking ahead to the fearsome task of facing Gonzaga in Spokane on Saturday, the Gaels were not hitting on all cylinders against the Tigers. Take Fitts.
The Gaels’ potential next all-America candidate — unless Ford beats him to it — had dominated San Francisco with 30 points and eight rebounds. He completely confounded the Dons’ best defender, Nate Renfro, and looked every inch the team leader that Coach Randy Bennett wants him to be.
Fitts was matched up against the Tigers’ Jeremiah Bailey, a 6’6″ sophomore transfer from Pima College in Tucson, who was averaging fewer than five PPG and had not burned up the nets with his three-point shooting. Fitts is neither a very good nor very poor defender, but maybe he didn’t take Bailey too seriously.
Bailey proceeded to go 5-6 from the floor in the first half, including 3-3 from three-point range, although one of those was recorded against Dan Fotu, whom Bennett inserted to keep Fitts from fouling out. Bailey ended the half with 14 points, and Fitts ended it on the bench, perhaps wondering why the Tigers had not read his press clippings from the San Francisco game.
Bailey is emblematic of the scrappy, underrated squad that third-year Coach Damon Stoudamire has assembled in Stockton. Stoudamire, a former NBA and Arizona standout who was known as “Mighty Mouse” in his playing days — he is listed in Wikipedia, generously, as 5’10” — took over a job that would not have appealed to the faint of heart.
Pacific had self-reported to the NCAA numerous academic misconduct and recruiting violations and fired its head coach and key assistants before Stoudamire arrived in March of 2016, so he knew bad news was coming. That bad news, delivered in September, 2017, included a loss of six scholarships over three years and serious cuts to the number of visits allowed potential recruits, how much off-campus recruiting Pacific could do, even cut-backs to telephone and electronic messages sent to recruits.
Stoudamire has stood tall — figuratively — during the stormy days that followed the NCAA restrictions, and led Pacific to its best conference record, 9-9, good for fourth place, in the West Coast Conference last year. His tenure has been marked by five bare-knuckle encounters with the Gaels, all of which Saint Mary’s has won, with a sixth coming up Feb. 21 in Stockton. It is doubtful the Gaels will dismiss the Tigers in that contest, but it is equally doubtful they will enjoy the experience.
Welcome back Elijah Thomas
The Gaels recovered nicely from the rocky first half, holding Pacific to 27 second-half points on 36% shooting, and there were several positive notes. Fitts went to work underneath, scoring repeatedly against the Tigers’ undermanned front court, and Jordan Hunter, who pulled down 14 rebounds, aided that effort by keeping several possessions alive with either rebounds or tap-outs to teammates.
Ford, who had scorched Pacific for 18 first-half points, added another 10 and appeared to have regained confidence in his three-point shot, sinking 4-6. Ford needs to hit consistently from the outside to open lanes for his runners and acrobatic lay-ups.
For the second game in a row, Tanner Krebs laid aside his considerable offensive talents to home in on a rival scorer, in this case the Tigers’ slippery Jahlil Tripp. Tripp ended with 23 points on 10-18 shooting, so it would be inaccurate to say Krebs shut him down, but Krebs made him work for his points, just as he did against Charles Mineland in the San Francisco game.
Krebs took only three shots against Pacific, sinking a crucial three-pointer from the short corner in the second half, just as he took only five against San Francisco. Watching Krebs in warm-ups and during the game, he seems to be more comfortable with his long-range jumper than any time in the season. The one he made against Pacific was an effortless flick, and his 4-4 free-throw shooting was of the same order: “Let me get these over with, ref, I’ve got some defending to do.”
Of all the feel-good aspects of the Pacific game, however, the reappearance of Elijah Thomas as a force on offense and defense was perhaps the most important for the Gaels’ chances going forward. Thomas had deteriorated from a slumping sophomore season, in which his once-reliable three-point shot seemed to have abandoned him, to a DNP against San Francisco. I sensed a resurgence was coming in warm-ups for the San Francisco game, as Thomas bounced on the court with a new, trim haircut and a familiar jauntiness.
Still with the shorter hair, he got off the bench against Pacific and gave Saint Mary’s an immediate boost. He spelled Krebs in guarding Tripp, and backed down his defender with a slick turn-around jumper in the paint. More importantly, he finally sank a three-pointer — one of three he attempted — to end what seemed like an interminable drought. Fouled on one of those attempts, he shored up a shaky Gael night at the free throw line — Ford missed three! — by sinking all three of his attempts.
Eight points, two rebounds and stout defense made Thomas’ 13 minutes on the floor memorable.
Elijah Thomas, shown above in an intra-squad game against his own teammates, had an impact on the Pacific win with eight points in 13 minutes of playing time. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.