by Michael Vernetti

The 2018-19 season was a rocky one for Randy Bennett’s young Gaels: a four-game losing streak early on, including losses at home to Harvard and UC Irvine; a two game road nosedive against BYU and Pepperdine in late January; and, finally, the Feb. 9 meltdown in Spokane where Gonzaga hung a 94-46 embarrassment on them.

Those low points didn’t portend an auspicious outcome Tuesday night in the Gaels’ third match-up with Gonzaga at the WCC Championship game in Las Vegas. Nevertheless, Saint Mary’s fully engaged the reved-up defense it had used to hold three opponents under 50 points between Feb. 21-28, and throttled he Zags by the improbable score of 60-47.

Forty-seven points is approximately the amount Gonzaga’s second team scores by halftime in a routine scrimmage, not the total expected from the nation’s number one ranked team that was averaging 90 PPG before the Saint Mary’s contest and rocking along with a nation’s-best field goal percentage north of 53%.

But 47 was all the Gaels allowed, as they entered the game determined to control the pace, limit the blitzkrieg-like Zag runs and prevent second-chance points by controlling the boards. Check, check and check.

Kuhse to the rescue

Tommy Kuhse, the Gaels’ stand-in point guard, was unflappable in directing the Gaels’ offense, committing only two turnovers in 40 minutes of action, and dishing out three of the Gaels’ total of four assists. After his first TO midway through the second half with the Gaels leading by only point, 40-39, Bennett corralled him for some stern words, then patted him on the butt as if to say, “You’re doing okay overall, kid.”

Tellingly, Gonzaga failed to convert after Kuhse’s misplay, as the Zags’ Zach Norvell, working on a 1-11 night, missed a runner in the paint. Jordan Ford answered with a runner of his own at the other end and the Gaels inched up to a 42-39 lead. A few minutes later Kuhse coughed up another turnover trying to force a backdoor pass by Zag guard Geno Crandall, but, again, Gonzaga failed to convert the miscue into points.

All this drama was leading to the biggest moment of the night. At the 8:19 mark, with Gonzaga again trailing by only one point following a runner by Corey Kispert, the Gaels were forced to in-bound the ball with only five seconds left on the shot clock. Tanner Krebs, who scored almost half the Gaels’ first-half points with 13, missed a three-point attempt, but the Gaels’ Jordan Hunter had good position on Gonzaga’s 6’10′” Killian Tillie.

This was no isolated incident for Hunter, who was brilliant on the boards throughout the night, grabbing 15 rebounds and scoring 12 points against the Zags’ fearsome front court threesome of Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke and Tillie. Hunter soared to grab the rebound after Krebs’ misfire, and Tillie used his body to move Hunter away from the basket.

Somehow, Hunter got enough of his right hand on the ball to force it off the backboard and into the net for the biggest bucket of the game, and, perhaps, the Gaels’ season. Tillie was called for a foul on the play, and Hunter retained his concentration to sink the free-throw and move his team ahead by four points, 45-41.

Again misplacing the poise polished by a 30-2 season, Gonzaga committed a crucial turnover, as Hachimura palmed the ball on a dribble-drive into the paint. With Crandall hounding Ford relentlessly on the ensuing possession, the Zags came close to getting a turnover back, but Crandall made a crucial miscalculation after knocking the ball out of Ford’s hands.

Crandall dived for the momentarily loose ball, but Ford beat him to it. With his defender sprawled on the floor, Ford calmly regained control and tossed in a 25-foot three-pointer just before the buzzer, moving the Gaels ahead by an insurmountable 48-41.

“Upset, baby!” was the response by excitable ESPN analyst/icon Dick Vitale, and he voiced some other dagger words following two consecutive, unforced turnovers by the Zags.

“They’re losing their poise,” he told the nationwide ESPN audience, and truer words were never spoken. The Zags looked beaten at that point, and it was left to Saint Mary’s non-scholarship walk-on, Kuhse, to deliver the coup de grace with two moves against veteran Zag guard Josh Perkins.

Boxed in on the right elbow, Kuhse faked Perkins off his feet, then twisted around Perkins’ airborne body to bank in an eight-footer for a nine-point Gael lead, 54-45, at the 3:38 mark. Vitale was reaching for the smelling salts after that one, but Kuhse wasn’t finished. A few possessions later, he took Perkins to the rack from the left side of the paint and scored on a reverse lay-up to make the score 56-47.

The Zags were reduced to fouling Ford to get the ball back, but Ford sank four straight free throws to bring the memorable night to a close.

The future awaits

As rewarding as it was on its merits, the Gaels’ win brought with it an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, with the Zags put in the usual Saint Mary’s role of awaiting an at-large invitation to claim a possible number one seed in the West bracket. This coming Sunday won’t hold the anxiety that previous selection days have for the Gaels, but it is doubtful they will be seeded anywhere near the Zags’ lofty perch.

ESPN bracket “expert” Joe Lunardi posited an immediate post-game match-up between Saint Mary’s as a twelve seed against Virginia Tech, currently sitting at 24-7 in the middle of the ACC Tournament, as a five seed. Virginia Tech boasts victories over Duke (without Zion Williamson), Syracuse, Washington and Purdue, so taking them on — even in San Jose as Lunardi projected — would be no walk in the park.

Lunardi’s calls beyond the top seeds have no more value than those of a guy on a bar stool next to you at this point, but his thinking is illustrative of the mindset of the selection gurus — Saint Mary’s isn’t getting a pass into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

I don’t think this prospect will faze Bennett’s lads a bit. They’ve seen it all this season, and seem to have found their identity as ferocious defenders. Hunter’s maturity, the evolving role of Matthias Tass in the front court and Ford’s continuing offensive legerdemain are strengths. Malik Fitts, who managed just 12 minutes against Gonzaga but scored a crucial eight second-half points, and Krebs, who reversed Fitts’ pattern with a 13-point first half and a goose-egg in the second, have to be listed as question marks because their play is up and down.

But these Gaels know they won’t face anyone better than Gonzaga — just as Gonzaga probably thinks about future opponents not named Saint Mary’s — so I don’t think a long plane trip to someplace they don’t want to visit will mean much. In a pinch, the Gaels can always turn to Kuhse to pull one out of his bag of tricks.

Jordan Hunter, named the WCC Tournament’s Most Valuable Player after his stellar performance against Gonzaga, exults at game’s end. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.


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