A bracket too far

by Michael Vernetti

And so, after the exhilaration of the Gonzaga upset, after the excitement of being back in the NCAA Tournament following last year’s brutal snub, the Gaels suffered another three-to-five-point loss, 61-57, to a good-but-not-great Villanova team.

Similar to the 61-57 loss to Mississippi State, the 80-75 loss to UC Irvine, the 78-74 loss to LSU and the 71-68 loss to Western Kentucky. Close but no cigar, see you next year.

What is it about these 2018-19 Gaels that brought them so close to getting over the hump of good into elite territory? The early-season losses such as those listed above can certainly be chalked up to coping with the transition of five key players (Landale, Naar, Hermanson, Fitzner and Neal) and the injuries suffered by Kristers Zoriks, Kyle Clark and Aaron Menzies in pre-season.

But after suffering the humiliation of a 48-point loss to Gonzaga in February, this team had turned things around. Winning seven of its last eight games, including a redemption victory over Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament Championship, it was poised to get past the first weekend of March Madness and distinguish itself. Through the first half of Thursday’s Villanova game, that promise was still alive.

First half fine

Ahead 30-28, making more three-pointers than the sharp-shooting Wildcats (5-4), out-rebounding them 17-13 and committing only two turnovers, the Gaels showed that the offensive execution and defensive intensity they demonstrated against Gonzaga was not a mirage. Then came the second half.

Surely the Gaels would remember how the game had begun, with three-pointers from unlikely sources Jermaine Samuels and Saddiq Bey, followed by a too-easy jumper from veteran guard Phil Booth, giving the Wildcats a quick 8-2 lead. Surely they would be on guard to prevent that from happening again. Except they weren’t.

On ‘Nova’s first possession, Booth went to his right, a change in the left-hander’s first-half pattern, and easily hit a jumper over Jordan Hunter, who picked him up on a switch. Booth then drove Tanner Krebs, scoring on a lay-up and a free throw. After Jordan Ford pumped some life into the Gaels with a step-back three -pointer, Malik Fitts and Hunter got their signals crossed on a screen to free Villanova’s other veteran scorer, Eric Paschall.

Neither pressed Paschall tightly, and he responded by sinking a three-pointer to push the Wildcats ahead by 35-33. Completing a 10-3 run, Bey repeated his first-half surprise with a three-pointer following a block against a driving Ford and an ensuing scramble that found the Gaels disorganized on defense.

Losing composure for the first time, Fitts coughed up a pass into the paint, where he was poised to go to the rim against Paschall. Another Villanova run-out off that turnover ended with a driving dunk by Samuels that pushed the margin to 40-33 and ended the run at 12-3. Time out Gaels, take your breath, re-group.

Too much to overcome

But the damage was done. The Gaels would outscore ‘Nova 24-21 from that point on, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a several-minute lapse of concentration that put them into a hole too deep to escape. This veteran ‘Nova team, coached by the veteran Jay Wright, has a pedigree of three straight NCAA Championship games — and it has won two of them.

Never did ‘Nova panic, pushing its lead to eight points twice (50-42 at the 7:32 mark and 59-51 in the final minute), and withstanding heroics from Kuhse, who hit a clutch three-pointer to cut the lead to 50-47, and two big plays in the paint by Fitts, the second bringing Saint Mary’s within four points at 61-57 with 23 seconds left. It wasn’t enough.

In a game where every possession counted, ‘Nova would score 10 points off turnovers. The one on the entry pass to Fitts, a Kuhse travel in the paint and a lazy pass from Ford to Hunter that Booth intercepted were the killers. Although the Gaels boasted a 22-1 record when leading at halftime before Thursday’s game, a fall-off from 30 points in the first half to 27 in the second, coupled with an improvement from 28 points to 33 by Villanova, spelled the difference.

Much to cheer

As disappointed as the Gaels were, there was much to applaud about their effort. Matthias Tass hit a key three-pointer in the first half, and scored on two nifty inside moves — plus a pair of free throws — to score nine points. On two occasions, just the fear of him holding the ball confidently in the paint caused Villanova to bend its defense enough to allow open three-pointers by Ford and Kuhse — both of which were successful.

Hunter, who played ahead of Tass much of this season, is the only Gael departing from this squad, leaving Tass as the heir apparent in the post or as a stretch four. Gael Coach Randy Bennett will have to figure out whether rising 7’1″ junior Jock Perry or 7’3″ red-shirt senior Menzies — assuming he wants to come back without a scholarship — will take Hunter’s place, but there is plenty of time to worry about that.

The 2019-20 Gaels will not be as green as the current squad, and might be boosted by the return from knee injury of Zoriks. Before going down in an October scrimmage against Stanford, Zoriks was penciled in at point guard alongside Ford. That was his second ACL tear in the same knee, so Zoriks cannot be considered a sure thing, but Kuhse performed admirably in his stead and will be back to offer depth to the Gaels’ lineup.

Ford and Fitts, along with rising senior Krebs, will return as the primary offensive options, and the Gaels will hope for some contribution from rising sophomore guards Alex Mudronja and Quinn Clinton, who barely made it off the bench this season. Will it be enough to get over that three-to-five-point divide that cost the Gaels their usual success this season? Only time will tell.

Malik Fitts, who scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds in the season-ending loss to Villanova, will be back to lead the Gaels again in the fall. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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