by Michael Vernetti
Gael fans had much to enjoy in Saint Mary’s 65-63 overtime win over Wisconsin Monday night in Sioux Falls, SD: Jordan Ford’s mesmerizing 26 points on a variety of shots that threatened to cause ESPNU announcer Robbie Hummel to stroke out; Malik Fitts’ second-half explosion for 16 points; and the heady debuts of Aussie freshmen Alex Ducas and Kyle Bowen.
Those were nice.
But the thing that propelled this victory after a horrendous, everything-went-bad-that-could-go-bad start was the Gaels’ tenacious, clinging defense. No Badger got by his primary defender, no shot went unchallenged, no screen thwarted a Gael defender. Continuing a string of games from the end of last season where defense became the Saint Mary’s calling card, Randy Bennett’s Gaels seem determined to prove that holding Gonzaga to 47 points in the WCC Championship game was no fluke.
Consider Tanner Krebs, who drew perhaps the most difficult challenge against Wisconsin: guarding Kobe King, the 6’4″ redshirt sophomore who became a Wisconsin legend after a senior season at La Crosse Central in which he averaged 28 points and nine rebounds per game and was voted Wisconsin Player of the Year.
After an injury in his freshman year, King regained his form last year and is ready to explode this season. Krebs simply gave him no opportunity to do so, cutting off his drives and smothering every shot attempt. King ended up with six points in 30 minutes on the floor, making just one of two FG attempts and four free throws.
Equally effective on a budding Wisconsin star was Fitts, who drew 6’8″ redshirt junior forward Aleem Ford, whom the Badgers look to be one of their three-point shooting leaders. Ford went 1-6 on three-point attempts against Fitts, and ended up with seven points in 34 minutes.
The lone exception
The only Badger the Gaels couldn’t contain was junior center Nate Reuvers, a 6’11” shot- blocker (he had four Monday night) who pestered the Gaels with 22 points on 8-18 shooting. Gael starting center Matthias Tass was actually effective against Reuvers, but Tass is foul prone and picked up two quick infractions that revealed a giant weakness for Saint Mary’s — backup center.
The Gaels are without the services of either 7’1″ Jock Perry (knee injury) or 7’3″ Aaron Menzies (back woes), so had to rely on 6’7″ sophomore Dan Fotu to keep Reuvers in check. Alas, Fotu is also foul-prone, and after doing everything he could against Reuvers Fotu joined Tass on the bench with five fouls.
Bennett tantalized Gael fans by sending in Menzies for brief spells in each half, but other than giving Menzies practice in checking in at the scorer’s table, the move seemed to have no purpose. He barely touched the ball or did anything else that revealed whether he is or isn’t fit to play.
At game’s end, Saint Mary’s called on the precocious Bowen, a 6’8″ freshman who was playing in high school a few months ago, to man the post position. Bowen acquitted himself well, grabbing a crucial offensive rebound in overtime and sinking one of two free throws that moved the Gael lead to two points — the final margin — and forced Wisconsin to attempt a three-pointer if they wanted to avoid a second overtime.
Bowen also did what he could to keep that from happening by picking up the Wisconsin dribbler at half-court in the waning seconds, preventing a good look that could have caused a nightmare finish. Good on ya’, mate.
Other injury issues
Bowen’s emergency duty wasn’t the only indicator of Gael injury problems. Cincinnati transfer Logan Johnson joined Ford in the starting back court, and was spelled by Kristers Zoriks, returning to duty after successive ACL surgeries. Johnson is a solid addition to the Gael lineup and he will eventually add some offense to his impressive defensive chops (he went 1-7 from the floor in his debut).
But as Zoriks revealed considerable rust after being away from D-1 competition for two years, one longed for the comforting presence of Tommy Kuhse in the back court. Kuhse, the walk-on who steadied the Gael offense after moving to the point last season, is nursing an undisclosed injury and didn’t get off the bench.
Perhaps for that reason, Ford moved from the off-guard position he played superbly last year with Kuhse at the point and ran the point himself. Ford carried responsibility for running the Gael offense, leading all scorers and rallying his teammates after their stumbling start — and he did it for all 45 minutes of regulation and overtime.
Coach Bennett, can you spell “relief,” or, more importantly, can you provide some for Ford.
About that start
No one watching the first 12 minutes of the Wisconsin game would have predicted Saint Mary’s would escape Sioux Falls with a stirring win. The Gaels were flummoxed by Wisconsin’s aggressive defense, and found themselves trailing 17-9 at the 7:28 minute mark. That’s right, they had scored nine points after more than 12 minutes of turnover-riddled offensive futility.
Undaunted, Ford hit a three-pointer to pull the Gaels within 17-12. The Badgers’ King sank his lone basket of the game to push the margin back to 19-12, then the Gaels made an unexpected run. Krebs started things off with a nice jumper on the move in the paint, then sank a corner three-pointer to bring the Gaels within two points at 19-17.
Ducas came in at that point to spell Krebs, and calmly sank a corner three-pointer of his own to give the Gaels their first lead of the evening at 20-19. The composure of Ducas and Bowen in their first college game was extraordinary, and would lead one to think that they had been playing top-flight international competition for much of their teen years. Oh, that’s right, they have.
Ford then went into another gear, hitting a three-pointer, a floater off the glass and a nifty jumper in the paint to put the Gaels up 27-20 at the 1:21 mark. He capped off a 15-point first half with another three-pointer, and the Gaels went into the locker room with an unlikely 30-24 lead.
It would be nice to say the Gaels capitalized on their first-half comeback to put up a stirring second half that allowed them to breeze to victory. That wasn’t to be, owing to the fact that Wisconsin is a solid team playing in a tough conference and has NCAA aspirations of its own for 2019-20.
Saint Mary’s eventually gave up that six-point lead and faced a testing overtime period to salvage its daring opening-season foray to the Midwest. But they prevailed in overtime, and will now go back to the business of shoring up their lineup with hoped-for returns of Kuhse and Perry, and more minutes for Menzies.
It’s going to be a long, testing season, with tough non-conference opponents such as Utah State, Dayton and Arizona State looming before the WCC grind begins. The Galloping Gaels need all their horses.
Jordan Ford, shown above in action from last season, was brilliant against Wisconsin, going 4-8 on three-point attempts and putting the Gaels on his back after an atrocious start. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.