by Michael Vernetti
In a closely-contested first half against Utah State Friday night in Moraga, Jordan Ford wasn’t much of a factor for Saint Mary’s, and the Gaels went to the locker room trailing 36-34.
Ford had tallied five points, on a clever drive in the paint and a three-pointer, but the Gaels’ nemesis from last year’s 80-63 drubbing by Utah State in Las Vegas, all-American candidate Sam Merrill, cruised to 15 points under the guard of Tommy Kuhse. This was not a good portent.
Two things changed to propel the Gaels to a 10-point advantage over Utah State in the second half: Ford turned on a switch that led to 23 second-half points, and Tanner Krebs took over Merrill duty and held the crafty senior to eight points. The result: an 81-73 win for Saint Mary’s over the previously-unbeaten, 15th-ranked Aggies.
Ford was sensational, making everything from floaters on the baseline to three-pointers from all over the court. When he missed one running floater in the paint he grabbed the rebound and flicked in the second-chance bucket all in one motion. He also dished out two crucial assists, one a nifty drop pass to Aaron Menzies under the bucket, which the 7’3″ transfer from Seattle, who is trying to find his footing after a months-long battle with back problems, converted by waiting out leaping defenders and softly laying in the bunny. Menzies also converted the and-one for a 51-49 Gael lead with a little more than 10 minutes remaining.
Ford’s second assist was one for the Gael Time Capsule, if there is such a thing. Capitalizing on a knock-away by Malik Fitts, Ford dribbled through the pack and sprinted toward the Gael bucket. Fitts, who also had an excellent game for the Gaels, was sprinting right along with Ford on his right-hand side. Ford drew the lone Utah State defender toward him, then dropped a no-look pass to the surging Fitts, who slammed home a rousing dunk that excited the sold-out crowd to a Gonzaga-like roar of approval and put the Gaels up by 66-65 with about four minutes left.
Krebs for the defense
As spectacular as Ford’s second-half explosion was, it would have been for naught if Krebs had not clamped down on the elusive Merrill. Kuhse couldn’t keep Merrill, who is a strong 6’5″ to Kuhse’s less robust 6’1″, from scoring inside or out. The 6’6″ Krebs gave the Gaels an immediate height advantage in the match-up, and Krebs did the rest with hustle and lessons learned from the Las Vegas encounter when Merrill schooled him.
By my unofficial tally, Krebs defended Merrill on four scoring attempts, stole the ball from him once, fouled him twice on drives and was beaten three other times. That is not sensational, but good defense against a prolific scorer like Merrill more often results in a stalemate than a rout. That Merrill had to work hard for eight points instead of breezing for 15 was a definite victory for Krebs and the Gaels.
There were other bright points for the Gaels as they rolled to their fourth straight win against legitimate competition — I don’t count the rout over Sonoma State and neither does the NCAA, which credits the Gaels with a 6-1 record instead of the 7-1 which their publicity boasts.
Matthias Tass not only scored 15 points on 7-11 shooting, but he was the Gaels’ assist leader with six. Tass’ ability to hold on to the ball in the paint and look for open teammates was primarily responsible for his assist total, the most important of which came at the 1:50 mark when he spotted an open Krebs in the corner as the 25-second clock wound down.
Krebs had missed three straight wide-open three-pointers in the second half, which may have irritated Coach Randy Bennett enough to unwisely sub in Alex Ducas for a brief spell. Bennett also put Kuhse back in the game after Kuhse had been benched shortly after the beginning of the second half in favor of Kristers Zoriks. Kuhse quickly coughed up the ball and Ducas was beat on a back-cut that led to an easy Utah State bucket, which may have shocked Bennett back to his senses, and he put Krebs and Zoriks back in.
Which led Krebs to eagerly receive Tass’ pass as the Gaels were nursing a two-point lead. Naturally, Krebs canned the three-pointer, which moved the Gaels’ lead to 72-67 and provided some much-needed breathing room for the crowd and the players. Tass provided the near coup de grace with a nifty hook shot off a Zoriks assist to push the lead to seven points, and it was mostly free throws from that point on. Zoriks sank three of four from the foul line and Fitts four of four to keep the Gaels safely out front despite two desperation three-pointers from two Aggies not named Merrill.
As the rotation turns
To go along with Bennett’s reassignment of Krebs to guard Merrill came the coach’s decision to give Zoriks extended minutes. Zoriks didn’t make a bucket — he only attempted one — but he made those free throws down the stretch, stole the ball and dropped that assist on Tass. For the first time in this season of experimentation at the point, Zoriks seemed to be a better fit running the offense than Kuhse.
No true Gael fan will ever mock Kuhse, who saved the Gaels’ bacon last season when they couldn’t figure out their offense, and recorded a Game for the Ages with his role in the upset of Gonzaga which brought Saint Mary’s a WCC Tournament championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
But by Bennett’s own account, Zoriks was winning last season’s competition to run the point alongside Ford, who seems more comfortable playing off the ball, until Zoriks suffered his second ACL tear in two years during a scrimmage with Stanford. That opened the door for Kuhse, and he walked through it with aplomb.
Gael fans have been eyeing Zoriks out of the corner of their eyes this year, hoping not to see any lingering signs of his multiple knee operations. He has gradually worked his way back to what appears — to the layman’s eye — full recovery, and seemed fully comfortable on the floor against Utah State.
The five Gaels who led the charge down the wire against the Aggies — Ford, Fitts, Krebs, Tass and Zoriks — looked like the team’s best group. They will get a chance to prove it on Sunday when a good University of Nebraska-Omaha team rolls into McKeon for a 5 p.m. game.
Jordan Ford, shown above in a game from last season, was sensational against Utah State, scoring 28 points on 10-18 shooting, including 5-9 on three-pointers. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.