by Michael Vernetti
Forget about allowing the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks to shoot 55 per cent in the first half, including 75 per cent from three-point range; forget about trailing the Mavericks from midway through the first half until midway through the second; forget about getting listless efforts from guard Tommy Kuhse and center Matthias Tass — efforts that brought both of them early and long benchings.
Saint Mary’s rallied to post a 75-66 win over Omaha on a gloomy Sunday afternoon in Moraga that followed by fewer than 48 hours a rousing win over then-15th-ranked Utah State. Let down? Maybe, but scholarship basketball players are human, too.
The Gaels tightened up on the Mavericks, dropping those shooting percentages to 34 per cent overall and 30 per cent on three-point attempts in the second half. They got an electrifying performance from Tanner Krebs, who scored 19 points on 7-12 shooting that included a scorching 5-6 on three-pointers.
And subs Aaron Menzies and Kristers Zoriks gave notice by their play that starting jobs are never guaranteed under Coach Randy Bennett. Kuhse was the first to get the hook — after playing three-and-a-half minutes — when he was beaten badly on a drive by the Mavs’ Zach Thornhill. It didn’t help his cause that he had already committed two turnovers.
Menzies entered the game shortly after Kuhse’s departure, with Bennett throwing not-exactly-loving glances at the hot and cold Tass as Tass sauntered to the bench. Tass came up big against Utah State, scoring 15 points on 7-11 shooting, leading the Gaels with six assists and recording three blocks and two steals. A solid performance.
But he seemed uninspired against Omaha, which may be unfair because he is not an emotional-looking player even when he is performing well. Whatever the case, he earned himself 19 minutes on the bench, and gave Menzies a chance to show he could become a serviceable substitute in the post. The Gaels went to the 7’3″ Menzies often, capitalizing on a mis-match with the Mavericks’ 6’8″ center Matt Pile. He responded with 5-8 shooting for 10 points in his 13 minutes on the floor.
Considering that Menzies spent all last season on the bench with a hand/wrist injury (you’re never sure about Gael injuries) and that he has been plagued by back problems all this season, Bennett has had to gradually ease the Seattle transfer into the game flow. Menzies still wears a scary-looking electronic girdle when he is not playing, complete with blinking lights and, for all we know, bionic sensors. But he is progressing, which is comforting because the Gaels’ other back-up center, Jock Perry, has not yet overcome a pre-season knee injury.
Zoriks, who has been a monument to perseverance in his two-plus years in Moraga — battling successive ACL tears — looks more and more as the heir apparent to Kuhse at point for the Gaels. He earned 30 minutes against Omaha to Kuhse’s eight, and showed why many Gael fans consider him an improvement over the steady-but-not-outstanding Kuhse.
Not only did he show a smooth and confident jump shot, sinking three-of-four three-pointers and 4-6 overall for 11 points, but he has a considerable physical advantage over Kuhse. Standing 6’4″ to Kuhse’s listed 6’2″, Zoriks has the long body that is the norm in superior college (and pro) basketball players. He covers a lot of ground with his long-legged stride, and gives the Gaels a taller, more imposing defensive presence in the back court.
Considering that his total game experience with Saint Mary’s is 93 minutes, it is hard not to be excited about how much better Zoriks may become as the season progresses. As Krebs demonstrated against Utah State by slowing down the Aggies’ excellent scorer, Sam Merrill, Krebs can play solid defense against opposing guards if needed. With Zoriks also providing length in the back court, the Gaels present a more formidable obstacle to opposing guard tandems (read Gonzaga) with Zoriks in place of Kuhse.
Krebs has been a consistent performer for Saint Mary’s in his senior campaign, but his outburst against Omaha underlined his importance to Bennett’s troops. To say he stepped up when others were lagging is an understatement. The most unselfish of offensive players who often seems to need a cattle prod to hoist a three-pointer, Krebs took over the Gael offense at the start of the second half.
With Omaha sagging off him in a desperate attempt to clog the lane against penetration by Jordan Ford, Krebs sank three-pointer after three-pointer, belying the knock that he often follows early success from distance with a series of misses. Actually, Krebs has been a model of consistency this season, shooting 53 per cent overall and a ridiculous 55 per cent from three-point range. Add his nine steals and six blocks to a 12.8 PPG scoring average, and he gives the Gaels a scary third option behind Ford and Malik Fitts.
So, was this a lackluster win over a lowly opponent or a solid performance by a veteran team coming off a high from beating Utah State? I’d lean more to the latter opinion, although I fought off a panic attack — remember Winthrop? — as the Gaels seemed to falter in the middle of the game.
Omaha finished second in the Summit League last season, and although picked fourth in the pre-season, seems to have a decent shot at a championship in a tightly-bunched conference (it could be dubbed the Dakota Conference with North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State among its members).
Its four losses have come against good teams — Wichita State, Colorado State and Dayton in addition to the Gaels — and it defeated Kyle Smith’s Washington State squad 85-77. Guard JT Gibson (periods after initials are so pre-millenial) is an all-conference caliber player who was Minnesota Player of the Year following his senior year in 2015. That he scored 16 points against the Gaels is no embarrassment.
Likewise, Pile, who battled both the 6’10” Tass and Menzies in the post, was a two-time all-state performer in Kansas as well as Mr. Kansas Basketball in his senior year. That’s a pretty good haul of Midwest talent even without considering that Thornhill was a two-time Kansas City all-Metro pick in high school. Omaha is a team that reasonably harbors NCAA ambitions.
Bennett said after the Omaha game that tough opponents like the Mavericks were good for the Gaels, toughening them for WCC play. He could have added that after facing Northern Illinois in Moraga on Thursday, his charges head to Phoenix for a neutral-site clash with a loaded Dayton, to Berkeley to face a much-improved California, back to Phoenix to face the Pac-12’s Arizona State and to San Francisco to face Nevada in the Chase Center.
The WCC may seem like a breather after that gauntlet.
Kristers Zoriks, shown above in the Utah State game, recorded his longest stint as a Gael with 30 minutes against Omaha, sinking three of four three-point attempts and totaling 11 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.