by Michael Vernetti

Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett found some rationale for his teams’ surprisingly lackluster 78-68 loss to Dayton Sunday afternoon in Phoenix.

“We should have weathered the storm better, but we did play better in the second half,” Bennett told reporters after the game. He added: “I got to see some of the guys I wanted to see. We’re still sorting out who our nine are.”

For something to tell the media, those statements are as good as you usually get. They carefully avoided the soul-wrenching questions roiling Gael fans after watching a confused, listless performance by the Gaels in the opening 20 minutes that was only somewhat ameliorated by a mild comeback in the second half.

How can a team that has risen to the challenges of beating Wisconsin on the road to start the season and handling Utah State by 10 points in Moraga fail to have been better prepared to take on Dayton? The Flyers have a potential lottery pick in sophomore forward Obi Toppin and recently rolled through the prestigious Maui Invitational Tournament by beating Georgia 80-61 and Virginia Tech 89-62, before losing to Kansas in overtime by 90-84. For a more recent comparison, Dayton smoked Omaha-Nebraska 93-68, the same squad that the Gaels had to rally to beat by 75-66.

See any red lights flashing in that shiny Talking Stick Arena, Gaels? Apparently not.

Gaels ignore Crutcher

Take Jalen Crutcher, the Flyers’ junior guard who led them in three-point shooting last season with 70 makes, and was picked to the Atlantic 10 all-conference team in the pre-season. Not only couldn’t the Gaels guard him as he waltzed to 19 first-half points, including 5-6 three-pointers, on several possessions they couldn’t even find him.

Bennett at least didn’t take long to figure out that Tommy Kuhse, the Gaels’ sometime point guard, was not a good match for Mr. Crutcher. He subbed in Kristers Zoriks for Kuhse after five minutes, but Zoriks fell victim to the Gaels’ team wide fog. He lost Crutcher in a switch with Mathias Tass involving Toppin, and Crutcher cashed in for a quick three-pointer.

Seconds later, following a missed three-pointer by Tanner Krebs, Zoriks lost Crutcher in a run-out off a long rebound and Crutcher was left alone in the corner. Another three-pointer, this one moving the early score to 13-4 and perhaps alerting the Gaels that they were in trouble. Toppin followed with a corner three-pointer of his own, and Crutcher proved to be an equal opportunity tormenter by beating Krebs on a lay-up to cap a 15-2 run that put the Flyers up 18-6.

The run was halted by Jordan Ford’s only three-pointer of the game, but if Gael fans thought that contribution by Ford, the team’s undisputed leader and top scorer, was a good omen, they were disappointed. Ford missed all three of his subsequent three-point efforts en route to a 5-11 night that netted 11 points. Following a 1-7 three-point clunker against Omaha, Ford has now gone 2-11 from distance in his last two games.

One hopes that Ford isn’t among the players Coach Bennett said he is still learning about, but he did yank him after badly missing a hook shot on one possession and having a lay-up blocked on another. Freshman Alex Ducas replaced Ford around the 9:15 mark, but it didn’t change much.

Malik Fitts, who for a long time seemed to be the only Gael with a pulse, tried to rally his troops by sinking a three-pointer to bring the score to 26-16. Krebs followed with two free throws to cut the lead to eight points, 26-18, and then Dayton coughed up a turnover to give the Gaels an opening. They declined to take advantage, however, as Matthias Tass missed a close-in shot and Krebs committed a turnover of his own on a drive into the paint.

Crutcher put an end to any hopes the Gaels entertained about stemming the tide by sinking three more three-pointers in a row to push the margin to 40-18 just like that. After already subbing in Aaron Menzies for Tass, who was a timid 1-5 on the night, and Ducas for Ford, Bennett tried Logan Johnson at guard and Kyle Bowen in relief of Fitts. That pushed the number of Gaels in the fray to 10, but numbers alone did little to turn things around, and the halftime total was 46-25 for Dayton. Good grief.

Second half rally

The Gaels did, indeed, play better in the second half, outscoring Dayton 43-32 over the final 20 minutes. But any thought that Crutcher and his mates were quaking in their boots was belied by the stop-and-start nature of the Saint Mary’s rally. Fitts was the catalyst for a surge, starting with a three-pointer at the 15-minute mark to bring the Gaels back to their halftime deficit, 56-35.

In succession, Fitts scored on a power drive, stole a pass intended for Toppin and flushed the ball, apparently igniting Zoriks, who started the second half for Kuhse and played most minutes at point. Zoriks made a steal of his own, was fouled on a lay-up and made two free throws. Ford followed with a runner in the paint, then Fitts hit another three-pointer to bring the deficit to 10 points at 58-48 with 11:19 left in the second half. Plenty of time for the Gaels to put real pressure on the Flyers, if only they were up to it.

They weren’t, Dayton re-took control of the game and slowly stretched the lead to a comfortable margin. It was a classic case of too little, too late.

What Bennett may have learned

Johnson, the third point guard inserted to try and stop Crutcher, was actually fairly successful, and the Gaels’ first-half nemesis scored only two points in the second half due to a joint effort by Zoriks and Johnson. Thus, one possible lesson learned: for all his heroics last season as a walk-on who made good, Kuhse is not the Gaels’ answer at the point.

Zoriks is showing all the signs of a star-in-the-making. He is gaining confidence with every minute he spends on the floor, and seems capable of becoming a reliable scorer for the Gaels. In 27 minutes against Dayton, he went 5-8 from the floor, including two-of-two on three-pointers, scoring 14 points and adding two steals and an assist.

Johnson, too, seems to have a solid role to play. Relegated to the bench for the past two games, he injected energy into the lineup with his hounding of Crutcher. A rotation of Ford, Zoriks and Johnson at the two guard spots would seem to be a promising result of the Dayton experience.

Menzies also opened some eyes with his second productive outing in a row, following 10 points in 13 minutes against Omaha with nine points in 18 minutes against the Flyers. Tass, whom Menzies backs up, continues to be the most perplexing of the Gaels’ top 10 players, unable to turn his 22-point outburst against Long Beach State and 15 points against Utah State into a consistent effort in the post. He seems to get frustrated playing with his back to the basket, but apparently doesn’t have any other tools in his offensive repertoire to replace the post-up game.

Menzies seems to be the most favorably situated by Bennett’s use of the Dayton game to evaluate his preferred rotation, and seems destined to see more minutes in coming games. That may seem like small consolation to Gael fans who anticipated a stronger effort against Dayton, but the future will determine if the learning was worth the whipping.

Malik Fitts, shown above in a game against Gonzaga from last season, led the Gaels’ effort against Dayton, totaling 21 points and eight rebounds before fouling out in the game’s final minutes. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.



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