by Michael Vernetti
The Jumbotron at Cal’s Haas Pavilion proudly boasted how the Bears have improved from being one of the nation’s worst defensive teams last year — something like 350th among all D-I schools — to achieving a respectable ranking this year of around 100.
That was before the Bears met Malik Fitts and Jordan Ford.
Behind Fitts’s 21 first-half points and Ford’s 25 second-half points, Saint Mary’s knocked Cal back a bit in national defensive rankings by shooting 54.3 per cent overall and 67 per cent on three-point attempts. For the Gaels, who stumbled badly against Dayton last Sunday in Phoenix (L78-68), it was a return to stability behind their leading offensive forces.
No one else scored in double digits against Cal, although Tommy Kuhse came close with nine points on 6-6 free-throw shooting and by making his only three-point attempt of the game. Tanner Krebs, who has worked his PPG average to over 12, also faltered against Cal, making only one field goal on four attempts. Like Kuhse, however, Krebs was money at the free throw line, sinking 5-6, and he hounded Cal’s leading scorer, Matt Bradley, into a 5-13 night.
Of the Gaels’ two stars, Ford needed a big game more than Fitts, who had been averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds over the five games before Cal. Going 28 and 5 against the Bears will keep Fitts’s stats in good shape.
Ford never got going against Dayton, scoring 11 points on 5-11 shooting, one-of-four on three-pointers. Combined with a 1-7 three-point effort against Nebraska-Omaha, his long-range game was looking ragged. He sank two of three shots from long range against Cal, but it was the nature and timing of the three-pointers that was most encouraging.
His first three-pointer, early in the first half, came from extra long distance and brought the Gaels to a 15-15 tie after they had stumbled into a 12-4 hole with no buckets over the first five minutes. His second, coming with fewer than five minutes left in the game after Cal had creeped to within eight points of the Gaels at 72-64, deflated the Bears and enabled the Gaels to breathe easier down the stretch of what turned out to be an 89-77 win.
In between, Ford displayed his full array of daring drives into the paint, floaters and jumpers, ending up with 32 points on 10-14 shooting. It was his best game in several weeks, and his teammates celebrated his success with big smiles and multiple hugs when he went to the bench in the waning seconds.
Fitts was spectacular
Fitts had a surreal first half, making his first five three-point attempts and bringing Cal’s hard-fought defensive improvement to a screeching halt. Grant Anticevich, a 6’8″ junior from Sydney, Australia — I dubbed him the unknown Aussie because none of the Gael Aussies greeted him or even recognized him — had the main defensive duty against Fitts. Unable to decide whether to crowd Fitts at the three-point line, which would risk Fitts blowing by him to the bucket, or back off to prevent a drive, Anticevich seemed mostly perplexed as Fitts sank shot after shot.
Ben Braun, the color man on the Pac-12 Network broadcast — and a former Cal coach — dubbed Fitts “a pro prospect” at one point.
To be fair, other Bear defenders who picked up Fitts on screens were equally helpless. Anticevich gained some measure of revenge late in the game after Fitts picked up his fourth foul, driving on Fitts and sinking jumpers of his own to score 11 points. He was also partially responsible for Fitts fouling out with a little more than two minutes left in the game, although the fifth foul was a shadow blow against a driving Bradley.
Pain in the paint
Fitts’s foul troubles, following a foul-out against Dayton, underlined one of the Gael weaknesses as they move toward the WCC opener at San Francisco on January 2. The trouble is centered in the post, however, where Saint Mary’s has been vulnerable all season.
Matthias Tass, the 6’10” Estonian whom most Gaels fans expected to blossom as a sophomore after providing yeoman service backing up Jordan Hunter last year, had another sub-par game against Cal, following a clunker against Dayton. Not only did Tass miss two early good looks against Cal’s bulky Andre Kelly (6’8″, 255 lbs), he also picked up two fouls in the game’s first 10 minutes.
Neither foul was blatant, and the second — a charge call for backing down Kelly — seemed dubious, especially since officials are supposed to be on the lookout for “flops” this season. Tass did not extend his arm or lower his shoulder against Kelly, and Kelly reacted to contact as if he had been shot. Flop or charge? Kelly got the benefit of the doubt, and Tass went to the bench.
That brought in Aaron Menzies, the 7’3″ Brit whom Cal announcers were pleased to point out is only the third tallest college player (the other two are Pac-12 players and this was the Pac-12 Network). Unlike Tass, Menzies’s stock has been on the rise following decent games against Omaha and Dayton, but he, too, fell victim to the foul bug.
Menzies’s fouls were earned, as he first shoved a Cal player in an attempt to grab a rebound, and then, seconds later, fouled Cal’s freshman 7-footer, Lars Thiemann, on a move in the paint. With two of his bigs relegated to the bench with two fouls each, Gael Coach Randy Bennett went to his third option — the eager but undersized Dan Fotu.
I couldn’t see whether Kelly’s eyes actually lighted up when Fotu entered the contest, but he must have sensed an opportunity. Tass had defended Kelly well in his brief time in the game — and repeated that success when he came in late in the second half — but Fotu simply could not handle Kelly when he received the ball close to the basket.
Not only did Kelly record a career-high 26 points against the Gaels — mostly Fotu — but he led a second-half charge that reduced Cal’s deficit from 19 points (61-42 at the 14:15 mark) to eight points before Ford’s second three-pointer knee-capped the Bears. Kelly made four straight and-one baskets during this stretch, sinking free throws following each basket.
Indeed, Cal’s rally was led by the Gaels’ propensity to foul, which reached a low point on a drive by Juhwan Harris-Dyson at the 8:34 mark. H-D’s bucket, aided by Ford slipping and allowing his opponent to get into the paint, was no big deal, but what happened next was. Someone — the announcers didn’t say who and I couldn’t tell — fouled Kelly after H-D scored. That sent Kelly to the free throw line for a one-and-one that he promptly converted, giving Cal a four-point possession that cut the Gaels’ lead to 66-55.
Fitts got into the foul-Kelly sweepstakes on Cal’s next possession, giving him four for the evening and finally forcing Bennett to replace Fotu with Tass (Fotu switched to Fitts’s position). Did Bennett stay too long with Fotu, who is clearly a coaches’ favorite because of his hustle and unselfishness, or was he indicating that his patience is wearing thin with Tass’s inconsistency?
No one can say, but Tass immediately put an end to Kelly’s effectiveness. On Kelly’s first attempt against Tass, Tass met him as he pivoted and almost tore the ball from his hands. He succeeded in winning a tie-ball call from the refs, and the Gaels took possession on the alternate possession rule.
Kelly tried to overpower Tass a little later, and Tass defended him again — without a foul. It makes one wonder whether Kelly’s career game — and Cal’s comeback — could have been prevented with Tass operating in the paint instead of Fotu. How long should a starter ride the pine after picking up two quick fouls? That’s a coach’s decision, and it’s up to Tass to make that decision go in his favor as the season progresses.
Malik Fitts, shown above in the Cal game, rises up for one of his five three-pointers against the Bears. Fitts finished with 28 points in the Gaels’ 89-77 win. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.