Sweatin’ it out

by Michael Vernetti

Let’s get the awful stuff out of the way first: against Nevada Saturday night at the Chase Center in San Francisco the Gaels shot just 3-20 (15 per cent) on three-point attempts coming off a 16-26 (61.5 per cent) effort against Arizona State three nights earlier;

— the Gaels received zero points from the bench, as Alex Ducas in particular bombed (0-3 on three-point attempts) after showing great promise in earlier appearances;

–Tanner Krebs, in many ways the Gaels’ steadiest player in this, his fifth year in Moraga, was particularly dreadful, going 0-4 on three-point attempts, many of them open looks after excellent penetration and kick outs by Gael guards;

— the Gaels shot a pathetic 58 per cent from the free throw line, in one stretch missing the front end of crucial one-and-ones three straight times.

If you’re not too depressed to continue after digesting that litany of horrors, consider that Saint Mary’s survived all this, plus the scary departure of center Matthias Tass with a little more than six minutes left after colliding with Nevada’s Jalen Harris on a drive to the basket. Tass was having one of his best games as a Gael, having scored 11 points on 5-6 shooting from the field and having successfully battled Nevada’s trio of big, talented front court players — Robby Robinson (6’8″, 225 lbs), Johncarlos Reyes (6’10”, 225 lbs) and K.J. Hymes (6’10”, 210 lbs).

For what it’s worth, my analysis of Tass’s injury gleaned from watching the ESPNU replay is that he might not be hurt as badly as people think. As the obnoxious Bill Walton correctly noted in one of his occasional comments on the game actually being played, Tass was hurt by knee-to-knee contact with Harris as he elevated to shoot, not by landing awkwardly on his left leg.

Oh yes, Saint Mary’s won the game 68-63, after actually salting it away with a fall-away jumper by Malik Fitts at the 1:38 mark — giving the Gaels a 64-59 lead — and sinking the dagger on a Jordan Ford jumper at the :54-second mark that pushed the lead to seven points, 66-59. The Gaels matched Nevada 4-4 in the final seconds despite missing two more free throws by normally rock-solid shooters Ford (made one of two attempts) and Tommy Kuhse (missed the third of those one-and-one opportunities).

Deep breath

Apologists could offer numerous excuses for the Gaels’ ragged performance coming off their most dominating effort of the season — the 40-point romp against Arizona State: the late start (9:45 p.m.), a lifeless Chase Center crowd which thinned considerably following a rousing — if inelegant — game between Arizona and a feisty St. John’s squad that St. John’s won 70-67, and a mind-blowing inability to make their signature three-point shots.

But don’t go down Excuses Alley, look instead to Bright Side Avenue. The Gaels got superior performances from four of their five starters — Fitts with 23 points and six rebounds, which won him Player of the Game honors, Ford with 21 points despite realizing he was not going to sink any three-pointers, Tass, as mentioned, with 11 points in 27 minutes and ZERO FOULS, and Kuhse, with 11 points and four assists that could have risen to 10 or so if his teammates could have made some of the three-pointers he set them up with.

Only Krebs, who seemed to be playing in a daze, had a truly bad game with two points on 1-8 shooting. Krebs frustrated Coach Randy Bennett so much that Bennett used not only Ducas (ineffective offensively and defensively) but also little-used Elijah Thomas as subs for Krebs in an effort to slow down Nevada’s elusive Harris and maybe chip in a bucket or two. Failures on both fronts, so Krebs soldiered on, never lagging in enthusiasm or dropping his head. He seemed to be saying by his positive attitude, “Don’t worry mates, it’s only a temporary setback, we’ll get ’em in the end.”

And he was right.

Injury report

Any analysis of the Gaels at this point — less than two weeks away from the WCC opener at San Francisco on Jan. 2 — must consider a worrisome injury report. There has been no word on the severity of Tass’s injury as of Sunday afternoon, so it’s wait and see on that one. The Gaels’ other two options in the paint, 7’3″ Aaron Menzies and 7’1″ Jock Perry, should have question marks after their names on the Saint Mary’s roster because their status is also unknown.

After a promising showing in the last two games, Menzies didn’t get off the bench against Nevada, which seems surprising considering the depth of Nevada’s front court. Has he tweaked his troublesome back, which has limited him to spot duty this season? No way to know until, possibly, the Seattle game in Moraga on Saturday. Menzies transferred from Seattle, and it would seem fitting that he would log some time against his former team if he is healthy.

As for Perry, he has advanced from street-clothed bystander to uniformed participant in warm-ups, albeit with a scary-looking brace on his right knee, the residue of a pre-season injury that has kept him from any action this season. Might Perry be inching back to participation? Quien sabe?

That leaves undersized Dan Fotu as Tass’s primary back-up and, perhaps, starter if Tass is injured severely. Fotu, who took no shots and grabbed three rebounds in 13 minutes against Nevada, labors mightily in his uncomfortable role. He racks up fouls at an alarming pace, the result of defending players several inches taller than his roster-listed height of 6’7″, and struggles to develop the semblance of an offensive game.

If Fotu is the last man standing in the paint, the Gaels’ chances for further success this season diminish significantly. Ford and Fitts will undoubtedly continue to prove a powerful one-two punch, and Krebs should bounce back from his Nevada disappointment to provide a dangerous third scoring option. Kuhse seems to have settled into the point guard role, but that, too, may be hinging on an injury situation.

Kristers Zoriks, the 6’4″ Latvian who has come back from successive ACL tears to seemingly threaten Kuhse at the point, sustained some sort of injury to his left shoulder in the Arizona State game. He seemed fine during warm-ups for the Nevada game, and occupied a bench position near Coach Bennett during the contest. But he never received a nod, and another little-used roster question mark, transfer Logan Johnson, subbed for Kuhse at one point in the first half. Kuhse ended up playing 38 strong minutes, however, so the situation at the point remains in doubt.

Despite the lackluster shooting performance against Nevada and despite the injury situation, Saint Mary’s sits at an impressive 12-2 heading into the pre-conference finale against Seattle. Starting WCC play at 13-2, with victories over Wisconsin, Utah State, Fresno State, Arizona State and Nevada, would put them in a good position to challenge Gonzaga — the likely choice for a number one national ranking on Monday — in the WCC race.

But it would be nice to have a full, healthy roster to take on that challenge.

Malik Fitts, shown above shooting in the Cal game, led the Gaels in their 68-63 win over Nevada Saturday scoring 23 points and grabbing six rebounds. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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