by Michael Vernetti
The weekly game of “Name the Gael center” continued as Saint Mary’s traveled across the Bay Bridge Saturday night to kick off WCC play with a 69-58 win over San Francisco.
Dan Fotu was the center du jour in the Gaels’ last outing, an 84-59 romp over Seattle on Dec. 28, as the sophomore from New Zealand topped all scorers with 17 points. Fotu was Coach Randy Bennett’s choice to start against Seattle in place of Matthias Tass, who went down with a torn ACL in the previous game, a messy 68-63 win over Nevada.
Fotu, alas, in his second start, crashed into the formidable flank of the USS Jimbo Lull, San Francisco’s 7’0″, 252-lb. hulk in the post. In what may have set a world land speed record, Fotu picked up his second foul trying to keep Lull’s considerable bulk out of the paint with less that two minutes gone.
In came the Gaels’ answer to Lull’s size — 7’3″ Aaron Menzies, who has been working himself into playing shape after missing all last year with a hand/wrist injury and most of this season with a sore back. Menzies did not continue fouling Lull, but did little else to commend himself in seven listless minutes — zero points, zero rebounds, zero blocks as the Dons pulled ahead by the score of 18-13.
Bennett then went to his third — and last — option, Jock Perry. Perry, who is no runt at 7’1″, has himself been rehabbing a knee injury, and got his first time on the floor in the Seattle game. Turns out, Perry was the answer to Bennett’s prayers.
Jock on a tear
In a little less than five minutes, Perry: 1) grabbed the first rebound of the game for a Gael center; 2) fired a pass to Tommy Kuhse for a three-pointer that brought the Gaels within three points at 18-16; 3) defended against an attempted lay-up by the Dons, who had been shredding the Gaels’ interior defense; 4) broke up an attempted pick-and-roll by the Dons with a nifty steal; 5) screened Lull to allow Kuhse to weave into position for a lay-up; and 5) scored inside himself to give the Gaels a five-point lead at 25-20.
That’s production, folks, and Perry tried to punctuate it with a three-pointer lofted on wobbly legs. He missed badly, then signaled to the coaching staff to replace him after he discovered how far he was from being in game shape. Perry didn’t need a lot of bench time to recover, however, came back in with 2:53 left in the half and promptly scored again off another beautiful dime courtesy of Kuhse.
Not entirely due to Perry’s effort, the Gaels came from a seven-point deficit to a 32-22 lead after a 22-4 run. Leader of the offense during that time was Malik Fitts, whom the Dons simply could not stop. Fitts had a double-double well before halftime, and finished the half with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
Not allowing Fitts to have all the fun, freshman Aussie Alex Ducas made a highlight reel contribution with a fake three-point attempt and drive across the lane to finish with a spinning reverse lay-up. It would have brought down the house in Moraga, but San Francisco fans were less amused.
Perry’s efforts were rewarded with insertion into the starting lineup to begin the second half. Overall, Perry logged 15 minutes, scored four points, grabbed four rebounds and added a second assist on a Kuhse lay-up in the lane. The second Saint Mary’s big man to sport the surname “Jock,” Mr. Perry served notice against the Dons that he intends to become more of a force for the Gaels as the WCC schedule continues.
Fotu found a way to contribute to the Gael cause after his initial disappointing stint defending Lull. He didn’t return until the 12:28 mark of the second half, but immediately found the cutting Ducas for a lay-up, then blocked a lay-up attempt by the Dons’ 6’10” Remu Raitanen on the other end. With the Gaels back in possession of the ball, Fotu found Jordan Ford for a lay-up that extended the Gaels’ lead to 48-36. That was all accomplished in 23 seconds.
Such streaks of positive energy might be what Bennett wants from his post players following the season-ending injury to the steady Tass. Neither Fotu, Menzies nor Perry brings the offensive-defensive skill combination of Tass, but together they may deliver enough toughness in the paint to complement the Gaels’ outside game led by Ford and Fitts.
Or should I say, Fitts and Ford?
For the second time in three games, Fitts, the 6’8″ power forward with eyes on the NBA, outscored Ford, who has been struggling. Fitts scored 23 points to Ford’s 21 in a strong game for both against Nevada, then both of them took a little breather against outmanned Seattle, with Ford scoring 15 points and Fitts 10.
On Saturday night, however, Fitts was the undisputed leader of the Gael offense, with a sterling line of 21 points and 13 rebounds. Perhaps more telling, Fitts never came off the court against the Dons, a distinction heretofore held solely by Ford. Bennett sent Ford to the bench for the first time with about six minutes left in the first half after the Dons’ Charles Minlend easily swatted away a weak Ford lay-up attempt. At that point, Ford had scored only three points on a short jumper and a free throw.
More importantly, he had been repeatedly burned by the Dons’ redshirt sophomore, Khalil Shabazz, a transfer from D-II Central Washington, where he led his team in scoring with a 15.3 PPG average. Shabazz began his harassment of Ford with a clean steal early in the first half, which led to a run-out bucket by the Dons. He followed that up with a three-pointer over Ford, then lost Ford on a Lull screen for a lay-up. Then Ford was swatted by Minlend.
When Ford returned to the court at the 2:53 mark of the first half, he promptly blew an alley-oop opportunity by passing the ball too high for even the vertically gifted Fitts. Bennett, obviously displeased with Ford’s effort, yanked him once again. At that time the Gaels had committed seven mostly unforced turnovers and Bennett had had enough.
Ford clamped down on Shabazz somewhat in the second half, and added 13 points to his first-half total to finish with a respectable 16 points on 5-14 shooting. Moreover, he scored arguably the Gaels’ two most important buckets after San Francisco had creeped to within six points, 56-50, with less than six minutes left in the game.
On the first, he tried unsuccessfully to juke his defender into fouling him on a three-point attempt, then was forced to take an awkward shot with the clock winding down. Nothing but nylon, to quote the bard. He came right back with one of his patented floaters in the paint, and, voila! the Gaels were up by 11 at 61-50. They retained that edge until the end.
Ford has endured such ebbs in the past, and two indicators of his sluggishness are lack of three-point scoring and poor execution of ball screens. Ford was 1-3 from distance against San Francisco, 1-4 against Seattle and 0-2 against Nevada, for a dismal 2-9 over three games. Of course, 2-9 is only one half’s worth of attempts in the NBA, and can be easily erased by a modest hot streak.
Corresponding with the poor three-point shooting, Ford has reverted to a habit from past years of failing to lead his defenders into screens. Ford was dribbling so far off Gael post men that Shabazz had no trouble avoiding screens and, thus, making it difficult for Ford to get off many shots. Troubling, but like the three-point shooting slump, correctable.
Malik Fitts, shown above driving against Cal, led the Gaels with 21 points and 13 rebounds against San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.