Agony in Stockton

by Michael Vernetti

Don’t blame it on the lights.

As the Saint Mary’s Gaels have struggled with Pacific since the Tigers re-entered the WCC several years ago, Pacific’s home court, the dimly-lighted Spanos Center, was often cited as one of the culprits in a series of low-scoring, tightly-contested battles. Not any more.

New lighting eliminates any idea that visiting teams are at a disadvantage in the Tigers’ playpen, but it also provided a sharp focus on the Gael weaknesses that brought Saint Mary’s to a 107-99 loss Saturday night after four overtimes. Making only eight of 27 three-point attempts (30 per cent) and 31-87 of all field goal attempts (35.6 per cent), being out-rebounded 54-38 and recording only eight assists were on full display.

The new-look Tigers assembled by former NBA star Damon Stoudamire simply took this game away from the often-timid, often indecisive Gaels. Stoudamire has found two freshman guards that are ideal for his purposes in 6-foot Pierre Crockrell from Tacoma, WA via Prolific Prep in Napa and 6’3″ Daniss Jenkins from Dallas Hillcrest High School.

Jenkins was a prolific scorer in high school (24.5 PPG), and burned the Gaels for 20 points despite shooting only 3-13 from the floor. He made 13-14 free throws, however, as a whistle-happy refereeing crew flagged Saint Mary’s for 29 fouls during the long night. Before you entertain the idea that the Gaels were homered by an unfair officiating team, consider that Pacific was called for 28 fouls. Both the Gaels and Pacific lost key players to the five-foul limit, although the Gaels felt the brunt more severely as Tanner Krebs, Malik Fitts and Dan Fotu were sent to the bench. The refs were equal opportunity foul callers.

Crockrell scored only six points, but Crockrell and Jenkins in combination give Stoudamire the freedom to allow senior guard Jahill Tripp to freelance on offense and create isolation sets that he exploited extensively against the Gaels — to the tune of 39 points before he, too, fouled out in the final overtime session. Tripp has been Pacific’s only reliable scoring option in years past, but he now has a surrounding cast that takes much of the scoring burden off his shoulders.

Slow death

Despite the statistical imbalances that suggest the Gaels were soundly outplayed by Pacific, the game was actually a study in slow-motion attrition. Saint Mary’s led for almost 40 of the game’s 60 minutes (40 minutes in regulation and 20 minutes in four overtimes), and seemingly had things in hand with a 60-52 lead with 4:28 left in regulation.

Tripp took over at that point, however, scoring twice on driving lay-ups and sinking two free throws. Still, Tripp’s heroics left Pacific behind by three points, 64-61, as the clock wound down. Enter a character who will live long in Gael nightmares — graduate transfer Gary Chivichyan, a three-point specialist from Idaho State. Despite being tightly guarded by the Gaels’ Tommy Kuhse, Chivichyan sank a three-pointer to force the first overtime.

By this time, the Gaels were down to two starters, and had to rely on freshmen Alex Ducas and Kyle Bowen to fill out the ranks. Bowen played well under extreme pressure, but succumbed to nerves as he went to the foul line with the Gaels nursing a 74-72 lead with 1:35 left in overtime. He clanked both attempts, allowing Tripp to tie the game again by making two free throws of his own.

The agony continued in the second overtime, as Ducas seemed destined to don the hero’s mantle by sinking an impossible leaner in the paint with .09 seconds left for an 81-78  lead. The Gaels’ joy was short-lived, however, as the irrepressible Chivichyan sank still another improbable three-pointer, this one a carom shot off the backboard with Bowen’s 6’8″ frame squarely in his line of sight. If the Gaels ever felt that fate was against them, that was the time.

Bowen redeems himself

In the third overtime, Bowen showed the pluck that has endeared him to Gael fans in his brief tenure in Moraga, sinking three of four free-throw attempts to give his team an 89-87 lead with 53 seconds left. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Chivichyan struck again, sinking a three-pointer that put Pacific in the lead by 90-89. The Gaels’ scoring leader, Jordan Ford, who played brilliantly throughout 58 of the game’s 60 minutes with 36 points, sank two free throws to give the Gaels the lead again.

Chivichyan, however, sank a free throw to tie things up, setting the stage for a result Gael fans will dispute throughout the ages. Bowen maneuvered for a game winning shot under the basket, only to have it blocked by one of Pacific’s swarm of shot-blockers (they blocked 13 Gael shots on the night), Shaquillo Fritz. It seemed to be an obvious goal-tending call, but the refs — perhaps exhausted by their whistle-blowing efforts throughout the night — ignored it.

Gael players and coaches demanded a replay, but they had no right under basketball rules — referees cannot make a call as the result of reviewing a video replay that they didn’t make in real time. Tough luck Gaels, saddle up for a fourth overtime. It turned out to be an anti-climatic free throw shooting contest, with Pacific making 13 of 16 free throws while the Gaels took just two free throws. The Tigers’ 16-8 advantage in the final overtime session brought them the 107-99 win.

What’s it all mean?

One thing Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett probably ruminated on during a gloomy bus ride home from Stockton was that a mediocre effort by his troops will not get them far in a very competitive WCC. In addition to Pacific’s unexpected position atop the conference after defeating Pepperdine (on the road) and Saint Mary’s at home, mighty Gonzaga took shots across its bow as well.

The Zags put away lowly Portland at Portland by 13 points, 85-72, but that was a far narrower margin than normal in their encounters, and the Pilots led at halftime by 42-35. On Saturday at home, the Zags struggled against Pepperdine, leading by just 71-68 with under two minutes left in the game. Senior Killian Tillie blocked a Pepperdine three-point attempt that would have tied the game, and the Zags — unlike the Gaels — escaped a challenge from a rival considered to be their inferior.

On Thursday, Saint Mary’s stumbled to a 69-58 win over a San Francisco squad that looks weaker than previous versions, and shot poorly in doing it: 43.3 per cent from the field and 35.4 per cent from three-point range. They carried that substandard effort into Stockton and were handed their hats by an inspired Pacific team.

Bennett must figure out why his usually sharp-shooting team has faltered from three-point range in two consecutive games. Missing Matthias Tass in the post, the Gaels are going to have to rely on three-point shooting to remain competitive in league play. Krebs barely registered a heartbeat against San Francisco, making two of four shots for seven points. He was more aggressive against Pacific, but shot just 4-12 from the field and 2-7 from distance.

Fitts was a sight to behold against San Francisco, scoring 21 points on 9-19 shooting and appearing unstoppable by the Dons, who are missing the shot-blocking prowess of graduated forward Nate Renfro. Fitts, however, was not a factor in the Pacific game, scoring just seven points, one in the second half. Fitts was getting his shots, but they were not falling (2-12) and he whiffed on two three-point attempts.

Bennett doesn’t have a lot of options as the Gaels prepare for an early-season showdown with BYU at home on Thursday and an improved Santa Clara on Saturday. He has tried multiple combinations at center to replace Tass, and seems to have settled on a two-man complement of Fotu and Jock Perry. Both turned in serviceable efforts against Pacific, but that duo is not going to replace previous efforts by the likes of Jock Landale and Jordan Hunter.

Krebs would seem to be under pressure from Ducas, but he holds an edge with his defensive skills. Ducas is growing more and more confident as his minutes grow, however, and he was on the court for 27 minutes compared to Krebs’s 37 against Pacific. The Gaels will probably chalk up Fitts’s poor showing against Pacific to a bad night at work, and can expect him to rebound strongly at home this week.

Ford and Kuhse seem settled in the back court, although Bennett remembered he has a player named Kristers Zoriks during the Pacific game. Zoriks never got off the bench against San Francisco, but logged 15 minutes against Pacific, sinking his only three-point attempt but going 1-4 overall. Zoriks seems to be a more reliable scoring threat than Kuhse, but he needs floor time to polish his game. No breakthroughs on the horizon here.

Bowen is a battler and a ball hawk, but is playing at a disadvantage as Fitts’s back-up at power forward. Unlike Fotu, who seems uncomfortable at times in the paint, Bowen is a natural back-to-the-basket player. Perhaps Bennett should switch the roles of Fotu and Bowen, but mid-season corrections are a rarity in Gaeldom.

The Gaels’ biggest accomplishment in the coming week will be to banish all the bad memories from the Pacific loss. That, and improved performances from Krebs and Fitts, will give them hope against BYU and Santa Clara.

Jordan Ford, shown above in a game from last year, was brilliant in a losing cause against Pacific, logging 58 minutes and scoring 36 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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