by Michael Vernetti
There were some eerie similarities to the nightmare in Stockton before Saint Mary’s scratched out an 87-84 overtime win over BYU Thursday night in Moraga, but, thankfully, there was one big difference — the Gaels won.
Gael fans are going to rue seemingly comfortable leads late in games following back-to-back forced overtimes against Pacific last Saturday and BYU last night. Against Pacific, the Gaels seemed to be in charge at 60-52 with 4:28 left on the clock, then watched Jahill Tritt outscore them all by himself to force the first of four overtimes.
Against BYU it was a 68-61 Saint Mary’s lead at the 4:51 mark that they couldn’t hold, but they didn’t go as meekly as they did against Pacific.
Jordan Ford, who has been heroic in the Gaels’ last two games, seemed to punctuate his team’s refusal to wilt with a long three-pointer — maybe five feet beyond the NBA three-point line — to push the lead to 71-62. Later, after BYU’s TJ Haws cut the lead to 71-68, Ford made one of his guttiest drives in a career full of them, bullying BYU’s Alex Barcello along the baseline for a contested lay-up. He also converted a free throw, putting the Gaels on top by four points, 74-68, with 1:22 left.
Surely that would do it, right?
Haws, who seems to have been reborn under Coach Mark Pope’s tutelage succeeding Dave Rose in Provo, answered Ford with a score in the paint to cut the lead to 74-70. Still no reason to panic, especially since Ford found Dan Fotu under the basket for a finger roll that pushed the Gaels’ lead back to six points at 76-70.
But Jake Toolson, the 6’5″ guard whom Pope brought along with him from Utah Valley, immediately sank a three-pointer to halve the lead with about 37 seconds left.
For some reason, the Gaels’ beloved coach, Randy Bennett, overthought the situation by replacing steady guard Tommy Kuhse with freshman Alex Ducas at that point. With BYU pressing, Bennett’s move left just one skilled ball handler — Ford — in the game, and Ford was immediately surrounded by three BYU defenders following the in-bounds pass. With no Kuhse as his safety valve, Ford launched an errant cross-court pass that the Gaels’ Tanner Krebs couldn’t corral, and BYU had the turnover it desperately needed.
Kuhse came back in, but to the decidedly unwelcome task of containing Haws, who seemed energized to topple the Gaels. Haws, who would finish the night with 29 points, hit a quick jumper in the lane to cut the lead to 76-75 with 18.4 seconds left. Kuhse then replicated the poor inbounding that occurred while he was on the bench, tossing the ball to Malik Fitts on the sideline, where he was eagerly double-teamed and trapped.
Saint Mary’s received a reprieve in the form of a foul call against an eagerly-pressing BYU defender, and Fitts made the first half of a one-and-one to put the Gaels up by two, 77-75, with 15 ticks left. Everyone in the packed McKeon — make that Universal Credit Union — Pavilion knew Haws was going to take BYU’s last shot, but Kuhse didn’t’t seem to be among them.
With Haws motoring down court, Kuhse looked away just long enough for Haws to execute a cross-over dribble that tripped up Kuhse and left Haws free for a dunk that tied the game at 77 each. The Gaels had two more attempts to avoid overtime, but Ford and Krebs both misfired.
BYU has momentum
The team that forces overtime after trailing usually comes into the overtime period with momentum, and BYU certainly played as if it had the Big Mo. The Gaels went back to their first-half pattern of turning over the ball in imaginative ways, as Fotu, who was otherwise brilliant with 16 points on the night, fumbled an entry pass. A nearby referee interpreted a wild slide by BYU’s Dalton Nixon that knocked Fotu off his feet as traveling, and BYU was off to the races.
Toolson, who nearly matched Haws’ output with 24 points of his own, easily scored over Krebs in the paint to put BYU up 79-77. Fortunately, referees often display a conscience even if they previously exercised poor judgement, and one of the refs looked at a Kuhse hack of a driving Haws on the next possession and saw nothing. Another ref kindly called a foul on Toolson as he guarded Krebs on the Gaels’ next possession, sending Krebs to the line.
Krebs, who has been consistently inconsistent with his shooting in recent games, didn’t let a 2-8 shooting night bother him as he stood at the free throw line. He swished both attempts to give the Gaels a tie they had seemingly frittered away. Then Bennett redeemed his earlier substitution decision with a move that reaped wonderful rewards.
Beside himself to find someone who could slow down Haws, Bennett subbed in little-used transfer guard Logan Johnson for Kuhse. Johnson, who exudes energy just standing still, was up to the task, and immediately swiped the ball in a scrum in the paint. Feeding off the momentum that Johnson’s steal provided, Ford then made an impossible spinning lay-up to give Saint Mary’s the lead, 81-79, at the 2:10 mark.
Following a charging call on Johnson, Haws got by the gritty defender to re-tie the game with a bucket at the 1:27 mark. With just 56 seconds left in overtime, however, Johnson stole a BYU pass for the second time. Barcello then fouled Ford again, but Ford made just one of two free throws to give the Gaels an 83-81 lead with less than 40 seconds left on the clock.
Fitts had a chance to share the hero’s mantle when he was fouled on a subsequent possession, and this time a Gael free throw shooter didn’t settle for just one of two attempts. Fitts calmly netted both free throws to push the lead to four points at 85-81. Surely that would be enough (stop me if I’m repeating myself).
Haws was unfazed, and sank a difficult three-pointer with Krebs’ hand in his face, and BYU had life with 13 seconds left. It was Krebs’ turn to become a champion at the free throw line, as he replicated Fitts’ effort with two of his own for the 87-84 win. Piece of cake, eh Coach Bennett?
What lies ahead
After what was certainly its most stressful opening week in recent memory, Saint Mary’s finds itself at 2-1 in WCC play heading into Saturday’s match-up with ascending Santa Clara. With a messy win over San Francisco and a split of two overtime contests against Pacific and BYU, Bennett and his troops must view the future with trepidation.
Nothing, it seems, is going to come easy in conference play, with a return match with BYU in Provo and two games with number one-rated Gonzaga just a few of the looming obstacles. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi sat in on the TV broadcast and boldly foresaw three WCC teams — Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU — receiving NCAA bids.
Maybe Lunardi is right, but the Gaels are going to have to play better than they did in the opening week to keep their part of the bargain. They committed 11 turnovers in the first half and 16 for the night against just 14 assists against BYU, making their offense work harder than it should. Fitts and Krebs, despite their free throw success in overtime, continued to shoot erratically, going 8-22 between them.
Ford has been brilliant, with 60 points in the Pacific and BYU games, but he cannot carry the team by himself. As Fotu continues to improve and Jock Perry becomes a trusted back-up to him in the paint — Perry was 3-3 from the field and 2-2 from the free throw line against BYU — one of the Gael question marks may be subsiding.
But Kuhse, Fitts and Krebs have to play better if the Gaels are to cobble together a successful season in the absence of Matthias Tass in the paint. Ducas continues to impress as a possible time-sharer with Krebs, and Johnson showed the value of switching up on Kuhse’s position, but Bennett seems reluctant to give anyone besides his starters consistent minutes.
Kristers Zoriks must either be nursing an injury or unable to win Bennett’s confidence, because he did not play against BYU, just as he didn’t against San Francisco in the opener. In between, Zoriks looked fine in a 15-minute stint against Pacific, but something is troubling about his status.
These and other questions will continue to keep fans on edge as the season rolls on.
Jordan Ford, shown above in the Gaels’ red uniforms worn against BYU on Thursday, has scored 60 points in the last two games. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.