by Michael Vernetti
Tanner Krebs decided he would rather channel his sterling first-half against Gonzaga in the WCC title game last March than repeat his stinker against Santa Clara last week; Malik Fitts decided that three-point shots weren’t such a bad thing after all, and the Saint Mary’s Gaels burst out to a 30-14 lead over Pepperdine with less than 10 minutes left in the first half Saturday.
That opening display of deadeye shooting, abetted by a spectacular second half performance by Jordan Ford, allowed the Gaels to fight off a pesky, talented Pepperdine squad for a 78-69 win in Malibu.
Krebs and Fitts, who were a combined 4-23 in the 67-66 loss to Santa Clara, scorched Pepperdine on 14-23 shooting, including 6-9 on three-point attempts, to total 35 points compared to last week’s 20. They didn’t exactly have smoke coming out of their ears, but both forwards made their intentions perfectly clear from the opening tip. It went like this:
— Fitts drove to the rack against Pepperdine’s tough 6’6″ forward Kameron Edwards for a lay-up on the Gaels’ first possession;
— Krebs hit a fadeaway in the paint, a shot that seemed to have deserted him but which is unstoppable when his touch is right;
— Krebs sank a three-pointer without hesitation, then followed with another;
— Fitts hit his first three-pointer, a move that was pleasing to Gael fans for the fact that he, like Krebs, didn’t hesitate before firing. No jab-step tango leading to a meaningless dribble and a pass to a teammate;
— Fitts then drove for another score in the paint, underscoring the advantage of showing he could make three-pointers: defenders had to come out on him;
— Matching Fitt’s display, Krebs then scored again in the paint.
Ducas chimes in
As impressive as this two-man show, was, Krebs and Fitts weren’t alone in the early outburst. Freshman Alex Ducas, given his first start of the year following an impressive string of appearances, sank two three-pointers of his own, sandwiching a driving, left-hand hook shot to account for eight of the initial 30 points.
That Ducas started the game in place of Tommy Kuhse was a strong indication that Gael Coach Randy Bennett has decided that something needs to change in his offense after three creaky outings against Pacific, BYU and Santa Clara — two of which were losses. Ducas scored on another driving lay-up in the second half to finish with10 points in 19 minutes.
Without Kuhse in the lineup, Bennett turned to Ford to run the point, which seemed to work well. Although Ford limited his offense to four points in the first half, he added 22 in the second half to show that he can both score and lead the attack. Kuhse played for much of the second half, however, and actually logged 23 minutes to Ducas’s 19, so it wasn’t an absolute test of a new order.
But it was a start, and Gael fans will be anxiously waiting to see if it proves fruitful as the WCC season continues.
In another lineup adjustment, freshman Kyle Bowen played nine minutes backing up Dan Fotu in the post. Fotu gobbled up the remaining 31 minutes, while Jock Perry and Aaron Menzies, who have played sporadically as Bennett struggled to find the best option for replacing the injured Matthias Tass, stayed on the bench.
Although Fotu’s five points were the total offensive production from the duo, Bowen played well in defending the paint and pulled down three rebounds. As Pepperdine made a last-ditch effort to pull out the game with some eight minutes left, Bowen blocked an Edwards jumper in the paint. This was a key play because Edwards had just sent Fotu to the bench with Fotu’s fourth foul after Edwards made a series of strong moves in the paint that took him to the free throw line.
DEE-FENSE still needed
Despite the Gaels’ strong first-half effort, Pepperdine clawed back to within two points, 47-45, at the 16-minute mark of the second half. The Gaels have seen second-half leads slip away in the losses to Pacific and Santa Clara, as well as in the narrow overtime win over BYU. But they didn’t panic this time.
Krebs, who had 13 of his 17 points in the first half, made a strong move in the paint against Pepperdine’s hot-shooting but poor defending Skylar Chavez, and sank a lay-up to put his team up by four points. Ford then saved a near out-of-bounds miscue and sank a corner three-pointer, his only trey of the game, to increase the lead to seven points.
In a rare display of agitation, the usually stoic Ford jawed at the Pepperdine bench as he headed back on defense, indicating that he had been receiving flack from that area. Ford then made a tough driving lay-up, and Fitts followed with another score in the paint to boost the Gaels’ lead to 57-47.
Then Krebs made a defensive stop as important as Bowen’s block of Kam Edwards. Krebs had drawn the unpleasant task of guarding Pepperdine’s wizardly guard Colbey Ross, and had done pretty well, considering. At this point, however, he made a clean block of a Ross runner, a shot the wily guard had used as a key portion of his 24 points on the night.
Pepperdine seemed to retrieve the momentum when Edwards’ brother, Kessler, blocked an attempted lay-up by Ford. Not content with his defensive accomplishment, Kessler seemed to taunt Ford along the baseline. Ford ignored him, and the Gaels got the last laugh on the ensuing inbounds play. Krebs once again eluded Chaves to receive a pass underneath the Pepperdine basket and made the bunny to give Saint Mary’s a 59-47 lead with 12:14 left.
They nursed that lead until the end.
The road ahead
Did the lineup changes against Pepperdine give the Gaels a blueprint they can use to regain their swagger in the WCC? Probably not, considering the lack of production from their bigs, Fotu and Bowen. Tass’s experience in the post, evident not only by his scoring and rebounding, but also by his passing, screen-setting and defense, are going to be tough for the Gaels to replace, especially as they look ahead to two games against Gonzaga in February and a rematch against BYU in Provo on Feb. 1.
It is going to take excellent outside shooting to give Saint Mary’s a chance against teams that will outscore them in the paint. Ducas will improve that aspect of the Gael offense if he continues to win Bennett’s favor, but three-point shooting is a notoriously fickle partner. What will happen when the three-pointers desert the Gael shooters, as they certainly will?
There is no Jock Landale, Jordan Hunter or Tass for the Gael guards to toss the ball to for a high-percentage basket in the clutch. Fotu is getting better with added experience, and Bowen is a steady defender and ball hawk, but neither seems destined to become a major scoring threat. It’s going to continue to be a work in progress, and the Gaels can only hope that the win over a Pepperdine team primed for an upset promises more progress in the days ahead.
Malik Fitts, slumping from three-point distance in recent games, regained his touch against Pepperdine with 18 points, including 3-5 three-pointers. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.