Ill wind blows some good

by Michael Vernetti

Jordan Ford is sick. Stomach heaving, body shaking, head throbbing sick.

Which is why Saint Mary’s 58-48 victory over San Francisco Thursday night in Moraga was remarkable.

Ford was also sick last Saturday in Malibu as the Gaels took on Pepperdine, but he juked and jived the Waves for 26 points anyway. He gave up on the three-ball against Pepperdine, going 1-3 from distance, but had enough in his tank to play 39 minutes and lead all scorers.

He didn’t get better in the five days between engagements, and against the Dons he drew a blank: 0-9 from the floor, including two three-point attempts. He did manage to sink 8-11 free throws and swipe the ball from Don dribblers three times, and Gael Coach Randy Bennett acknowledged his ongoing flu symptoms by limiting his minutes to 36.

Talk about tough love.

There were implications from Ford’s illness in addition to his unusual scoring drought — it was the first time in 73 games he didn’t score a bucket — and the Gaels deserve credit for resiliency. For one thing, the move to replace Tommy Kuhse in the starting lineup with freshman Alex Ducas, thus moving veteran wing Tanner Krebs to the two-guard spot, was interrupted due to necessity.

Ford drew the Dons’ explosive point guard Jamaree Bouyea on defense, and it was not a good match-up for the Gaels’ scoring leader. Bouyea blew by Ford for a lay-up and free throw in the opening minutes, then followed with a steal off Krebs and breakaway lay-up, then drilled a three-pointer to account for 10 points in less than five minutes.

For his part, Ford had missed two lay-ups he normally could make in his sleep, so Bennett knew he had to intervene. He summoned Kuhse off the bench after about four minutes, switched Ford onto Jordan Ratinho, and the results were immediate. In his first possession at the point, Kuhse found Dan Fotu under the basket for a lay-up, and he immediately began making Bouyea work harder for his points.

Bouyea led all San Francisco scorers with 19 points, but he had scored 10 of those before Kuhse entered the game. Holding Bouyea to nine points over the remaining 36 minutes amounted to a significant stemming of what could have been a disastrous tide. Kuhse also dished out seven assists and scored nine points on 4-7 shooting.

Deja vu all over again

Relying on Kuhse to right the Gaels’ offensive ship harkened back to the dark days of last season when Saint Mary’s stumbled to a 3-4 start with the back court similar to the one that started against Pepperdine and San Francisco: Ford at the point, Krebs at the two-guard and Elijah Thomas instead of Ducas at the wing. Inserted at the point and sending Thomas to the bench, Kuhse immediately began operating the Saint Mary’s offense the way Bennett likes it to operate, and the Gaels responded with a 22-12 mark and an NCAA bid.

This is not to say that Ducas’s role as a starter will necessarily be curtailed, but is rather an indication of the improvisational style the Gaels have adopted by necessity this season. With Matthias Tass lounging on the bench following surgery to repair a torn ACL, the Gaels opened with Fotu, the 6’7″ New Zealander who was a forward last year, at center against the Dons’ lumbering 7’0″ Jimbo Lull.

Lull bullied Fotu in the teams’ first encounter Jan. 2 in San Francisco, scoring nine points and grabbing nine rebounds. But he was largely ineffective this time around, settling for four points and six rebounds and coughing up the ball several times. The official score sheet showed two turnovers for Lull, but he was rattled repeatedly by Krebs’s help defense in the post, and seemed resigned to being a spectator in this game.

Bennett used 7’3″ Aaron Menzies and 7’1″ Jock Perry for a total of 12 minutes of relief for Fotu, and they contributed four points, four rebounds and a block — by Menzies — to buttress Fotu’s efforts (four points, six rebounds). It was enough to give the Gaels’ rough equivalency in the post.

Another similarity?

Another way this Gael team may be channeling last year’s is on defense. The Gaels’ rock- bottom moment last year was the 94-46 lambasting by Gonzaga in Spokane, which served to bring home a point Bennett had probably been making vainly until that point: the team’s only road to a successful season rests on defensive effort.

Finally listening to their coach, the Gaels reeled off games in which they held Santa Clara to 55 points, Pacific to an embarrassing (for them) 32 points, San Diego — which was a good team last year — to 46 points, Portland to 48 points and Gonzaga to…69. Well, it was a big improvement over 94, and seemed to set the stage for the Gaels’ stunning 60-47 win over Gonzaga in the WCC Championship game.

Putting aside Bouyea’s early offensive outburst, which was partially attributable to a favorable match-up with the flu-ridden Ford, Saint Mary’s shut down San Francisco. Riding Bouyea’s 13 first-half points, the Dons led at the half by a score of 28-25, but were held to only 20 points in the second half.

The blanking was team-wide, with even Ford doing a good job on super-quick Dons’ guard Khalil Shabazz. Shabazz was a thorn in the Gaels’ side in the first San Francisco encounter, scoring 11 points behind 4-5 three-pointers. He scored only six points Saturday, dropping off to 2-7 shooting from long distance.

Particularly notable was Krebs’ job in reining in San Francisco’s leading scorer, Charles Minlend. Minlend, a rugged 6’4″, 208 lbs, is particularly effective with a jump shot in the paint, but Krebs gave him no quarter. Every time Minlend came around a screen, or tried to get Krebs off his feet with a ball fake, the 6’6″ Tasmanian was looking him right in the eye. Minlend settled for nine points on 4-17 shooting.

Krebs as proof point

Krebs’ role is particularly illustrative of the benefit of Bennett’s defense-first approach. Anyone who would bet on Krebs’ offensive effectiveness is blind to established history: he is reliably unreliable shooting the three-ball. After laboring through several games in which he seemingly couldn’t successfully toss the ball in the ocean, Krebs came out sizzling against Pepperdine last Saturday, totaling 13 points on 5-5 shooting in the first half. He cooled off a bit in the second half, but finished the game with 17 points on 7-9 shooting, including 3-4 on three-pointers.

That was good Tanner.

He was wretched against San Francisco on Saturday, missing everything he threw up, including three errant three-pointers. But he never flagged in his dogged defense of Minlnd, plus grabbed three rebounds and led the Gaels’ theft brigade with five of the team’s 11 steals.

He also worked the Gael offense — the part that doesn’t include him shooting three-pointers — brilliantly, breaking free for three lay-ups under the basket by losing his defender on screens. And just when fans least expected it — in the game’s final minute with San Francisco furiously battling back — Krebs sank a three-pointer from the short corner to give the Gaels a 10-point lead they didn’t surrender. Go figure.

Then there was Fitts

The importance of the Gaels’ defense notwithstanding, Malik Fitts had an extraordinary game against San Francisco. He was unstoppable storming down the lane for lay-ups, and made a sensational spinning move in the second half that had the CBS Sports Network announcers stuttering in their microphones.

Some Gael fans reported after the game that they felt Fitts was ill along with Ford, but I didn’t detect what they did. Ford’s distress was obvious, as he spent as much time during warm-ups in the locker room or badgering Gael trainers for aspirins, vitamin C pills or anything else that might get him through the game. Plus, he looked like death warmed over.

Fitts, on the other hand, looked fit, and the only time he came off the court in the second half it looked like he had received a poke in the chops from a rude Don defender. He walked along the front of the Gael bench rubbing his face with a towel and feeling his face to reassure himself that all its parts were intact. After a breather, he went right back in and finished the game with 35 minutes of action.

Game after game this season reinforces the point that no victory should be anticipated, that each game will be a battle. The Gaels head to Los Angeles on Saturday to face the predictably up-and-down Loyola Marymount Lions, and can expect the same thing. Ford won’t have much recovery time, as the Gaels probably travel today (Friday) for Saturday’s game.

No doctor would prescribe a brutal athletic encounter for recovering flu patients, but that is what is in store for Ford and the Gaels. Defense saved them against San Francisco, and will undoubtedly be the key in Los Angeles.

Malik Fitts, shown above blowing by San Francisco center Jimbo Lull, led the Gaels in scoring with 18 points on 7-10 shooting, including a perfect 4-4 in the second half. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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