by Michael Vernetti
After battling the flu bug with varying degrees of success for three games — against Pepperdine, San Francisco and Loyola Marymount — Saint Mary’s stars Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts returned to Moraga with a bang Thursday night.
Ford and Fitts combined for 48 of the Gaels’ 86 points in an 86-64 romp over the struggling Portland Pilots, combining for 12-25 three-point shots. As a team, Saint Mary’s made 18-40 three-point attempts (45 per cent), which should solidify its standing as the nation’s leading three-point shooting team.
Portland, which is trying to overcome last season’s disastrous 7-25 campaign, including 0-16 in the West Coast Conference, seems to have crafted a competent offense around veterans JoJo Walker and Tahirou Diabate and Maine transfer Isaiah White. But Coach Terry Porter, now in his fourth season in Portland, seems not to have concentrated too much on defense in rebuilding his transfer-ravaged squad.
Even Porter’s son, Franklin, who began college as a Gael, opted to play in Europe instead of returning for a fifth-year after sitting out a transfer season. Porter’s other son, Malcolm, is a mainstay of the Pilots, but is currently injured. Joining Franklin in the exodus from Portland are last year’s leading scorer (14.8 PPG) Marcus Shaver, who transferred to Boise State, Crisshawn Clark and Josh McSwiggan, who lost an NCAA appeal for an additional season.
Taking no pity on the Pilots, the Gaels zipped the ball from side to side to find countless open looks for its three-point shooters, totaling 23 assists on 32 made baskets. Guard Tommy Kuhse again led the Gaels with eight assists and only one turnover. The only blemish on a night of celebration following several white-knuckle contests was an injury to senior guard Tanner Krebs.
Call out the reserves
Krebs was seen wincing in pain following an injury to his left hip area, and didn’t return to the Gael bench after the halftime break. Coach Randy Bennett, emerging from the locker room to start the second half, pointed to reserves Elijah Thomas, Logan Johnson and Kristers Zoriks, seemingly indicating they would be called upon in Krebs’s absence.
Sure enough, all three played in the second half, and all three acquitted themselves well. Thomas, at 6’4″ the closest to Krebs’s 6’6″ height, got the most minutes, 11, and showed flashes of what Gael fans expected of him after an excellent high school career in Arizona.
Thomas led the team in rebounding with six, added a steal to his defensive portfolio and showed the open-court explosiveness he seemed to offer as a recruit, flying down the court on a fast break and finishing with a nifty lay-up. Thomas seems to have slipped into a position of corner three-point shooter with Saint Mary’s that is not his greatest strength instead of developing the open-court skills that utilize his athleticism.
Another pleasant surprise off the bench was Zoriks, the star-crossed guard from Latvia who has been battling back from successive ACL surgeries on his left knee. After showing enough promise to excite some Gael fans about the prospect of edging out Kuhse at point guard, Zoriks slipped out off sight in recent weeks. Per custom, Gael officials have issued not a word about the reason, so fans are left to wonder whether the knee brace Zoriks has been wearing lately indicates he had a setback in his recovery.
Whatever the back story, Zoriks got the call with about four minutes left in the game. He did not waste the opportunity, sinking two-of-two three-point attempts in the game’s waning minutes and showing no signs of lingering knee problems.
Johnson, the electric transfer from Cincinnati, also showed some offensive chops, converting both of his attempts from the field, grabbing two rebounds and swiping the ball twice from Portland guards.
Depending on the severity of Krebs’s injury, Thomas may get extended minutes as the Gaels travel to Provo, UT on Saturday to battle the hot-and-cold BYU Cougars in a crucial battle to hold onto undisputed possession of second place in the WCC. BYU, a game behind the Gaels at 5-3 in conference play, blew out Pepperdine 107-80 at home Thursday night, dropping in 17 three-pointers on 28 tries.
That follows a disappointing 83-82 loss at San Francisco the weekend before in which BYU’s defense allowed Dons’ guard Khalil Shabazz to go 10-10 from the floor, including 6-6 on three-point attempts for a crippling 32 points. The confident, home-standing Cougars will be anxious to knock off the Gaels, avenge an 87-84 overtime loss in Moraga on Jan. 9, and creep back into a tie for second place.
Which Gael team will face BYU?
The Gael team heading to Provo can match BYU in unpredictability. Scrambling to find offensive cohesiveness after the loss of center Matthias Tass in the Dec. 21 Nevada game, Saint Mary’s in recent games has ratcheted up its defense, holding opponents to an average of 62 points following the BYU game.
It would behoove the Gaels to double down on the defensive pressure, especially considering how Cougar guards TJ Haws and Jake Toolson exploited them in that Jan. 9 game: Haws went for 29 points and Toolson for 24, and that was without forbidding front court presence Yoeli Childs in the lineup. Childs is back from the finger injury that kept him out of the first Saint Mary’s encounter, and will present a major challenge to the Gaels’ jury-rigged defense in the paint.
Sophomore Dan Fotu and freshman Kyle Bowen have been solution 1A in the paint, with back-up provided by the massive twosome of Aaron Menzies and Jock Perry. Without Childs to contend with, Fotu had a big game against BYU on Jan. 9, scoring 16 points in 32 minutes. Perry was a perfect 3-3 from the floor and Menzies chipped in a bucket as well, giving the Gaels 24 points from the post position.
Can they, or a different combination dictated by game conditions, produce the same results with Childs in the lineup? Will Krebs be back to add veteran steadiness? These are just two of the questions the Gaels must answer before the welcoming 19,000 Cougar fans awaiting them at the Marriott Center.
Jordan Ford, regaining his swagger after a bout with the flu, drives against Portland guard Isaiah White for two of his 21 points Saturday night. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.