by Michael Vernetti
With 40 per cent of its starting lineup sidelined and with one of its star players sent to the bench with 4:36 minutes left, Saint Mary’s succumbed to a TJ Haws three-pointer in the final seconds to lose to BYU by 81-79 Saturday night at BYU.
The game could have easily gone the other way, as freshman Alex Ducas sank a clutch corner trey with 1:29 left to give the Gaels a 79-75 lead. But BYU did not fold, instead going to a reliable source, the formidable Yoeli Childs, under the basket — a formula BYU tried repeatedly to capitalize on the Gaels’ lack of post size and experience in the wake of a season-ending injury to Matthias Tass.
Childs was fouled and sank one of two free throws to narrow the Saint Mary’s lead to 79-76. Zac Seljaas, a thorn in the Gaels’ side all night with seven points, made two more free throws on a succeeding possession to cut the margin to 79-78. Jordan Ford, who was good but not brilliant Saturday night (18 points on 7-16 shooting), missed a driving lay-up to set the stage for Haws’s heroics with 17.8 seconds left.
Haws didn’t disappoint the screaming 19,000-plus fans in the Marriott Center, and the Gaels were left with one more chance to tie or win the game with 8.5 seconds left. Coach Randy Bennett squeezed every second out of the time out called after Haws’s dagger, and came up with a sensible last-second play.
Ford took the inbounds pass from Ducas, dribbled down court and then easily shook off his defender to enter the lane where he has thrived in a brilliant college career. Smoothly, as he has done hundreds of times in a Gael uniform, Ford lofted a floater towards the rim.
But it was slightly off course, and instead of going to overtime the Gaels were headed to the Provo airport for a dreary flight home.
Fitts for glory and regret
Although much of the action landed on Ford’s shoulders in the game’s waning moments, the night seemingly belonged to Fitts, who was coming off a 27-point, seven three-pointer game against Portland on Thursday, and was poised to top that against BYU. With less than five minutes gone in the second half, Fitts had scored 25 points, including 11 of the Gaels’ 13 second-half points up to that point.
BYU was unable to stop him, but he managed to stop himself, with a little help from the referees. Fitts’s meltdown began at the 7:18 minute mark, as the Gaels were nursing a 69-65 lead. Perhaps feeling invincible after scorching BYU on a variety of moves and shots, Fitts was called for a charge that gave the ball to BYU.
Haws hit a short jumper to cut the lead to 69-67, then Fitts lost control of his dribble on the Gaels’ next offensive possession. Frustrated, he shoved the BYU player who picked up the errant dribble, earning his third personal foul. It didn’t seem important beyond the loss of possession that gave Haws another open jumper to tie the game.
As the Gaels began their offensive set following the Haws jumper, BYU’s Jake Toolson ran into Fitts on a hand-off exchange. A referee standing not five feet from the play made the “no harm, no foul” gesture concerning the Toolson-Fitts collision, but another ref situated well behind the play called a foul on Fitts, his fourth. It was an incredible blunder, but basketball teams have no recourse after a bad call.
A minute or so later, Fitts picked up Haws on a switch and made a mistake repeated every night in high school, college and the NBA — he left his feet as Haws rose up for a jumper. But Fitts is an elite athlete, and was able to angle his body to Haws’s left side and avoid running into him. Haws saw he had no chance to make the shot and leaned to his left while looking to pass the ball to a teammate. In so doing, Haws initiated contact with Fitts, and was rewarded with a foul call that removed Fitts from the game with nearly five minutes left.
It was another atrocious call, but the Gaels had no choice but to send in a substitute for their scoring leader, who had racked up 29 points at that time. Haws’s two free throws gave the lead back to BYU, 71-70.
Ducas almost to the rescue
Ducas, who was playing the wing for Saint Mary’s in place of Tanner Krebs, sidelined with an injury to his left side sustained in the Portland game, seemed to take the reins for the Gaels in Fitts’s absence. He surrounded a rebound off a missed Ford three-point attempt and put back the errant shot to give his team the lead again at 72-71.
Seconds later, after Tommy Kuhse, working on a zero-points, three-assists night in 34 minutes of action, missed a lay-up off a breakaway, Ducas again grabbed the rebound, was fouled and sank both free throws for a 74-71 Saint Mary’s lead. Shortly thereafter he sank the corner trey mentioned earlier to cap a seven-point personal run in less than three minutes after Fitts fouled out.
Ducas finished with 11 points on 4-6 shooing, and personified the Gaels’ “next man up” philosophy invoked as the injury bug has slowed them this season. Ducas and Elijah Thomas shared the position manned by Krebs for several years, and the pair of them accounted for 17 points in Krebs’s absence.
Another Gael attempt at elevation by substitution was not so successful, however. Kuhse had been scorched by Haws for 29 points in the Gaels’ 87-84 overtire victory over the Cougars on Jan. 9, and was showing no signs of slowing him down last night (he finished with 23). After Kuhse failed to crowd Haws on a three-point shot that Haws sank, Bennett turned to Logan Johnson to slow down Haws.
Johnson had swiped two passes from Haws during overtime in the Jan. 9 victory, and those plays were huge in aiding the Gaels’ win. He did seem to bother Haws in the final minutes of the first half, as Haws missed shots on three straight possessions, but Bennett evidently felt that Kuhse was necessary to run the point and put his embattled guard back in the game. Kuhse also played almost every minute of the second half, although his offensive contribution consisted of a missed corner trey and two missed lay-ups for the night.
Johnson drew the unenviable duty of guarding Haws on BYU’s final possession, but made a critical error in judgement. As BYU erected a stagger screen with Toolson and Childs to give Haws a good look from behind three-point range, Johnson easily avoided Toolson but elected to go behind Childs’s back and attempt to close out on Haws from several feet away. He didn’t come close, and Haws had plenty of time to line up and sink the basket that gave BYU the win.
It was indicative of the dilemma Bennett has faced all season, as he has attempted to find a point guard who can lead his complicated offense and score enough to bolster the offense. Kuhse’s offense has fallen off from last season, probably a result of opponents having copious film on him to thwart his limited assortment of moves in the paint.
Johnson is more explosive than Kuhse, and overall a better defender, but he does not seem to have mastered the offense, and Bennett just seems more comfortable having Kuhse on the floor where he led the Gaels to an NCAA Tournament bid last year.
C’est la vie.
Malik Fitts, shown above from a game earlier this season, was having a game for the ages against BYU until he ran into foul trouble that sent him to the bench in the game’s crucial final minutes. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.