Ready for Gonzaga?

by Michael Vernetti

Not really, based on Saint Mary’s stumbling, bumbling 66-60 win over San Diego Thursday night in the Slim Gym.

The Gaels, already reeling from a last-minute gut punch administered by BYU last Saturday in Provo, could hardly afford to lose to the 8-17 Toreros, who have managed only one conference win (against nine losses) this season. Especially with number-two ranked Gonzaga ready to roll into Moraga for a crucial showdown tomorrow.

So, did the Gaels polish their offense against San Diego, buttressed by the return of veteran wing man Tanner Krebs after a one-game lay-off due to an unspecified injury — we know it was to his “lower body” and sharp-eyed fans noted Krebs was rubbing his hip area after taking a hit against Portland?

Not really. The previously number-one rated three-point shooting team in the nation managed to sink one-of-15 three-point attempts against the Toreros, a wide-open look for Krebs in the second half after Krebs had missed a dazzling variety of shots until that point.

Krebs, who must rank number one in the Most Baffling Gael Scorer category, seemingly couldn’t hit anything until he popped that three-pointer early in the second half. It is not as if sinking a long jumper loosened up Krebs for a strong second half, as he proceeded to miss lay-ups, short jumpers and a couple more three-pointers as the game wore on. He ended up making two lay-ups besides that lone three-pointer and made three-of-four free throws to post a respectable 10 points on his scoring line.

Respectable until you note the total came from 3-11 overall shooting, including 1-6 on three-point attempts.

Point guard shuffle

In addition to the shooting malaise, Saint Mary’s continued to exhibit the jitters concerning the ongoing point guard situation. Coach Randy Bennett held true to his decision several games ago to bench erstwhile starter Tommy Kuhse in favor of freshman Alex Ducas in the starting lineup, but Bennett continues to exhibit withdrawal symptoms with Kuhse on the bench.

In the no-Kuhse lineup, leading scorer Jordan Ford assumes point guard duties, and Ducas becomes another wing along with Krebs. When Bennett grows uncomfortable with that lineup, he subs in Kuhse for Ducas or Krebs. So, how does that work for the Gaels? Let’s go to the video.

In the early going against San Diego, Ducas was working hard against Torero sophomore Joey Calcaterra, who at 6’3″ is reasonably well-matched against the 6’6″ Ducas. Ducas made three good offensive plays in the early going, losing Calcaterra in the paint with a nifty behind-the-back dribble for a bucket that was eliminated by a referee’s call that Calcaterra fouled Ducas before the shot.

Ducas then scored slashing across the paint with a difficult cross-body lay-in, and shortly thereafter lost Calcaterra again for a seemingly easy back-door lay-up until Malik Fitts led him too far on the entry pass. So, one for three that could have easily been three-for-three. It looked as if Ducas was softening up Calcaterra nicely to open himself up for his deadly three-point shot (46 per cent on 21-46 shooting) as the game wore on.

On the other hand, Kuhse, splitting time with Ducas, had missed all three of his shot attempts — a dink in the paint, a three-pointer that is beginning to look worse as the season wears on, and a driving lay-up. He accounted for zero assists during that period, and totaled only two assists for the game.

It’s not all Kuhse’s fault that the Gaels seem to be wasting Ducas’s talent. Because of the foul call and Fitts’s errant pass, Ducas was credited with just one field goal attempt in the game and no three-pointers. He made his presence felt by snagging four rebounds and a steal, but on a team whose offense often becomes paralyzed, it would seem Bennett could re-work the offensive schemes to give Ducas some more looks.

Kuhse’s redemption

It must be noted that Kuhse redeemed himself for a lackluster overall game with some crucial plays down the stretch when the Gaels were coming back from a 46-41 deficit with about eight minutes left. Entering the game for Ducas at the seven-minute mark with San Diego leading 49-46, Kuhse made his first basket of the game with a nice move in the paint.

He then misfired on another three-pointer, but sank a lay-up on a subsequent possession to put the Gaels ahead 56-55. Defending San Diego’s talented 6’4″ sophomore Finn Sullivan, Kuhse either blocked or hampered a Sullivan lay-up attempt — the TV feed wasn’t clear and the ESPNU announcers were discussing the weather or other topics.

At any rate, Kuhse recovered Sullivan’s missed shot and headed up-court. He looked off the San Diego defenders with a glance to the left wing and slipped a nifty pass to a streaking Dan Fotu, who converted for a 61-55 lead at the 2:20 mark that should have signaled the end of San Diego’s resistance.

Except for the next chapter in the Malik Fitts Fouling Saga. Much as he was against BYU, Fitts was dominant in the second half against San Diego, scoring on a succession of monster drives and free throws on the way to a 17-point, 14-rebound showcase.

In the next possession after Fotu’s score, Fitts was jockeying for position in the paint against San Diego’s junior forward James Jean-Marie. In what looked like routine big-man jostling, a referee standing behind the two combatants called a foul on Fitts, his fifth, sending him to the bench.

Fitts had exhibited some frustration over an earlier foul call when he grimaced angrily after throwing down a monster dunk against San Diego’s 6’10’ Yauhen Massalski and sank the ensuing free throw. Bennett noticed his barely-contained fury and benched him for a few minutes to cool down.

To his credit, Fitts retained his cool when the disqualifying foul was called, and strolled calmly to the bench. The ejection revitalized the Toreros, however, and Jean-Marie sank one of two free throws awarded for the Fitts foul to shorten the lead to 61-56.

San Diego’s outstanding junior transfer Braun Hartfield, who tallied 18 points for the game, then sank a jumper to cut the lead further, to 61-58 at the 1:14 mark. Krebs made one free throw after being fouled on a drive to make it a four-point lead, but Sullivan countered with a lay-up of his own to cut the lead to 62-60.

Cue Ford, the masterful lane scorer. Ford had suffered along with his teammates from three-point range, missing both long-ball attempts and looking uncomfortable doing it. But his lay-up and floater arsenal was well-stocked, and he managed 19 hard-fought points for the game.

After Sullivan’s lay-up, Ford took over, probing the lane with his patented dribbling and feinting. Given the unenviable task of guarding Ford at the crucial moment, Sullivan found himself falling on his backside instead. Another Torero defender came over to pick up the slack left by Sullivan’s pratfall, but he, too slipped, clearing Ford for a floater over the outstretched arms of the San Diego bigs.

A similar shot that would have sent the BYU game to overtime missed, but this one didn’t, and the Gaels headed into the final seconds with a two-possession lead at 64-60. Two Kuhse free throws as the clock wound sown accounted for the margin.

Here comes Gonzaga, whether the Gaels are ready or not.

Jordan Ford, shown above sinking a jump shot in an earlier game, led the Gaels over San Diego with 19 points and six assists. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.



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