by Michael Vernetti
Asked before Saturday’s massacre at the hands of Gonzaga what he remembered about last year’s upset of the Zags in the WCC Tournament, Gael guard Tommy Kuhse commented (to Alex Jensen on his podcast “All About the G”):
“We were so locked in to every play. It was, like, we gotta just make one more stop…We were so locked in for what we were doing in the moment. With that kind of focus, we’re pretty dangerous.”
And without it?
You get the kind of 90-60 embarrassment Gael fans witnessed last night, with Gonzaga shooting 74 per cent from the floor in the first half, including 83 per cent from three-point range. That unemcumbered Zag offense racked up 50 first-half points, three more than they scored in the entire game in the Gaels’ 60-47 upset last March.
It seems fair to say the Saint Mary’s focus was equal to the final score — not even close to what it takes to compete with a powerhouse like Gonzaga. How to account for it? Let’s look at the few moments early in the game when the Gaels were in the game, up to the 14:41 mark when the score was 12-10 in Gonzaga’s favor.
Fitts AWOL on defense
Even before that point, Gael forward Malik Fitts had committed three defensive miscues that suggested his focus was not even on his man, let alone the Gonzaga team. Matched up with the explosive Killian Tillie, Fitts misplayed a Zag pick and roll and allowed Tillie to break free to score an easy lay-up.
A few moments later, after another 6’10” Zag forward, freshman Drew Timme, replaced Tillie, Fitts left Timme unguarded to help out on a move to the basket by the Zags’ Corey Kispert. Kispert easily located the unguarded Timme, who sank a simple floater to give Gonzaga a 7-4 lead. On the next Zag possession, Fitts again left Timme alone, this time helping out on a Kispert jumper. With no big body to keep him out of the paint, Timme easily put back the Kispert miss to extend the Zag lead to 9-6 after Saint Mary’s had pulled to within one point on the second of Jordan Ford’s successful penetrations of the paint.
Fitts scored his second bucket of the game, taking advantage of a mismatch with Zag guard Ryan Woolridge, to pull his team back within two points at 12-10. At this early point in the game, with a little more than five minutes having been played, Gonzaga had made six turnovers and looked vulnerable to Ford’s probes and Fitts’ ability to score inside. It was a time to focus.
Instead, Tanner Krebs, who played the best half of his career in that Zag upset last year with 13 points, made a lazy, one-handed pass to a spot just vacated by Kuhse, giving the Zags the ball underneath their basket. Once again, Fitts left Timme unattended to help out on someone else and Timme scored an easy bucket and a free throw.
That combined lack of focus by Krebs and Fitts gave the Zags a 15-10 lead and momentum that they never surrendered. It was the last truly competitive moment of the game, as Gonzaga rolled to leads of 17-10 and then, cashing in on a lack of focus by Kuhse himself, to 20-10.
On a Zag run-out off a Ford missed shot, Woolridge motored down court with Ford guarding him. Kuhse, perhaps confused about who he was covering, left his man, Kispert, alone in the corner to add pressure on Woolridge. Unbothered by attention from Ford and Kuhse, Woolridge found Kispert, who sank a three-pointer to turn a narrow two-point lead to 10.
The Gaels didn’t score again until Kyle Bowen sank two free throws a few minutes later, but then Fitts left Tillie alone for a three-pointer that he gladly converted to push the Zag lead to 23-12. Incredibly, Krebs again turned the ball over on a lazy entry pass to Fitts, allowing the Zags’ Admon Gilder to steal the ball and tip-toe down the sideline before lofting an alley-cop pass to Woolridge that he easily converted for a 25-12 lead.
Krebs, one of the heroes of the upset last March, had a terrible game, scoring two points and grabbing one rebound in 28 minutes of action.
After another run-out and lay-up off a Gael turnover, this time courtesy of freshman Alex Ducas, Gael Coach Randy Bennett called time-out to stem the bleeding that had led to a 27-12 Gonzaga lead. At that point, Gonzaga had made 11-12 shots.
Apparently unfazed by a chewing out administered by Bennett as the time-out was called, Fitts returned to the court to leave Tillie alone for another three-point attempt, which he sank for a 30-12 lead. When Gilder easily beat Fitts for a lay-up on still another run-out, Bennett had had enough and sent Bowen to the scorer’s table to sub in for Fitts.
As the Gaels tried to find some answer for the inside damage caused by Timme and Filip Petrusev, another Zag big man, Coach Bennett substituted 7’1″ Jock Perry for Dan Fotu, who was having little success keeping Petrusev, Timme or Tillie from scoring inside. Perry immediately sank a nice, left-handed hook shot over Petrusev, then defended a Petrusev attempt on the other end and gathered in the rebound. Ford scored off that possession, and the Gaels looked competitive again with the score 34-16 at the 7:12 mark.
That lineup, with Bowen replacing the hopeless Fitts, and Perry adding some size inside to battle Gonzaga’s trio of 6’10”– 6’11” post players, looked promising. The calculus might have gone something like this: use Perry and Bowen to slow down the Gonzaga inside game, and call on Ford, Krebs and Ducas to provide offense.
Showing no confidence in the substitutions he had made, however, Bennett immediately re-inserted Fitts into the lineup, and then after Perry committed a foul playing tough defense against Timme, brought back the undersized Fotu. It was back to the dysfunctional lineup that had brought the Gaels to a large deficit.
As could have been predicted, Petrusev overpowered Fotu inside to increase the Zag lead to 40-20, then Fitts again left Timme alone on a Zag possession to help out another shooter, leaving Timme with only Ford between him and an offensive rebound. As Timme easily corralled the rebound off the missed Zag shot, Fitts fouled him and Timme sank two free throws.
Before the half mercifully drew to a close, Petrusev had scored six more points over Fotu, Timme scored on another put-back and the Zag lead grew to 50-26 when Bennett reversed course once again and put Perry and Bowen back in. As if to underscore his eagerness and ability to help turn the tide, Perry immediately scored underneath. It was the ol’ too little, too late story, however, as Perry’s basket only served to cut the lead to 50-26. As icing on the cake, Gilder faked Krebs out of position on a corner three-point attempt, and sank the bucket to end the half at 53-28 Gonzaga.
I was reminded of a comment by a knowledgeable Gael fan after the embarrassment of the 67-66 Santa Clara loss, which was marked by a similar juggling and re-juggling of the Gael lineup.
“Bennett doesn’t know his rotation,” said the fan gloomily, and that remark seems as true today as it did three weeks ago.
As a final note in this season-long Gael quest to find a team identity, Bennett turned to one of his forgotten men, Kristers Zoriks, to make a cameo appearance during the second half. It seemed as pointless a move as others Bennett has made with Zoriks, whom the coach doesn’t seem to know how to utilize.
Zoriks was on the floor for less than two minutes, but immediately stole the ball from Timme as the Zag big man maneuvered for another score — Timme scored a career-high 20 points on 7-8 shooting, so you would have thought Bennett would have been grateful someone had found a way to keep him off the glass.
Zoriks did commit a turnover when he threw a pass to a spot he thought Fitts was supposed to be in, and was called for a foul on another scrum against a Zag big moving into the paint, but those errors hardly seemed deserving of a return to the bench. Given Zoriks’ lack of floor time, it’s amazing he can remember even the basics of the Gael offense, but Bennett’s uncertainty about Zoriks’ role resembles his feelings about the whole lineup besides Ford.
He doesn’t know his rotation 26 games into the 2019-20 season.
Jordan Ford, pictured driving against San Diego, had a heroic night against Gonzaga given the lack of support from his teammates, scoring 23 points in 39 minutes. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.