by Michael Vernetti
Saint Mary’s made one thing very clear in its 71-63 win over Pacific Saturday in Moraga: it is going to contest second place in the WCC with its full force and fury in the next two weeks.
Problem is, the Gaels’ full force and fury may not be enough to overcome an unfavorable position in the WCC standings.
At the close of this weekend’s play, second-place BYU at 10-3 holds a decisive edge over the third-place 8-4 Gaels, and has only three games left to the Gaels’ four, with two of those at home. It would take a BYU collapse on the order of losing two of those three games — to Gonzaga probably and to either Santa Clara or Pepperdine improbably — for the Gaels to regain second place.
Going two-for-three would give BYU a 12-4 record, which the Gaels could only match by winning all four of their remaining games, including a rematch with Gonzaga in Spokane on the last day of the season on Feb. 29. Not the most likely scenario, which means Saint Mary’s will have to fight to wrest third place from Pacific or, possibly, Pepperdine.
Finishing third instead off second would knock the Gaels out of the extremely desirable double bye in the WCC Tournament March 6-10 in Las Vegas. Instead of resting comfortably in Moraga while teams finishing 3-10 struggle to reach the semifinals against the top two teams, Saint Mary’s will likely be one of those 3-10 teams working harder than they’re used to.
Excellence against Pacific
With all those troubling circumstances lurking in the background, the Gaels nevertheless took the court Saturday afternoon with grit and efficiency. Playing one of its most dominant first halves of he season, Saint Mary’s held Pacific to eight made baskets en route to a 35-20 halftime lead.
This was a far cry from the Gaels’ creaking effort in a 107-99 loss to Pacific Jan. 4 in Stockton that took four agonizing overtime periods to work its way to a climax. Gael Coach Randy Bennett used only nine players on Saturday, and while that is still more than the seven-or-eight man rotations Bennett uses when he is happy with his lineup, it is less than the 11 or 12 players he has often used this season as his team struggled to find continuity and consistent defense.
Centers Aaron Menzies and Jock Perry and guard Logan Johnson remained on the bench against Pacific, and subs Tommy Kuhse, Elijah Thomas, Kyle Bowen and Kristers Zoriks were used with strategic purpose. Kuhse entered in place of freshman Ducas — who had supplanted Kuhse in the starting lineup in recent weeks — and Bennett stayed with his walk-on point guard despite some shaky recent outings.
Kuhse proved Bennett’s instincts correct, as he broke out of a shooting slump to score 10 points, all in the paint against Pacific’s prolific shot blockers James Hampshire, Justin Moore and Amari McCray. Kuhse also recorded the assist of the night by dropping an over-the-shoulder pass to a trailing Dan Fotu midway through the second half that Fotu converted for two of his team-leading 16 points.
Thomas, who has emerged as a defensive stopper in recent games after spending most of the past two seasons glued to the bench, was also effective in relief of veteran Tanner Krebs. Sharing duty with Krebs defending Pacific’s unstoppable Jahlil Tripp, who burned the Gaels for 39 points in the previous game but was held to 17 on Saturday, Thomas also sparked the Gaels offensively by scoring on two breakaways, one of them a resounding dunk off an assist by Jordan Ford. Thomas added a driving lay-up in the paint to finish 3-3 from the floor for seven points.
Zoriks, who has been the subject of fan speculation as he has languished on the bench even though he is apparently fully healed from the second of two knee operations, finally saw some extended minutes as well. He has been used sporadically by Bennett, but only for a play or two, roiling fans who wonder why he hasn’t played a bigger role. Given several minutes at point guard, Zoriks looked sharp, and made one of the most spectacular shots of the night with a fade-away jumper just outside the paint.
Giving subs time to affect the game positively was just one of the features of Bennett’s approach to the Pacific game. The Gaels successfully worked the ball inside to Fotu, who responded with a 7-10 shooting night, including a 15-foot jump shot, and pulled down 10 rebounds to record the first double-double of his career.
Fotu ended up taking 10 shots, more than any other game this year, while scoring leader Ford took only 13 shots in scoring 13 points. Likewise, forward Malik Fitts took only nine shots in a 14-point effort. Is this a new approach for the Gaels, returning to an inside-heavy offensive thrust instead of placing the ball in either Ford’s or Fitts’s hands for the bulk of the offense?
Late-year strategic change?
If Bennett’s Gaels were displaying a new offensive strategy against Pacific, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Ford and Fitts, although performing heroically many times this year, might be easy targets for Gael opponents as Saint Mary’s heads down the home stretch in the WCC. If opponents ignore Fotu, Menzies or Perry in the paint and overload defenses to thwart Ford and Fitts, that puts more pressure on the Gaels’ two leading scorers.
Krebs has been maddeningly inconsistent this year, and Bennett may have decided he simply can’t count on the Aussie to pick up the slack if Ford and Fitts are hemmed in. Adding fresh new bodies such as Thomas and Zoriks to the mix could be sound strategy as the Gaels figure out a way to make the most of their last four games.
Krebs, who clearly knows he was a non-factor in the Gaels’ embarrassing 90-60 loss to Gonzaga last week (two points, one rebound), was hot in the early going against Pacific. He ended up with seven points on 3-5 shooting, including his only three-point attempt of the night, but Bennett nevertheless kept him on the bench as Thomas flourished. Krebs ended up playing only 18 minutes against Pacific, his lowest total in a long time.
Another player seeing more limited playing time against Pacific was Ducas, who has shown signs of brilliance this season but may be suffering a freshman letdown. Bennett allowed Kuhse to soak up some of the minutes Ducas had been receiving, but it is probably premature to declare the Pacific experience a formal strategy change regarding Ducas.
But there was clearly a change in approach against Pacific, which has emerged as the conference’s most improved team this year as it topped the 20-win mark for the first time since Damon Stoudamire took over three years ago. Suddenly looking up at someone else besides Gonzaga in first place, Saint Mary’s also faces a possible Las Vegas tournament challenge in Stoudamire’s Tigers.
Now is not the time to stand pat if the Gaels hope to follow-up last season’s NCAA Tournament bid with another.
Dan Fotu, the sophomore from New Zealand, sliced inside the Pacific defense to score 16 points in the Gaels’ 71-63 win Saturday afternoon. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.