What happens in Vegas

by Michael Vernetti

As nice as was Saint Mary’s 92-63 romp over San Diego on Saturday afternoon in Moraga — a blowout win over a conference opponent, how novel — it was not the weekend’s biggest story.

That honor would go to BYU’s 91-78 handling of Gonzaga. And BYU did handle the Zags, who had won a tidy 40 WCC games in a row (last loss: to the Jock Landale-led Gaels in 2018) before Saturday’s upset in Provo. This was not a nail-biter, did not hang on a last-minute score by one of BYU’s Big Three — TJ Haws. Yoeli Childs or Jake Toolson — and was not played with the Zags missing any of their stars.

Not only did BYU buttress its newly-won Top 25 ranking (23rd in the AP Poll before the Gonzaga win, sure to go up), but it also played havoc with Saint Mary’s faint hope to sneak back into second place in the WCC and earn a double-bye in the upcoming WCC Tournament. If BYU had lost to Gonzaga and the Gaels won out, unlikely considering their last game is against Gonzaga in Spokane next Saturday, Saint Mary’s and BYU could have ended in a tie for second place with identical 12-4 records (assuming BYU handles Pepperdine next week in Malibu).

Not likely now, as even a Gael win over Santa Clara on the road Thursday and an upset of the Zags, would leave them in third place if BYU beats Pepperdine. This scenario shifts attention to the WCC Tournament, which runs from March 6-10. If the Gaels go to Las Vegas as a third seed, they would face an opponent finishing 5-10 in the conference in a quarterfinal game on Saturday, March 7.

A victory in that game would get them to the semifinals on the following Monday (the tournament eschews Sunday play in deference to BYU’s religious preferences). As a second seed, BYU would be the Gaels’ opponent on Monday (the one seed, Gonzaga, plays the fourth seed, probably Pacific).

So, how would the Gaels stack up in a rubber match against BYU after splitting with an overtime win at home, 87-84, on Jan. 9, and a last-seconds loss, 71-69, in Provo on Feb. 1? Hard to say with any finality, but a safe bet is the outcome would depend on which team shows up wearing Saint Mary’s uniforms.

The Gaels have been a study in unpredictability since the loss of center Matthias Tass in a victory over Nevada on Dec. 21. Gut-wrenching losses to Santa Clara at home and Pacific on the road, and a blowout loss to Gonzaga at home were the low points. The win over BYU at home and the narrow loss to the Cougs in Provo were the high points, as most of the 11 Gael wins post-Tass have hardly been profiles in excellence.

Which brings us to last weekend.

What did the LMU and San Diego wins indicate?

The 57-51 win over Loyola-Marymount last Thursday resembled one of those zombie movies, only it was hard to tell which were the zombies and which were the living. LMU Coach Mike Dunlap, who is considered to be a coaching guru, has scrubbed his offense of anything besides isolation plays for guard-forward Eli Scott, and an occasional lob to forward Keli Leaupepe.

Any semblance of guard play is non-existent, as in an 0-0 evening for point guard Erik Johansson. Johansson came to LMU as a three-point specialist, and he played that role well in a relief role for LMU’s other guards when guards were a part of Duncan’s offense. Now he dribbles around the perimeter and looks for Scott.

The box score says the Lions’ other guard, the elegantly-named Seikou Sisoho Jawara, took five shots — missing all of them — but I cannot honestly remember him launching anything other than, you guessed it, lobs into the paint for Scott or Leaupepe. Scott and Leaupepe accounted for 37 of LMU’s 51 points, a situation which would seem to bode well for a convincing Saint Mary’s win.

Except the Gaels matched LMU’s offensive “attack” with a novel approach of their own — miss everything you throw up. Everything is, of course, an exaggeration, as the Gaels actually sank one of 14 three-point attempts against LMU (thank you, Jordan Ford) in the second half of the game. Leading malefactors in this shooting catastrophe were Tommy Kuhse, who went 0-5 from three-point range, Tanner Krebs, who was 2-6, and scoring stars Ford and Malik Fitts, who matched each other with 2-7 marks from distance, with  five of the six makes coming in the first half.

We’ve heard of halftime speeches motivating teams to greater heights, but seldom is a coach able to encourage his charges to score fewer points in the second half — 23 — than they did in an uninspiring first half — 34. But the Gaels under Coach Randy Bennett accomplished just that…and escaped with a win.

Bring on the Toreros

With that lackluster effort under its belt, Saint Mary’s looked to be anything but a lock Saturday afternoon against San Diego, whom the Gaels barely edged 66-60 just a few weeks ago. Fans in my section openly ridiculed the Las Vegas oddsmakers who installed the Gaels as 19-point favorite over San Diego, about the same margin they were favored over LMU.

Silly fans. These were the Good Gaels, playing perhaps their final game of the 2019-20 season in Universal Credit Union Pavilion. Naturally, they scored their second-most points of the season in a regulation game, behind the 96-56 blowout of Arizona State (yes, the Gaels scored 99 points in the loss to Pacific, but it took them four overtime periods to reach that total, and, yes, they scored 107 against Sonoma State, but that was a D-II opponent and doesn’t count in the record book).

That pitiful three-point shooting against LMU? Apparently just a mirage, as Saturday’s Gaels made 10-22 three-pointers (45.5 per cent), including a scorching 7-12 (58 per cent) in the second half. Leading the barrage was Fitts, whose 5-6 mark from distance helped him reach 27 points on the night.

Kuhse, whose three-point output had reached its nadir against LMU, brought down the house when he sank a shot from distance in the second half. More importantly, Kuhse showed some un-zombie-like spark against San Diego, going 3-3 on his other attempts and dishing out a team-high six assists against one turnover. As a team, the Gaels accounted for 14 assists against only three turnovers.

The meaning of it all?

Those two contrasting results last week are why it’s hard to predict success for the Gaels in the final week of conference play and the WCC Tournament. Against Santa Clara on the road Thursday, the Gaels would seem to be adequately motivated by the Broncos’ humiliating 67-66 victory in Moraga earlier this year.

In addition, Santa Clara hasn’t exactly translated the momentum from that win into a successful conference performance, going 3-8 since then, including five losses in a row. Even an LMU-like performance by the Gaels would seem to be enough to set them up for a rematch with Gonzaga in the season finale in Spokane on Saturday.

But, we’ve seen this movie before, and only a fool would predict a slam-bang finish for these Gaels. With every bracketologist in the business promising Saint Mary’s an at-large NCAA bid with a win over Santa Clara and satisfactory outcomes against Gonzaga next Saturday and in the WCC Tournament, it would seem to be an auspicious moment for Bennett’s charges.

But will they capitalize?

Malik Fitts, shown above from earlier this season, was on his game against San Diego, scoring 27 points behind 5-6 shooting from three-point range. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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