by Michael Vernetti
At halftime of the Gaels’ 86-76 loss to Gonzaga Saturday in Spokane, I thought Saint Mary’s had discovered a workable formula that could pay dividends in the second half: keep penetrating the lane with guards Tommy Kuhse and Jordan Ford and drop off passes to Jock Perry if the guards were covered.
This had worked from about the eight-minute mark, following the departure of Aaron Menzies with what looked like a tweak to his tender back. Menzies had set the pattern with successful defense on the Zags’ sterling center, Filip Petrusev, and a dunk off penetration by Ford.
Perry took over the post and accomplished the following:
— Defended Petrusev twice in the paint, with Kuhse swooping in to strip Petrusev on the second stop;
— Was fouled by Corey Kispert after penetration and a drop-off by Kuhse, sank two free throws and put the Gaels ahead 29-27 at the 7:04 mark;
— Scored again on another Kuhse drive, putting Saint Mary’s up 31-27. Poor defense by the Gaels on the next two possessions allowed the Zags to tie the score, but Ford and Perry worked a pick and roll to put Perry back on the free-throw line, where he sank one of two attempts;
— Ford again found Perry for a score over Petrusev, giving Saint Mary’s back a four-point lead at 34-31.
The result of this approximate five-minute run of inside dominance was to put the Zags on the defensive, having to play catch-up with the Gaels. Menzies and Perry had exposed a weakness in the Zags’ interior defense, and Saint Mary’s went to the locker room tied at 34-34.
This was in stark comparison to the slaughter three weeks ago in Moraga, when Gonzaga scored 53 points on 74 per cent shooting in the first half. There was hope the Gaels could ride their inside play to a win.
What happened in the second half?
Except that Coach Randy Bennett altered the script, starting 6″7″ Dan Fotu over the 7’1″ Perry, and giving Petrusev an opening to dominate the paint down the stretch. Maybe Perry, who has played sparingly this season, was exhausted after his stretch of excellence. He didn’t enter the game again until about the 10-minute mark, and promptly gave up a bucket in the paint to Petrusev for a 56-46 Zag lead, then fouled Petrusev on a drive to allow Petrusev to sink two free throws.
Fotu played the rest of the game at center, and Petrusev would not be denied. On three successive possessions, Petrusev scored over Fotu and made an additional free throw on two of them. That’s an eight-point explosion that the Gaels simply could not overcome. It was too bad, because the second half started with great promise.
Malik Fitts, who had been quiet throughout the first half, attacked the Zags’ 6’10” forward, Killian Tillie, on the first possession, and scored in the paint. Fotu deflected an entry pass to Petrusev, which led to Ford sinking a floater and giving the Gaels a quick 38-34 lead. Then the defense collapsed long enough to allow the Zags to get back into the game.
Kispert, the deadly outside shooting forward, had given Saint Mary’s fits in the first half en route to a 20-point game on 7-12 shooting, including 4-5 three-point attempts. He and Tillie worked a pick and pop outside the three-point line, and Fitts and Tanner Krebs got confused over who was to take Tillie and who was to take Kispert. Kispert promptly sank a long three-pointer to undo the good Saint Mary’s had done with the initial possessions of the half. A four-point-and-growing lead had suddenly shrunk to one point, 38-37.
The Gaels traded buckets until Bennett subbed in Elijah Thomas for Krebs to help contain Kispert. With the score tied at 42-all, the Zags called an out-of-bounds play just as Thomas came on the floor. Thomas lost Kispert in a crowd when the ball came in, and Kispert sank another crucial three-pointer to give the Zags a 45-42 lead they never relinquished.
One last charge
Aided by Petrusev’s play in the middle, the Zags increased their lead to 14 points, 65-51, with fewer than eight minutes left. But the Gaels weren’t done yet. Back-to-back three-pointers by Krebs and Kristers Zoriks cut the lead to 65-57, and then Ford, who was spectacular throughout the game, kicked his game up another notch.
Ford undid the damage from a Zag surge that had increased their lead to 71-59 with seven points of his own, setting the stage for Fitts to convert a power drive to get Saint Mary’s back to within five points at 63-68 with 4:39 left. After exchanging buckets for a few minutes, Ford got open in the paint with a chance to cut the Zags’ 77-72 lead to three points.
Alas, he missed a runner, and the Zags, behind a three-pointer by Joel Ayayi and a put-back by Petrusev, regained a 10-point advantage that turned out to be the game’s final margin.
Many questions arose from this loss in the Gaels’ final regular-season game of the season. Does Bennett trust Perry enough to play him extensively in the upcoming WCC Tournament? If he is able to compete fully, Perry could be valuable in a possible rematch with BYU in the conference semi-finals — if the Gaels advance that far — and against the Zags should the Gaels get a third try at them in the conference final game (assuming Gonzaga would be their opponent).
Can Bennett trust Krebs for valuable minutes going forward? Krebs’s offense has fallen off drastically over the last third of the season, and he continued that trend against Gonzaga Saturday night. True, he scored 10 points on 4-8 shooting, but he missed crucial three-point attempts at key moments. Compared with Kispert’s deadly clutch shooting, Krebs’s misses — and the need to use Thomas to defend Kispert — bring his value into question. As a final blow, Krebs, usually one of the Gaels’ strongest rebounders, pulled down only one rebound against the Zags, contributing to Gonzaga’s 31-23 advantage on the boards.
At best, it seems a combination of Krebs and Thomas will be the norm in what remains of the Gaels’ season.
The Gaels must also get more out of Fitts if they are going to extend their season. Fitts continued his inability to come up big against Gonzaga in this last encounter, missing all three of his three-point attempts and grabbing only three rebounds. He also committed a number of defensive miscues that simply can’t happen if the Gaels are to improve on their 24-7 record in the coming weeks.
Perfection is a lot to ask of anyone, but anything less than that will be deadly as the Gaels enter into the most difficult portion of their schedule. They showed the ability to knock the Zags back on their heels and forge a lead, but defensive lapses at crucial times undermined their effort. Bennett has a lot to concentrate on before play opens for his team in the WCC Tournament this Saturday with a quarterfinal game against a foe to be determined by earlier-round action.
Jordan Ford, shown above in an earlier game, was brilliant against Gonzaga, leading all scorers with 28 points and playing all 40 minutes of the contest. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.