OMG, Jordan Ford!

by Michael Vernetti

It was not just that Jordan Ford’s impossible 30-foot bucket with no time left on the shot clock guaranteed Saint Mary’s must-win over Pepperdine.

It was what that shot encapsulated about Ford’s performance in the double-overtime, 89-82 win that reverberates. Ford wanted that moment, relished that shot, and didn’t shrink from the pressure.

So confident was Ford that he called a second time out with 34 seconds left in the game and eight on the shot clock with the Gaels nursing a two-point lead at 84-82. He didn’t like the look of things after the Gaels’ first time out with 43 seconds left and 17 seconds on the shot clock, but instead of forcing a bad shot he calmly signaled to the nearest referee that the Gaels wanted to talk about it some more.

This time, to avoid a double-team that he drew after the first time-out, Ford drifted into the back court to receive the inbounds pass. With eight seconds left. He calmly dribbled to the top of the three-point line, then headed to the left sideline, closely guarded by Pepperdine’s outstanding freshman guard, Sedric Altman.

He leaned into Altman and made a slight shot fake, hoping to get Altman off his feet and draw a foul. No dice, Altman held his ground. No problem, Ford stepped back to create some space, then twirled 180 degrees to create some more, and lofted a shot just as the shot clock reached its limit.

Quoth the poet, “Nothing but net.”

The Gael bench went wild, as Colbey Ross, the Pepperdine guard who matched Ford bucket for bucket throughout the game, headed up court. Because of Ford’s improbable bucket, however, which gave the Gaels a five-point lead at 87-82, Ross needed more than a miracle basket of his own. Alas, he didn’t get anything, Ford was fouled on the ensuing rebound and calmly sank two free throws to account for the final score and bring his total on the night to 42 points against Ross’s 43.

On to the Dance?

That was the most points scored by two players in the history of the West Coast Conference Tournament, and a career high for Ford. It followed his 28-point effort in a losing cause against Gonzaga a week ago, and punctuated his determination not to let an opportunity for post-season glory escape the Gaels in his senior year.

With the win over Pepperdine bringing its record to 25-7, most metrics indicate Saint Mary’s should receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament and a decent seeding, number eight according to the ubiquitous Joe Lunardi, no matter how the remaining games of the WCC Tournament turn out. Just getting this far guarantees a ticket to the Dance, experts say.

I wouldn’t try selling that to Ford. The soft-spoken former chess champion admitted to post-game media that he might allow himself some rest on Sunday — to get his mind on the Gaels’ next opponent, BYU — but would be eager to face the next challenge Monday night. Saint Mary’s and BYU split their two previous games this season, but BYU owns a splashier NET ranking than the Gaels courtesy of its win over Gonzaga two weeks ago, and is receiving more favorable media attention than the Gaels.

“It will be a dog fight,” Ford told the media, but Gael fans should have no doubt which dog they should favor. Ford has put this team on his back over the past two games, and delivered a sterling effort against Gonzaga in Spokane before helping break the all-time WCC scoring record Saturday night.

He is not ready to await the decision of the NCAA Selection Committee, but reasonable questions arise about his teammates.

Lackluster overall effort

Ford’s performance notwithstanding, the rest of the Gaels hardly covered themselves with glory against Pepperdine. Besides Ford, only two players, Malik Fitts and Tommy Kuhse, hit double digits — both with 11 on a combined 7-18 shooting, including an anemic 2-7 on three-point attempts. Another veteran once considered a strong third option in the Gael offense, Tanner Krebs, followed up a weak effort against Gonzaga, 10 points, with an even weaker one against Pepperdine — seven points on 2-10 shooting.

Krebs’s decline has been noticeable for most of the last half of the season, but that Fitts has come up small in the last two crucial contests is troubling. He took only eight shots in 37 minutes on the floor against Pepperdine, and continued a streak of poor three-point shooting with a 1-4 effort. That follows a 15-point effort against Gonzaga that looks better than it was because Fitts missed all three three-point attempts against the Zags.

Fitts started strongly against Pepperdine’s 6’9″ forward, Kessler Edwards, driving the lane and sinking a runner in the early going. Edwards immediately countered with a strong inside move and score, however, and shortly thereafter Fitts coughed up a turnover when double-teamed by Edwards and Skylar Chavez. That earned him a trip to the bench with less than five minutes gone in the first half, and his night didn’t improve much after that.

Fitts’s frustration peaked late in the second half after he missed a wide-open three-pointer, and Edwards rubbed it in by sinking a three-pointer of his own at the other end to bring Pepperdine within six points, 68-62, after the Gaels had carved out a 10-point lead at 63-53 just moments earlier. After a Kuhse turnover, Edwards punished Fitts inside one more time for a bucket to bring Pepperdine within four points, 68-64, at the six-minute mark.

Edwards ended up scoring 21 points on 8-14 shooting, including three three-pointers which damaged the Gaels mightily. Fitts has to score more and defend better if the Gaels are to have a chance against BYU Monday night. Specifically, Fitts must rediscover the balance between three-point shooting and a strong presence in the lane that marks his outstanding efforts, of which there have been many this season.

The Aussie contribution

All wasn’t gloomy for the Gaels in comparison with Ford’s performance against Pepperdine, however. Freshman Alex Ducas, who had heartened fans with outstanding play early in the season that earned him a starting spot over Kuhse — then lost it with a spate of indifferent play — contributed 10 strong minutes against the Waves. He successfully defended a number of Pepperdine players, fed his fellow Aussie freshman, Kyle Bowen, for a nifty bucket in the paint, and made a crucial rebound and put-back in the second overtime that tied the game at 82-all.

More importantly, Ducas found himself guarding the unstoppable Ross later in the second overtime and kept him from scoring on one of his many driving lay-up attempts. ESPN Announcer Sean Farnham, one of the noisiest if not most incisive of the ESPN talking heads, went berserk that there was no call against Ducas on the play. Replays, however, showed the only contact on the play was initiated by Ross and that Ducas kept his hands up and away from Ross’s body. No call was the right call.

Bowen had provided another defensive highlight just moments before Ducas defended Ross, stripping the ball from Edwards as the forward maneuvered for a basket. That gave the Gaels possession of the ball with 1:32 left and, along with Ducas’s stop on Ross, set up Ford’s dramatic finish.

It will take the Australians, including Krebs, plus Fitts, Ford, Kuhse and anyone else Gael Coach Randy Bennett calls on to beat BYU and set up a championship rematch with Gonzaga on Tuesday night. They have a shining example to follow in Ford’s play, but the outcome depends on how they capitalize on their opportunity.

Jordan Ford sinks one of five three-pointers against Pepperdine, on the way to a career-high 42 points in the Gaels 89-82 win. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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