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As the virus spreads, the Gaels consider their options

by Michael Vernetti

Adding an exclamation point — or a dagger — to an already troubling off-season, the NCAA announced earlier this week that it would extend a ban on in-person player visits until May 31 thanks to the spreading Covid-19 pandemic.

Why was that significant?

Because Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett already faces his most challenging roster shuffle since the 2014-15 season with the graduation of prolific scorer Jordan Ford, reliable wing Tanner Krebs and reserve center Aaron Menzies, and the early departure of Malik Fitts for the NBA draft and another back-up center, Josh Perry, and wing Elijah Thomas to the graduate transfer portal.

That leaves Bennett with only eight of the 15 players from last season’s roster, with three incoming freshmen and, suddenly, with three more open scholarships to hand out. The only problem with those last three “gifts” is that Bennett can neither go see prospective players on their home turfs nor invite them to Moraga for a look-see until June 1 at the earliest.

To put things in perspective for Gael fans, imagine an opening game next November with Tommy Kuhse, career scoring average around 6 PPG, and Dan Fotu, career average around 4.5 PPG, meeting at center court as the Gael co-captains. Kuhse will be the only senior on Bennett’s squad, and Fotu the only experienced junior (others being Logan Johnson, Quinn Clinton, Kristers Zoriks and, if recovered from ACL surgery, Matthias Tass).

Compare that scenario with past co-captains such as Ford and Krebs last season, Emmett Naar, Joe Rahon and Jock Landale from a few years ago, or Matthew Dellavedova and Mickey McConnell from further back. Kuhse and Fotu, their valuable contributions to Gael success notwithstanding, don’t measure up to those standards.

The 2014 formula redux?

In the 2014 off-season, after four-year star Stephen Holt graduated, Bennett faced an upcoming season with only untested redshirt freshman Naar and junior college transfer Kerry Carter in the back court. The front line was hardly flush with talent, with Brad Waldow, USC transfer Garrett Jackson and sophomore Dane Pineau on board.

Bennett responded to the challenge by landing former Stanford point guard Aaron Bright, along with sometime Washington front court starter Desmond Simmons, via the graduate transfer route. That “Pac-12 lite” lineup featuring former players from USC, Stanford and Washington, enabled Bennett to cobble together a 21-10 season overall, 13-5 in WCC play, that bombed out of the WCC Tournament with a humiliating first-round loss to Portland, and ended the season with a sound defeat at the hands of Vanderbilt in the first round of NIT play.

Can Gael fans look forward to a similar season in 2020-21? A lot depends on who receives those three unexpected scholarships. Of the eight returning Gaels and the known newcomers — Jabe Mullins and Mitchell Saxen, fresh from outstanding high school seasons in Washington state, and Judah Brown from tiny Pacifica Christian High School in Orange County — the jury must be seen as still out.

Let the competition begin

Although Kuhse and Fotu hold an experience edge over their fellow veterans, they are not necessarily the players Gael fans look to with the most expectations. Can Zoriks, a 6’4″ redshirt junior who logged 273 minutes in his first extended action last season after suffering torn ACLs in successive seasons, wrestle the starting point guard from Kuhse’s hands?

Or can Logan Johnson, the Cincinnati transfer who actually did wrestle that honor from Kuhse at the start of last season only to lose it after four fruitless games? Bennett has indicated that the position is open for competition among these three contenders, and fans will be following that battle with intense interest, although we will learn something only when the annual intra-squad scrimmage takes place next October.

Questions also remain about the other back court spot, which becomes more important to Gael success with Ford’s graduation. Ford carried so much of the offensive load in his hands that the guard starting alongside him was often an afterthought. It was that lack of importance that allowed the capable ball-handling but offensively challenged Kuhse to play the majority of minutes.

Bennett has no such luxury next season, and must field a back court combination that can both animate his complicated offense and score from 25-30 points per game. Of the three known contenders for the point, Zoriks is easily the most skilled offensively, boasting a polished three-point stroke — 17 of 30, or .567 — in limited action last year, plus the ability to penetrate and score in the paint as well.

At the off-guard position, the field is open. Rising sophomore Alex Ducas seemed destined for stardom as a 2/3 when last season began, but lost Bennett’s confidence in the latter portion of the season and fought to get back on the floor. Ducas played more minutes than Zoriks — 500 to 273 — and ended up making 24 of 58 three-point attempts (41 per cent).

Ducas is expected to be challenged at the off-guard spot by the 6’6″ Mullins, who won almost every individual award in his senior season at Mount Si High School, including Washington Player of the Year as decided by the Associated Press, and averaged 19.2 PPG and 6.8 APG.

Post position also undecided

As fluid as is the back court situation, the question of who will start on the front line is equally troubling. Three players shared the post position last year, with two of them — Fotu and freshman Kyle Bowen — pressed into action when Tass went down with a torn ACL in December.

Tass did not undergo surgery on his injured knee until late January or early February of 2020, which would delay his return to action until after the WCC season begins in 2021, assuming a one-year recovery period. Would Bennett redshirt Tass and wait until the 21-22 season before considering him fit for major minutes? His handling of Zoriks, who had passed the one-year recovery period before last season began, suggests he might. Bennett seemed to baby Zoriks last year, and fans could only guess whether the coach found some weakness in Zoriks’s game or was concerned that he heal properly after two ACL surgeries.

The Gaels do have a front line player among their recruits, the 6’11” Saxen, who was considered another potential star until a back injury kept him out of conference play in his senior season. Saxen participated in post-season tournament play for Ingraham High School in the Seattle area, and was offered a scholarship by Washington before his junior season, but must be regarded as a question mark as he comes to Moraga.

Who is Krebs’s successor?

Not enough uncertainty for you? How about replacing Krebs, who until he suffered a late-season slump of monumental proportions, was among the most reliable Gaels to man the wing position in Bennett’s offense. Even when his shooting touch faded, possibly the result of a “lower body” injury suffered near the end of the season, Krebs gave Bennett solid rebounding and defense.

The Gaels have an incoming recruit who fits the profile of a Bennett wing, the 6’7″ Brown, but no one who follows the Gaels closely believes Bennett will hand him Krebs’s position easily. Of the prominent wings in recent history, Clint Steindl, Calvin Hermanson and Krebs, all suffered a freshman year of harsh defensive criticism by Bennett before assuming a starting position. It is hard to see a different result for Brown, as he makes the transition from small, private high school to the glaring lights of D-I play.

Most likely, Bennett will give Ducas the opportunity to show he has rectified whatever cracks that appeared in his game as last season progressed. Ducas is listed at 6’6″, but his parents, who attended several games on summer vacation from Australia last season, insist he is actually 6’7″. Whatever the actual height, he is tall and rugged underneath the boards, and at least didn’t embarrass himself on defense last season. Possessing a smooth three-point stroke and showing no fear about attacking the basket, Ducas will be a fan favorite to step into Krebs’s shoes.

Can recruits or transfers improve the Gaels for 2020-21?

It’s because of the many questions listed above that Bennett has to be troubled by the constraints growing out of the Covid-19 situation. Bennett seemed to have an idea that some help for the front court was coming as long ago as early March, after the Gaels were beaten for the WCC Tournament title by Gonzaga. Reporters pressed him about the inability of Fotu or Bowen to control the Zags’ accomplished post players Filip Petrusev and Drew Timme, and Bennett responded, “Help is coming.”

It’s been about a month since Bennett uttered those seemingly portentous words, and no help has been identified. If anything, the waters have been muddled by the departure of Fitts, Perry and Thomas, so Gael fans can be excused for watching for smoke signals emanating from Moraga. Without the ability to screen potential recruits or transfers, is Bennett feeling pressure to act before other schools do? Will he waive his preferred habit of carefully judging potential transfers against the carefully-constructed fabric of team chemistry?

As with the potential damage wrought by Covid-19, only the future will tell.

Is Tommy Kuhse, shown above driving against San Francisco in January, to be the face of Saint Mary’s basketball in 2020-21? The jury is still out. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

 

 

 

 

What’s ahead for the Gaels?

by Michael Vernetti

For two-and-a-half games of their three-game WCC Tournament run, Saint Mary’s played inspired basketball: a double-overtime win over Pepperdine in an unusual Saturday night meeting, a last-second win over BYU on Monday night and a one-point first-half deficit against Gonzaga in the championship game last night.

The constant in this string of successes was Jordan Ford, who was, in turn, other-worldly (Pepperdine, 42 points, including a game-clinching 30-foot heave that will live in You Tube annals for all time), steely (sinking the game-winning jumper against BYU with 1.4 seconds left on the clock) and unstoppable (20 first-half points against Gonzaga).

That even Ford was not able to lead the Gaels to victory over Gonzaga — an 18-point loss, 84-66 — was evidence of either Gonzaga’s brilliant second-half adjustments — the Zags won that half 42-25 — or the inevitable result of Saint Mary’s placing too many of its eggs in one basket — Ford’s.

Gonzaga Coach Mark Few simply decided to force Saint Mary’s to rely on someone else to beat his loaded squad by double-teaming Ford with the looming Killian Tillie (6’10”), plus another Zag defender. Ford was flummoxed by the change when the second half opened, and quickly called time out to re-assess his options. Turned out, neither he nor the Gaels had any, and simply putting the ball in Tommy Kuhse’s hands instead of Ford’s was not a solution.

The Gaels had become dependent on the adrenaline of Ford’s brilliance, and couldn’t cope with Gonzaga’s inside-outside combination of Filip Petrusev/Drew Timme in the paint (a combined 11-13 shots made) and Joel Ayayi/Admon Gilder (32 points) at guard. It didn’t help that the first-half infusion of energy and scoring provided by Malik Fitts, who had been MIA in the wins over Pepperdine and BYU, evaporated.

Fitts shines brightly — for awhile

Fitts, who had seemingly forgotten how to shoot from long-range, sank four of his first five three-point attempts en route to a rousing first-half explosion of 14 points to complement Ford’s initial success. Those two combined for 34 of the Gaels’ 41 first-half points, but that party was ended at halftime: Fitts had three points and Ford seven after the break.

That the Gaels had become Ford-dependent became obvious as the miserable second half dragged on. To “match” Gonzaga’s inside muscle, Saint Mary’s got five points from Dan Fotu (2-5 shooting), zero from Kyle Bowen and a promising four points on 2-2 shooting from Jock Perry. Perry’s contributions, however, were seemingly irrelevant because Gael Coach Randy Bennett doesn’t trust him to log extended minutes.

No matter how many times Petrusev and Timme waltzed to easy buckets in the paint, no matter how many times the Gael offense sputtered because, at least partially, of a non-existent inside attack, Bennett kept Perry on the bench, giving him only seven minutes on the floor.

Sitting Ford against BYU

Bennett signaled awareness of his team’s over-reliance on Ford halfway through the first half against BYU. The Gael offense was sputtering on the way to an underwhelming 20-point output, when Bennett surprisingly sent Ford to the bench. He explained after the game, a thrilling 51-50 victory, that the move was motivated by two factors: Ford’s apparent lagging energy following his Herculean effort against Pepperdine — 42 points and 50 minutes of non-stop play  — and a fear that his teammates were just standing around waiting for him to do something brilliant.

He was correct in his analysis, but the hard truth about Saint Mary’s at this point is that Bennett seems to have few options to correct the situation. Fitts’s funk began after a 27-point outburst against San Diego, fueled by 5-6 three-point buckets. Perhaps that success muddled his mind, because he missed all three of his three-point attempts in the Gaels’ 86-76 loss to Gonzaga on Feb. 29, a game they might have won if Fitts had sunk just one of his late-game long-distance attempts.

Fitts was only slightly better in the opening-round WCC game against Pepperdine, making just 1-4 three-point attempts and scoring a quiet 11 points. He sank even lower against BYU, making only 2-13 shots and 1-6 from three-point range. Then came the first half output against Gonzaga, followed by a second-half retreat. If you were Bennett, what would you do to ensure the first-half Gonzaga version of Fitts continues into the post-season, whatever that portends?

Krebs not a reliable option

The same uncertainty applies to Tanner Krebs, who has accomplished the seemingly-impossible feat of scoring zero points in back-to-back games against BYU and Gonzaga. This is the savvy, five-year veteran of the Saint Mary’s program whose 13 first-half points in the Gaels’ 60-47 upset of Gonzaga in last year’s WCC Tournament final rank among all-time clutch efforts.

Krebs suffered a “lower body” injury a few weeks ago that sent him to the bench for two games, and portions of the Gael fan base insist that he has not fully recovered from that injury. Given the Gaels’ tight-lipped attitude toward player injuries, we will probably never know whether Krebs is injured or suffering some late-college-career funk.

Regardless of the reason for Krebs’ demise, the question remans for Bennett to consider as the NCAA Selection Committee announces its decision regarding the 2020 NCAA Tournament next Sunday: stick with Krebs or go to the adjustment he made when Krebs was on the bench — a combination of Alex Ducas and Elijah Thomas at Krebs’s position.

Bennett has apparently decided to continue relying on Kuhse at the point despite his surprising decision late in the regular season to bench Kuhse in favor of Ducas as a starter. In that lineup, Krebs became the off-guard and Ford moved to the point, which increased his game load almost to the breaking level. Bennett apparently cannot force himself to go further with rotation changes by trusting Kristers Zoriks at the point over Kuhse.

And what about Zoriks?

Zoriks is perhaps the player about whom Gael fans ask themselves the most questions: is Bennett reluctant to put too much pressure on him because he is still recovering from the second of two ACL tears in his left knee, or does Bennett just not trust him — much as he doesn’t trust Perry in the paint?

Using Zoriks as he has in recent weeks — spot duty at the off-guard position — doesn’t seem to help much with Zoriks’s resurgence. He is a natural point guard, and, indeed, was recruited because of what a former Gael coach described as his court vision and ball-distribution skills.

“He’s a 6’4″ Naar,” said Marty Clarke, comparing Zoriks to the gold standard of recent Saint Mary’s point guards, Emmett Naar. Instead of reminding Gael fans of Naar, Zoriks seems lost at the off-guard position, and cannot earn enough touches to allow his excellent three-point shooting form to create good things for the Gael offense.

This is the state of things as the Gaels await still another excruciating decision by the Selection Committee about participation or seeding in the upcoming March Madness. Although the effervescent Joe Lunardi insisted before the Gonzaga game that Saint Mary’s was solidly in the field of 68, perhaps an eight seed, Bennett was wary during the post-Gonzaga media appearance.

“We’ve been here before and I’m not going to speculate,” was his answer to the question of his team’s participation, calling upon memories of past snubs by the Selection Committee. However that decision turns out for Saint Mary’s, Bennett has much to think about in the period between now and post-season action in the NCAA or NIT Tournaments.

Jordan Ford, shown above in an earlier game against BYU, was brilliant throughout the WCC Tournament, scoring 87 points in three games. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

 

 

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.

Not there yet

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.

Stay tuned.

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.

 

 

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.

Into the stretch

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.

Effective subs

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.

Not even close

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.

Rotation confusion

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.

Ready for Gonzaga?

by Michael Vernetti

Not really, based on Saint Mary’s stumbling, bumbling 66-60 win over San Diego Thursday night in the Slim Gym.

The Gaels, already reeling from a last-minute gut punch administered by BYU last Saturday in Provo, could hardly afford to lose to the 8-17 Toreros, who have managed only one conference win (against nine losses) this season. Especially with number-two ranked Gonzaga ready to roll into Moraga for a crucial showdown tomorrow.

So, did the Gaels polish their offense against San Diego, buttressed by the return of veteran wing man Tanner Krebs after a one-game lay-off due to an unspecified injury — we know it was to his “lower body” and sharp-eyed fans noted Krebs was rubbing his hip area after taking a hit against Portland?

Not really. The previously number-one rated three-point shooting team in the nation managed to sink one-of-15 three-point attempts against the Toreros, a wide-open look for Krebs in the second half after Krebs had missed a dazzling variety of shots until that point.

Krebs, who must rank number one in the Most Baffling Gael Scorer category, seemingly couldn’t hit anything until he popped that three-pointer early in the second half. It is not as if sinking a long jumper loosened up Krebs for a strong second half, as he proceeded to miss lay-ups, short jumpers and a couple more three-pointers as the game wore on. He ended up making two lay-ups besides that lone three-pointer and made three-of-four free throws to post a respectable 10 points on his scoring line.

Respectable until you note the total came from 3-11 overall shooting, including 1-6 on three-point attempts.

Point guard shuffle

In addition to the shooting malaise, Saint Mary’s continued to exhibit the jitters concerning the ongoing point guard situation. Coach Randy Bennett held true to his decision several games ago to bench erstwhile starter Tommy Kuhse in favor of freshman Alex Ducas in the starting lineup, but Bennett continues to exhibit withdrawal symptoms with Kuhse on the bench.

In the no-Kuhse lineup, leading scorer Jordan Ford assumes point guard duties, and Ducas becomes another wing along with Krebs. When Bennett grows uncomfortable with that lineup, he subs in Kuhse for Ducas or Krebs. So, how does that work for the Gaels? Let’s go to the video.

In the early going against San Diego, Ducas was working hard against Torero sophomore Joey Calcaterra, who at 6’3″ is reasonably well-matched against the 6’6″ Ducas. Ducas made three good offensive plays in the early going, losing Calcaterra in the paint with a nifty behind-the-back dribble for a bucket that was eliminated by a referee’s call that Calcaterra fouled Ducas before the shot.

Ducas then scored slashing across the paint with a difficult cross-body lay-in, and shortly thereafter lost Calcaterra again for a seemingly easy back-door lay-up until Malik Fitts led him too far on the entry pass. So, one for three that could have easily been three-for-three. It looked as if Ducas was softening up Calcaterra nicely to open himself up for his deadly three-point shot (46 per cent on 21-46 shooting) as the game wore on.

On the other hand, Kuhse, splitting time with Ducas, had missed all three of his shot attempts — a dink in the paint, a three-pointer that is beginning to look worse as the season wears on, and a driving lay-up. He accounted for zero assists during that period, and totaled only two assists for the game.

It’s not all Kuhse’s fault that the Gaels seem to be wasting Ducas’s talent. Because of the foul call and Fitts’s errant pass, Ducas was credited with just one field goal attempt in the game and no three-pointers. He made his presence felt by snagging four rebounds and a steal, but on a team whose offense often becomes paralyzed, it would seem Bennett could re-work the offensive schemes to give Ducas some more looks.

Kuhse’s redemption

It must be noted that Kuhse redeemed himself for a lackluster overall game with some crucial plays down the stretch when the Gaels were coming back from a 46-41 deficit with about eight minutes left. Entering the game for Ducas at the seven-minute mark with San Diego leading 49-46, Kuhse made his first basket of the game with a nice move in the paint.

He then misfired on another three-pointer, but sank a lay-up on a subsequent possession to put the Gaels ahead 56-55. Defending San Diego’s talented 6’4″ sophomore Finn Sullivan, Kuhse either blocked or hampered a Sullivan lay-up attempt — the TV feed wasn’t clear and the ESPNU announcers were discussing the weather or other topics.

At any rate, Kuhse recovered Sullivan’s missed shot and headed up-court. He looked off the San Diego defenders with a glance to the left wing and slipped a nifty pass to a streaking Dan Fotu, who converted for a 61-55 lead at the 2:20 mark that should have signaled the end of San Diego’s resistance.

Except for the next chapter in the Malik Fitts Fouling Saga. Much as he was against BYU, Fitts was dominant in the second half against San Diego, scoring on a succession of monster drives and free throws on the way to a 17-point, 14-rebound showcase.

In the next possession after Fotu’s score, Fitts was jockeying for position in the paint against San Diego’s junior forward James Jean-Marie. In what looked like routine big-man jostling, a referee standing behind the two combatants called a foul on Fitts, his fifth, sending him to the bench.

Fitts had exhibited some frustration over an earlier foul call when he grimaced angrily after throwing down a monster dunk against San Diego’s 6’10’ Yauhen Massalski and sank the ensuing free throw. Bennett noticed his barely-contained fury and benched him for a few minutes to cool down.

To his credit, Fitts retained his cool when the disqualifying foul was called, and strolled calmly to the bench. The ejection revitalized the Toreros, however, and Jean-Marie sank one of two free throws awarded for the Fitts foul to shorten the lead to 61-56.

San Diego’s outstanding junior transfer Braun Hartfield, who tallied 18 points for the game, then sank a jumper to cut the lead further, to 61-58 at the 1:14 mark. Krebs made one free throw after being fouled on a drive to make it a four-point lead, but Sullivan countered with a lay-up of his own to cut the lead to 62-60.

Cue Ford, the masterful lane scorer. Ford had suffered along with his teammates from three-point range, missing both long-ball attempts and looking uncomfortable doing it. But his lay-up and floater arsenal was well-stocked, and he managed 19 hard-fought points for the game.

After Sullivan’s lay-up, Ford took over, probing the lane with his patented dribbling and feinting. Given the unenviable task of guarding Ford at the crucial moment, Sullivan found himself falling on his backside instead. Another Torero defender came over to pick up the slack left by Sullivan’s pratfall, but he, too slipped, clearing Ford for a floater over the outstretched arms of the San Diego bigs.

A similar shot that would have sent the BYU game to overtime missed, but this one didn’t, and the Gaels headed into the final seconds with a two-possession lead at 64-60. Two Kuhse free throws as the clock wound sown accounted for the margin.

Here comes Gonzaga, whether the Gaels are ready or not.

Jordan Ford, shown above sinking a jump shot in an earlier game, led the Gaels over San Diego with 19 points and six assists. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

 

 

Shootout at the Marriott corral

by Michael Vernetti

With 40 per cent of its starting lineup sidelined and with one of its star players sent to the bench with 4:36 minutes left, Saint Mary’s succumbed to a TJ Haws three-pointer in the final seconds to lose to BYU by 81-79 Saturday night at BYU.

Damn!

The game could have easily gone the other way, as freshman Alex Ducas sank a clutch corner trey with 1:29 left to give the Gaels a 79-75 lead. But BYU did not fold, instead going to a reliable source, the formidable Yoeli Childs, under the basket — a formula BYU tried repeatedly to capitalize on the Gaels’ lack of post size and experience in the wake of a season-ending injury to Matthias Tass.

Childs was fouled and sank one of two free throws to narrow the Saint Mary’s lead to 79-76. Zac Seljaas, a thorn in the Gaels’ side all night with seven points, made two more free throws on a succeeding possession to cut the margin to 79-78. Jordan Ford, who was good but not brilliant Saturday night (18 points on 7-16 shooting), missed a driving lay-up to set the stage for Haws’s heroics with 17.8 seconds left.

Haws didn’t disappoint the screaming 19,000-plus fans in the Marriott Center, and the Gaels were left with one more chance to tie or win the game with 8.5 seconds left. Coach Randy Bennett squeezed every second out of the time out called after Haws’s dagger, and came up with a sensible last-second play.

Ford took the inbounds pass from Ducas, dribbled down court and then easily shook off his defender to enter the lane where he has thrived in a brilliant college career. Smoothly, as he has done hundreds of times in a Gael uniform, Ford lofted a floater towards the rim.

But it was slightly off course, and instead of going to overtime the Gaels were headed to the Provo airport for a dreary flight home.

Fitts for glory and regret

Although much of the action landed on Ford’s shoulders in the game’s waning moments, the night seemingly belonged to Fitts, who was coming off a 27-point, seven three-pointer game against Portland on Thursday, and was poised to top that against BYU. With less than five minutes gone in the second half, Fitts had scored 25 points, including 11 of the Gaels’ 13 second-half points up to that point.

BYU was unable to stop him, but he managed to stop himself, with a little help from the referees. Fitts’s meltdown began at the 7:18 minute mark, as the Gaels were nursing a 69-65 lead. Perhaps feeling invincible after scorching BYU on a variety of moves and shots, Fitts was called for a charge that gave the ball to BYU.

Haws hit a short jumper to cut the lead to 69-67, then Fitts lost control of his dribble on the Gaels’ next offensive possession. Frustrated, he shoved the BYU player who picked up the errant dribble, earning his third personal foul. It didn’t seem important beyond the loss of possession that gave Haws another open jumper to tie the game.

As the Gaels began their offensive set following the Haws jumper, BYU’s Jake Toolson ran into Fitts on a hand-off exchange. A referee standing not five feet from the play made the “no harm, no foul” gesture concerning the Toolson-Fitts collision, but another ref situated well behind the play called a foul on Fitts, his fourth.  It was an incredible blunder, but basketball teams have no recourse after a bad call.

A minute or so later, Fitts picked up Haws on a switch and made a mistake repeated every night in high school, college and the NBA — he left his feet as Haws rose up for a jumper. But Fitts is an elite athlete, and was able to angle his body to Haws’s left side and avoid running into him. Haws saw he had no chance to make the shot and leaned to his left while looking to pass the ball to a teammate. In so doing, Haws initiated contact with Fitts, and was rewarded with a foul call that removed Fitts from the game with nearly five minutes left.

It was another atrocious call, but the Gaels had no choice but to send in a substitute for their scoring leader, who had racked up 29 points at that time. Haws’s two free throws gave the lead back to BYU, 71-70.

Ducas almost to the rescue

Ducas, who was playing the wing for Saint Mary’s in place of Tanner Krebs, sidelined with an injury to his left side sustained in the Portland game, seemed to take the reins for the Gaels in Fitts’s absence. He surrounded a rebound off a missed Ford three-point attempt and put back the errant shot to give his team the lead again at 72-71.

Seconds later, after Tommy Kuhse, working on a zero-points, three-assists night in 34 minutes of action, missed a lay-up off a breakaway, Ducas again grabbed the rebound, was fouled and sank both free throws for a 74-71 Saint Mary’s lead. Shortly thereafter he sank the corner trey mentioned earlier to cap a seven-point personal run in less than three minutes after Fitts fouled out.

Ducas finished with 11 points on 4-6 shooing, and personified the Gaels’ “next man up” philosophy invoked as the injury bug has slowed them this season. Ducas and Elijah Thomas shared the position manned by Krebs for several years, and the pair of them accounted for 17 points in Krebs’s absence.

Another Gael attempt at elevation by substitution was not so successful, however. Kuhse had been scorched by Haws for 29 points in the Gaels’ 87-84 overtire victory over the Cougars on Jan. 9, and was showing no signs of slowing him down last night (he finished with 23). After Kuhse failed to crowd Haws on a three-point shot that Haws sank, Bennett turned to Logan Johnson to slow down Haws.

Johnson had swiped two passes from Haws during overtime in the Jan. 9 victory, and those plays were huge in aiding the Gaels’ win. He did seem to bother Haws in the final minutes of the first half, as Haws missed shots on three straight possessions, but Bennett evidently felt that Kuhse was necessary to run the point and put his embattled guard back in the game. Kuhse also played almost every minute of the second half, although his offensive contribution consisted of a missed corner trey and two missed lay-ups for the night.

Johnson drew the unenviable duty of guarding Haws on BYU’s final possession, but made a critical error in judgement. As BYU erected a stagger screen with Toolson and Childs to give Haws a good look from behind three-point range, Johnson easily avoided Toolson but elected to go behind Childs’s back and attempt to close out on Haws from several feet away. He didn’t come close, and Haws had plenty of time to line up and sink the basket that gave BYU the win.

It was indicative of the dilemma Bennett has faced all season, as he has attempted to find a point guard who can lead his complicated offense and score enough to bolster the offense. Kuhse’s offense has fallen off from last season, probably a result of opponents having copious film on him to thwart his limited assortment of moves in the paint.

Johnson is more explosive than Kuhse, and overall a better defender, but he does not seem to have mastered the offense, and Bennett just seems more comfortable having Kuhse on the floor where he led the Gaels to an NCAA Tournament bid last year.

C’est la vie.

Malik Fitts, shown above from a game earlier this season, was having a game for the ages against BYU until he ran into foul trouble that sent him to the bench in the game’s crucial final minutes. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Flu season is over

by Michael Vernetti

After battling the flu bug with varying degrees of success for three games — against Pepperdine, San Francisco and Loyola Marymount — Saint Mary’s stars Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts returned to Moraga with a bang Thursday night.

Ford and Fitts combined for 48 of the Gaels’ 86 points in an 86-64 romp over the struggling Portland Pilots, combining for 12-25 three-point shots. As a team, Saint Mary’s made 18-40 three-point attempts (45 per cent), which should solidify its standing as the nation’s leading three-point shooting team.

Portland, which is trying to overcome last season’s disastrous 7-25 campaign, including 0-16 in the West Coast Conference, seems to have crafted a competent offense around veterans JoJo Walker and Tahirou Diabate and Maine transfer Isaiah White. But Coach Terry Porter, now in his fourth season in Portland, seems not to have concentrated too much on defense in rebuilding his transfer-ravaged squad.

Even Porter’s son, Franklin, who began college as a Gael, opted to play in Europe instead of returning for a fifth-year after sitting out a transfer season. Porter’s other son, Malcolm, is a mainstay of the Pilots, but is currently injured. Joining Franklin in the exodus from Portland are last year’s leading scorer (14.8 PPG) Marcus Shaver, who transferred to Boise State, Crisshawn Clark and Josh McSwiggan, who lost an NCAA appeal for an additional season.

Taking no pity on the Pilots, the Gaels zipped the ball from side to side to find countless open looks for its three-point shooters, totaling 23 assists on 32 made baskets. Guard Tommy Kuhse again led the Gaels with eight assists and only one turnover. The only blemish on a night of celebration following several white-knuckle contests was an injury to senior guard Tanner Krebs.

Call out the reserves

Krebs was seen wincing in pain following an injury to his left hip area, and didn’t return to the Gael bench after the halftime break. Coach Randy Bennett, emerging from the locker room to start the second half, pointed to reserves Elijah Thomas, Logan Johnson and Kristers Zoriks, seemingly indicating they would be called upon in Krebs’s absence.

Sure enough, all three played in the second half, and all three acquitted themselves well. Thomas, at 6’4″ the closest to Krebs’s 6’6″ height, got the most minutes, 11, and showed flashes of what Gael fans expected of him after an excellent high school career in Arizona.

Thomas led the team in rebounding with six, added a steal to his defensive portfolio and showed the open-court explosiveness he seemed to offer as a recruit, flying down the court on a fast break and finishing with a nifty lay-up. Thomas seems to have slipped into a position of corner three-point shooter with Saint Mary’s that is not his greatest strength instead of developing the open-court skills that utilize his athleticism.

Another pleasant surprise off the bench was Zoriks, the star-crossed guard from Latvia who has been battling back from successive ACL surgeries on his left knee. After showing enough promise to excite some Gael fans about the prospect of edging out Kuhse at point guard, Zoriks slipped out off sight in recent weeks. Per custom, Gael officials have issued not a word about the reason, so fans are left to wonder whether the knee brace Zoriks has been wearing lately indicates he had a setback in his recovery.

Whatever the back story, Zoriks got the call with about four minutes left in the game. He did not waste the opportunity, sinking two-of-two three-point attempts in the game’s waning minutes and showing no signs of lingering knee problems.

Johnson, the electric transfer from Cincinnati, also showed some offensive chops, converting both of his attempts from the field, grabbing two rebounds and swiping the ball twice from Portland guards.

Depending on the severity of Krebs’s injury, Thomas may get extended minutes as the Gaels travel to Provo, UT on Saturday to battle the hot-and-cold BYU Cougars in a crucial battle to hold onto undisputed possession of second place in the WCC. BYU, a game behind the Gaels at 5-3 in conference play, blew out Pepperdine 107-80 at home Thursday night, dropping in 17 three-pointers on 28 tries.

That follows a disappointing 83-82 loss at San Francisco the weekend before in which BYU’s defense allowed Dons’ guard Khalil Shabazz to go 10-10 from the floor, including 6-6 on three-point attempts for a crippling 32 points. The confident, home-standing Cougars will be anxious to knock off the Gaels, avenge an 87-84 overtime loss in Moraga on Jan. 9, and creep back into a tie for second place.

Which Gael team will face BYU?

The Gael team heading to Provo can match BYU in unpredictability. Scrambling to find offensive cohesiveness after the loss of center Matthias Tass in the Dec. 21 Nevada game, Saint Mary’s in recent games has ratcheted up its defense, holding opponents to an average of 62 points following the BYU game.

It would behoove the Gaels to double down on the defensive pressure, especially considering how Cougar guards TJ Haws and Jake Toolson exploited them in that Jan. 9 game: Haws went for 29 points and Toolson for 24, and that was without forbidding front court presence Yoeli Childs in the lineup. Childs is back from the finger injury that kept him out of the first Saint Mary’s encounter, and will present a major challenge to the Gaels’ jury-rigged defense in the paint.

Sophomore Dan Fotu and freshman Kyle Bowen have been solution 1A in the paint, with back-up provided by the massive twosome of Aaron Menzies and Jock Perry. Without Childs to contend with, Fotu had a big game against BYU on Jan. 9, scoring 16 points in 32 minutes. Perry was a perfect 3-3 from the floor and Menzies chipped in a bucket as well, giving the Gaels 24 points from the post position.

Can they, or a different combination dictated by game conditions, produce the same results with Childs in the lineup? Will Krebs be back to add veteran steadiness? These are just two of the questions the Gaels must answer before the welcoming 19,000 Cougar fans awaiting them at the Marriott Center.

Jordan Ford, regaining his swagger after a bout with the flu, drives against Portland guard Isaiah White for two of his 21 points Saturday night. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.