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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.

 

Back to the Big 2

by Michael Vernetti

The logjam behind Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference underwent a severe break-up Saturday night with Saint Mary’s 73-62 win over Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles and San Francisco’s 83-82 upset of BYU at home.

Suddenly the WCC standings look familiar, with Gonzaga securely in first place at 7-0 and the Gaels two games behind at 5-2. Four other teams, including San Francisco and BYU, sit at 4-3, with no clear leader among them (Santa Clara and Pepperdine are the other two).

The Gaels, despite losing starting center Matthias Tass to a torn ACL and despite suffering inexplicable losses to Pacific and Santa Clara, are actually in pretty good shape. Especially considering where they were at this point last season.

At 18-4 overall and 5-2 in conference play, Saint Mary’s seems stronger than last year’s NCAA squad that stood at 13-9 and 4-3 at a comparable point. The prospect of overtaking Gonzaga for the regular-season championship is daunting at present, but the Gaels get their chance to chip away at the Zags’ lead on Feb. 8 in Moraga.

They can point to two factors that give them a fighting chance against the Zags: an improving defense and a fairly settled rotation.

Good start at LMU

For the first half of the LMU game, Saint Mary’s displayed the same tenacious defense that marked its 58-48 win over San Francisco, holding the Lions to 21 points and looking ready to cruise to a high double-digit win. Unfortunately, the game requires two halves, and Saint Mary’s could not sustain the defensive intensity, giving up 41 points in the second half — almost as many as San Francisco scored in the previous game.

Maybe it was the confusing nature of the LMU offense, which has departed markedly from the guard-centric attack that has marked the Lions at least since the days of Anthony Ireland, the dazzling guard who bedeviled the Gaels in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, averaging 20 and 18 PPG, respectively.

Through the sensational Evan Payne and up to last year with James Batemon (16.4 PPG), LMU combined strong guard play with an improving inside game behind 7’3″ Mattias Markusson. LMU Coach Mike Dunlap announced before the current season began that Markusson would redshirt his senior year — that doesn’t happen very often — and began sorting through what seems a constant of Dunlap’s tenure: an influx of new faces (seven freshmen and a JC transfer).

Thus the lineup facing the Gaels featured only one true guard, senior Erik Johansson, who had been strictly a catch-and-shoot three-point specialist in his previous years. Dunlap has said that his talented forward Eli Scott would log some duty at point guard, but that barely happened as Scott took up his usual position in the low block and began tormenting the Gaels’ center tandem of Dan Fotu and Kyle Bowen for 18 points on 6-11 shooting.

Scott did make three assists passing out of the post, but that was offset by his five turnovers caused by constant ball-hawking by Tanner Krebs, Fotu, Jordan Ford and Tommy Kuhse, who accounted for eight steals among them. The other major damage wrought by LMU came from forbidding forward Jordan Bell, who is listed as 6’8″ and 221 lbs, but may have been standing on only one leg when that weight was recorded.

Bell exploded for 14 points in the second half on 6-10 shooting, and bulldozed Gael guard Alex Ducas for a couple of those buckets. At 6’6″ and more than 200 lbs, Ducas is no snowflake, but he could not slow down Bell when he decided to crash the basket. No one else totaled double digits for LMU, however, and the Lion offense is overloaded with isolation plays for Scott and Bell.

Smokin’ start for SMC

Krebs, the Gaels’ up and down offensive threat, flipped his productivity switch to “on” at the outset, hitting his first three-point attempt and seemingly igniting a first-half blitz that ended with Saint Mary’s shooting 59 per cent from the floor, including 47 per cent from three-point range. Krebs finished the game with a team-high 19 points on 7-7 shooting that included 3-3 on three-pointers.

The last three games have been a microcosm of Krebs’s experience in Moraga, with an explosive start against Pepperdine — 7-9 shooting overall, with 3-4 from distance — a lull against San Francisco — 4-8 overall with only 1-4 on three-point attempts — and then the LMU perfection.

Not only does Krebs’s offensive output give the Gaels early leads, but also it seems to energize his teammates. Malik Fitts scored only 11 points against LMU, but he posted back-to-back 18-point efforts against Pepperdine and San Francisco. Although the team’s scoring leader, Ford, was slowed the past 10 days or so with the flu, he bounced back from his goose egg on field goals against San Francisco with a 4-9 effort against LMU, including 2-7 on three-point attempts.

Even Fotu, the Gaels’ undersized and oft-overmatched post man, managed 13 points against LMU, sparked by his teammates’ fast start. This stuff is contagious.

On the medical front, Ford appeared on the Stadium TV broadcast to be markedly healthier than against San Francisco. He seemed to force himself to try three-pointers as the ultimate test of his strength and fitness, but backed off when he missed a few. On the whole, his effort was a positive sign, and it can be hoped that a five-day respite before the Gaels host Portland next Thursday will get him back to 100 per cent.

About that rotation

Gaels’ Coach Randy Bennett is sometimes criticized for being too stuck in his ways and unwilling to make lineup changes even when outsiders can’t believe he should. But even Bennett’s severest critics must give him credit for flexibility this season in the face of Tass’s injury and general lack of offensive cohesion. He has come up with a patch at center that involves Fotu, freshman Kyle Bowen and occasional cameos by Aaron Menzies and Jock Perry.

To goose the offense, Bennett did the unthinkable — to his critics — and actually replaced Kuhse as a starter with Ducas, the sharp-shooting Aussie freshman. The Ducas test will get a better try-out when Ford returns to full strength, because demoting Kuhse means Ford must take on the point guard role as well as being the team’s scoring leader. Kuhse has filled in admirably off the bench as Ford has struggled with illness, but it remains to be seen whether Ducas and a strong Ford will diminish Kuhse’s input.

The Gaels, with nine games left to play in conference, aren’t exactly in the homestretch, but they do find themselves with an opportunity to make more of the season than most fans expected after the disheartening losses to Pacific and Santa Clara. They face two games against the occasional no. 1 team in the nation, Gonzaga, as well as tough road tests against BYU and Santa Clara, to fulfill that promise, but have given fans hope that they are up to it.

Tanner Krebs, shown above scoring on the inside in an earlier game, was a perfect 7-7 against LMU and led the Gaels in scoring with 19 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Ill wind blows some good

by Michael Vernetti

Jordan Ford is sick. Stomach heaving, body shaking, head throbbing sick.

Which is why Saint Mary’s 58-48 victory over San Francisco Thursday night in Moraga was remarkable.

Ford was also sick last Saturday in Malibu as the Gaels took on Pepperdine, but he juked and jived the Waves for 26 points anyway. He gave up on the three-ball against Pepperdine, going 1-3 from distance, but had enough in his tank to play 39 minutes and lead all scorers.

He didn’t get better in the five days between engagements, and against the Dons he drew a blank: 0-9 from the floor, including two three-point attempts. He did manage to sink 8-11 free throws and swipe the ball from Don dribblers three times, and Gael Coach Randy Bennett acknowledged his ongoing flu symptoms by limiting his minutes to 36.

Talk about tough love.

There were implications from Ford’s illness in addition to his unusual scoring drought — it was the first time in 73 games he didn’t score a bucket — and the Gaels deserve credit for resiliency. For one thing, the move to replace Tommy Kuhse in the starting lineup with freshman Alex Ducas, thus moving veteran wing Tanner Krebs to the two-guard spot, was interrupted due to necessity.

Ford drew the Dons’ explosive point guard Jamaree Bouyea on defense, and it was not a good match-up for the Gaels’ scoring leader. Bouyea blew by Ford for a lay-up and free throw in the opening minutes, then followed with a steal off Krebs and breakaway lay-up, then drilled a three-pointer to account for 10 points in less than five minutes.

For his part, Ford had missed two lay-ups he normally could make in his sleep, so Bennett knew he had to intervene. He summoned Kuhse off the bench after about four minutes, switched Ford onto Jordan Ratinho, and the results were immediate. In his first possession at the point, Kuhse found Dan Fotu under the basket for a lay-up, and he immediately began making Bouyea work harder for his points.

Bouyea led all San Francisco scorers with 19 points, but he had scored 10 of those before Kuhse entered the game. Holding Bouyea to nine points over the remaining 36 minutes amounted to a significant stemming of what could have been a disastrous tide. Kuhse also dished out seven assists and scored nine points on 4-7 shooting.

Deja vu all over again

Relying on Kuhse to right the Gaels’ offensive ship harkened back to the dark days of last season when Saint Mary’s stumbled to a 3-4 start with the back court similar to the one that started against Pepperdine and San Francisco: Ford at the point, Krebs at the two-guard and Elijah Thomas instead of Ducas at the wing. Inserted at the point and sending Thomas to the bench, Kuhse immediately began operating the Saint Mary’s offense the way Bennett likes it to operate, and the Gaels responded with a 22-12 mark and an NCAA bid.

This is not to say that Ducas’s role as a starter will necessarily be curtailed, but is rather an indication of the improvisational style the Gaels have adopted by necessity this season. With Matthias Tass lounging on the bench following surgery to repair a torn ACL, the Gaels opened with Fotu, the 6’7″ New Zealander who was a forward last year, at center against the Dons’ lumbering 7’0″ Jimbo Lull.

Lull bullied Fotu in the teams’ first encounter Jan. 2 in San Francisco, scoring nine points and grabbing nine rebounds. But he was largely ineffective this time around, settling for four points and six rebounds and coughing up the ball several times. The official score sheet showed two turnovers for Lull, but he was rattled repeatedly by Krebs’s help defense in the post, and seemed resigned to being a spectator in this game.

Bennett used 7’3″ Aaron Menzies and 7’1″ Jock Perry for a total of 12 minutes of relief for Fotu, and they contributed four points, four rebounds and a block — by Menzies — to buttress Fotu’s efforts (four points, six rebounds). It was enough to give the Gaels’ rough equivalency in the post.

Another similarity?

Another way this Gael team may be channeling last year’s is on defense. The Gaels’ rock- bottom moment last year was the 94-46 lambasting by Gonzaga in Spokane, which served to bring home a point Bennett had probably been making vainly until that point: the team’s only road to a successful season rests on defensive effort.

Finally listening to their coach, the Gaels reeled off games in which they held Santa Clara to 55 points, Pacific to an embarrassing (for them) 32 points, San Diego — which was a good team last year — to 46 points, Portland to 48 points and Gonzaga to…69. Well, it was a big improvement over 94, and seemed to set the stage for the Gaels’ stunning 60-47 win over Gonzaga in the WCC Championship game.

Putting aside Bouyea’s early offensive outburst, which was partially attributable to a favorable match-up with the flu-ridden Ford, Saint Mary’s shut down San Francisco. Riding Bouyea’s 13 first-half points, the Dons led at the half by a score of 28-25, but were held to only 20 points in the second half.

The blanking was team-wide, with even Ford doing a good job on super-quick Dons’ guard Khalil Shabazz. Shabazz was a thorn in the Gaels’ side in the first San Francisco encounter, scoring 11 points behind 4-5 three-pointers. He scored only six points Saturday, dropping off to 2-7 shooting from long distance.

Particularly notable was Krebs’ job in reining in San Francisco’s leading scorer, Charles Minlend. Minlend, a rugged 6’4″, 208 lbs, is particularly effective with a jump shot in the paint, but Krebs gave him no quarter. Every time Minlend came around a screen, or tried to get Krebs off his feet with a ball fake, the 6’6″ Tasmanian was looking him right in the eye. Minlend settled for nine points on 4-17 shooting.

Krebs as proof point

Krebs’ role is particularly illustrative of the benefit of Bennett’s defense-first approach. Anyone who would bet on Krebs’ offensive effectiveness is blind to established history: he is reliably unreliable shooting the three-ball. After laboring through several games in which he seemingly couldn’t successfully toss the ball in the ocean, Krebs came out sizzling against Pepperdine last Saturday, totaling 13 points on 5-5 shooting in the first half. He cooled off a bit in the second half, but finished the game with 17 points on 7-9 shooting, including 3-4 on three-pointers.

That was good Tanner.

He was wretched against San Francisco on Saturday, missing everything he threw up, including three errant three-pointers. But he never flagged in his dogged defense of Minlnd, plus grabbed three rebounds and led the Gaels’ theft brigade with five of the team’s 11 steals.

He also worked the Gael offense — the part that doesn’t include him shooting three-pointers — brilliantly, breaking free for three lay-ups under the basket by losing his defender on screens. And just when fans least expected it — in the game’s final minute with San Francisco furiously battling back — Krebs sank a three-pointer from the short corner to give the Gaels a 10-point lead they didn’t surrender. Go figure.

Then there was Fitts

The importance of the Gaels’ defense notwithstanding, Malik Fitts had an extraordinary game against San Francisco. He was unstoppable storming down the lane for lay-ups, and made a sensational spinning move in the second half that had the CBS Sports Network announcers stuttering in their microphones.

Some Gael fans reported after the game that they felt Fitts was ill along with Ford, but I didn’t detect what they did. Ford’s distress was obvious, as he spent as much time during warm-ups in the locker room or badgering Gael trainers for aspirins, vitamin C pills or anything else that might get him through the game. Plus, he looked like death warmed over.

Fitts, on the other hand, looked fit, and the only time he came off the court in the second half it looked like he had received a poke in the chops from a rude Don defender. He walked along the front of the Gael bench rubbing his face with a towel and feeling his face to reassure himself that all its parts were intact. After a breather, he went right back in and finished the game with 35 minutes of action.

Game after game this season reinforces the point that no victory should be anticipated, that each game will be a battle. The Gaels head to Los Angeles on Saturday to face the predictably up-and-down Loyola Marymount Lions, and can expect the same thing. Ford won’t have much recovery time, as the Gaels probably travel today (Friday) for Saturday’s game.

No doctor would prescribe a brutal athletic encounter for recovering flu patients, but that is what is in store for Ford and the Gaels. Defense saved them against San Francisco, and will undoubtedly be the key in Los Angeles.

Malik Fitts, shown above blowing by San Francisco center Jimbo Lull, led the Gaels in scoring with 18 points on 7-10 shooting, including a perfect 4-4 in the second half. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Krebs, Fitts come to play

by Michael Vernetti

Tanner Krebs decided he would rather channel his sterling first-half against Gonzaga in the WCC title game last March than repeat his stinker against Santa Clara last week; Malik Fitts decided that three-point shots weren’t such a bad thing after all, and the Saint Mary’s Gaels burst out to a 30-14 lead over Pepperdine with less than 10 minutes left in the first half Saturday.

That opening display of deadeye shooting, abetted by a spectacular second half performance by Jordan Ford, allowed the Gaels to fight off a pesky, talented Pepperdine squad for a 78-69 win in Malibu.

Krebs and Fitts, who were a combined 4-23 in the 67-66 loss to Santa Clara, scorched Pepperdine on 14-23 shooting, including 6-9 on three-point attempts, to total 35 points compared to last week’s 20. They didn’t exactly have smoke coming out of their ears, but both forwards made their intentions perfectly clear from the opening tip. It went like this:

— Fitts drove to the rack against Pepperdine’s tough 6’6″ forward Kameron Edwards for a lay-up on the Gaels’ first possession;

— Krebs hit a fadeaway in the paint, a shot that seemed to have deserted him but which is unstoppable when his touch is right;

— Krebs sank a three-pointer without hesitation, then followed with another;

— Fitts hit his first three-pointer, a move that was pleasing to Gael fans for the fact that he, like Krebs, didn’t hesitate before firing. No jab-step tango leading to a meaningless dribble and a pass to a teammate;

— Fitts then drove for another score in the paint, underscoring the advantage of showing he could make three-pointers: defenders had to come out on him;

— Matching Fitt’s display, Krebs then scored again in the paint.

Ducas chimes in

As impressive as this two-man show, was, Krebs and Fitts weren’t alone in the early outburst. Freshman Alex Ducas, given his first start of the year following an impressive string of appearances, sank two three-pointers of his own, sandwiching a driving, left-hand hook shot to account for eight of the initial 30 points.

That Ducas started the game in place of Tommy Kuhse was a strong indication that Gael Coach Randy Bennett has decided that something needs to change in his offense after three creaky outings against Pacific, BYU and Santa Clara — two of which were losses. Ducas scored on another driving lay-up in the second half to finish with10 points in 19 minutes.

Without Kuhse in the lineup, Bennett turned to Ford to run the point, which seemed to work well. Although Ford limited his offense to four points in the first half, he added 22 in the second half to show that he can both score and lead the attack. Kuhse played for much of the second half, however, and actually logged 23 minutes to Ducas’s 19, so it wasn’t an absolute test of a new order.

But it was a start, and Gael fans will be anxiously waiting to see if it proves fruitful as the WCC season continues.

More tinkering

In another lineup adjustment, freshman Kyle Bowen played nine minutes backing up Dan Fotu in the post. Fotu gobbled up the remaining 31 minutes, while Jock Perry and Aaron Menzies, who have played sporadically as Bennett struggled to find the best option for replacing the injured Matthias Tass, stayed on the bench.

Although Fotu’s five points were the total offensive production from the duo, Bowen played well in defending the paint and pulled down three rebounds. As Pepperdine made a last-ditch effort to pull out the game with some eight minutes left, Bowen blocked an Edwards jumper in the paint. This was a key play because Edwards had just sent Fotu to the bench with Fotu’s fourth foul after Edwards made a series of strong moves in the paint that took him to the free throw line.

DEE-FENSE still needed

Despite the Gaels’ strong first-half effort, Pepperdine clawed back to within two points, 47-45, at the 16-minute mark of the second half. The Gaels have seen second-half leads slip away in the losses to Pacific and Santa Clara, as well as in the narrow overtime win over BYU. But they didn’t panic this time.

Krebs, who had 13 of his 17 points in the first half, made a strong move in the paint against Pepperdine’s hot-shooting but poor defending Skylar Chavez, and sank a lay-up to put his team up by four points. Ford then saved a near out-of-bounds miscue and sank a corner three-pointer, his only trey of the game, to increase the lead to seven points.

In a rare display of agitation, the usually stoic Ford jawed at the Pepperdine bench as he headed back on defense, indicating that he had been receiving flack from that area. Ford then made a tough driving lay-up, and Fitts followed with another score in the paint to boost the Gaels’ lead to 57-47.

Then Krebs made a defensive stop as important as Bowen’s block of Kam Edwards. Krebs had drawn the unpleasant task of guarding Pepperdine’s wizardly guard Colbey Ross, and had done pretty well, considering. At this point, however, he made a clean block of a Ross runner, a shot the wily guard had used as a key portion of his 24 points on the night.

Pepperdine seemed to retrieve the momentum when Edwards’ brother, Kessler, blocked an attempted lay-up by Ford. Not content with his defensive accomplishment, Kessler seemed to taunt Ford along the baseline. Ford ignored him, and the Gaels got the last laugh on the ensuing inbounds play. Krebs once again eluded Chaves to receive a pass underneath the Pepperdine basket and made the bunny to give Saint Mary’s a 59-47 lead with 12:14 left.

They nursed that lead until the end.

The road ahead

Did the lineup changes against Pepperdine give the Gaels a blueprint they can use to regain their swagger in the WCC? Probably not, considering the lack of production from their bigs, Fotu and Bowen. Tass’s experience in the post, evident not only by his scoring and rebounding, but also by his passing, screen-setting and defense, are going to be tough for the Gaels to replace, especially as they look ahead to two games against Gonzaga in February and a rematch against BYU in Provo on Feb. 1.

It is going to take excellent outside shooting to give Saint Mary’s a chance against teams that will outscore them in the paint. Ducas will improve that aspect of the Gael offense if he continues to win Bennett’s favor, but three-point shooting is a notoriously fickle partner. What will happen when the three-pointers desert the Gael shooters, as they certainly will?

There is no Jock Landale, Jordan Hunter or Tass for the Gael guards to toss the ball to for a high-percentage basket in the clutch. Fotu is getting better with added experience, and Bowen is a steady defender and ball hawk, but neither seems destined to become a major scoring threat. It’s going to continue to be a work in progress, and the Gaels can only hope that the win over a Pepperdine team primed for an upset promises more progress in the days ahead.

Malik Fitts, slumping from three-point distance in recent games, regained his touch against Pepperdine with 18 points, including 3-5 three-pointers. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Ford vs. the world

by Michael Vernetti

The vaunted Saint Mary’s offense, loved by basketball connoisseurs for its efficiency, crisp passing and high assist ratio has regressed to this: give the ball to Jordan Ford and hope for the best.

That futility was on full display Saturday night in Moraga as Saint Mary’s fell to Santa Clara 67-66.

It’s not that Ford’s best is not excellent, as he has averaged 30 PPG in the Gaels’ last three contests, including hitting that number on 9-18 shooting and 7-7 free throw shooting against Santa Clara. It’s that he is not getting much help from the Gaels’ expected major contributors, Tanner Krebs and Malik Fitts.

Fitts went 3-15 from the floor against Santa Clara and Krebs 1-8, and both were 1-4 on three point shots. Over the last three games, two of which the Gaels have lost, Fitts has shot 9-41, 2-11 on three-pointers, and Krebs 7-28, 6-18 on three-pointers. Ford could be averaging 40 PPG and it would not be enough to offset that level of futility from Fitts and Krebs.

As a counterpart to the poor shooting by anyone not named Ford, Saint Mary’s racked up 14 turnovers against 10 assists against Santa Clara, following 16 turnovers and 14 assists against BYU. If the Gaels were compared to the housing crisis of 2007-08, they would be farther underwater on their assist-to-turnover ratio than homeowners were on their mortgages. It’s an assist recession.

Bennett’s awakening

Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett seems to have realized that his point guard situation has grown dire, as he benched Tommy Kuhse, the starter at the point since early last season, with more than 17 minutes left in the second half. Kuhse never returned, which might signal that Bennett has lost patience with Kuhse’s inconsistent stewardship of his once-prized offense.

The problem is, Bennett doesn’t trust anyone else on his bench to take the offensive leadership, as he simply gave Ford the burden of running the point as well as scoring nearly half the Gaels’ points. Ford stood up to the challenge mightily, leading a second-half comeback that brought the Gaels from a 44-39 deficit at the 16:11 mark to a 57-48 lead with 10:35 left.

At that point, Ford had scored 28 points and ESPNU announcer Dave Flemming pondered when he would break his own single-game mark of 36 points. The answer was, “Not this night,” as Ford managed only two free throws from that point forward. He missed three-pointers, floaters and lay-ups, and seemed to underscore his exhaustion by dribbling the ball out of bounds on a key possession with about five minutes left.

There is only so much in the tank, even for a super-fit specimen like Ford.

Ducas makes his presence known

Another key signal that change for the Gaels’ lineup is in the works was the play of freshman Alex Ducas, who entered the game in the second half when Kuhse went to the bench. Instead of subbing for Krebs, however, Ducas went in for Kuhse and Krebs stayed on the floor. He made his appearance known immediately, scoring on a nifty reverse off the glass to add a footnote to Ford’s one-man comeback.

Later, Ducas rebounded a Ford missed three-point attempt and put the ball in the bucket to keep the Gaels in front, 61-55, at the 4:37 mark. Still scratching as the Gael lead dwindled in the game’s closing minutes, Ducas stole an entry pass. His teammates, having gone 1-11 at that point in the contest, failed to capitalize on Ducas’s theft, however.

Bennett substituted Logan Johnson for Ducas midway through the Gaels’ second-half run, but even though Johnson is a natural point guard, Bennett kept the ball in Ford’s hands. At this point it became clear that Bennett simply doesn’t feel he has a successor to Kuhse at the point, even though another talented point guard, Kristers Zoriks, remained on the bench for the entire game. This was the second game out of three that Zoriks has remained glued to the bench instead of showing what he can do at the point, but the reason remains unknown.

The Gaels, sitting at 2-2 in the WCC after two weeks of play, seem to be teetering on the brink of falling off as they did in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons following the departure of Matthew Dellavedova. They went 23-12, 11-7 in conference play in 2013, and 21-10, 13-5 in conference the following year, as Bennett searched the likes of Stephen Holt — excellent all-around player but not a good fit at the point — Aaron Bright, James Walker III, Paul McCoy and Kerry Carter for a successor to Delly.

Kuhse became a stalwart last season as an experiment with Ford at the point and Krebs as the off-guard floundered, and the Gaels fell to 3-4. Kuhse righted the ship and gave invaluable service throughout the conference season and into the WCC Tournament, where he shone in the Gaels’ stunning upset of Gonzaga that earned them an NCAA bid.

But things change from season to season, and, for some reason, Kuhse is not producing the magic he did last year. If Bennett doesn’t figure out how to right the ship before his team takes on a dangerous Pepperdine squad next Saturday in Malibu, the wheels could come off the bus completely.

Should a combination of Johnson and Zoriks split time at the point, and give Ford an occasional blow? Should Ducas receive more minutes — and perhaps even replace the slumping Krebs — in an effort to find consistent scoring beyond Ford? We might see answers to these questions in the next week.

What about Fitts?

The situation with Fitts is as troubling as the problem at the point. Despite his recent trouble hitting from distance, Fitts is still one of the Gaels’ best three-point shooters, having made nearly 40 per cent of his attempts (31-79). More than the numbers, however, the three-point shot sets up Fitts’ drives into the paint. In sunnier times, he would confidently launch three-pointers in a game’s early going, then torture opponents by blowing by defenders as they rushed to close out on him.

For some reason, he seems to have lost confidence in the three-ball, and defenses have reacted by simply dropping back and daring him to drive. In one telling sequence in the second half, Fitts had the ball slapped away by a Santa Clara defender after he dithered before attempting to attack the rim. He got the ball back, then committed a charging foul trying again to penetrate the lane.

Showing how maddening is his reluctance to shoot the three-ball as soon as he is open was a play the Gaels made after they had frittered away the lead and found themselves trailing by 65-63 with 48.7 seconds left. Ford drew defenders to himself, then flicked a pass to Fitts at the top of the three-point arc. Fitts immediately launched a shot, showing the confidence from earlier days, and it went in to briefly restore the Gael lead at 66-65.

In addition to figuring out their point guard situation, the Gaels can only hope that the confident Fitts returns before this season goes down the drain.

Jordan Ford, shown above shooting against California earlier this year, was brilliant again in the Gaels’ loss to Santa Clara, scoring 30 points to lead all players. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.