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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.

 

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.