Body blow

by Michael Vernetti

If it’s one thing the Gaels have learned in their many encounters with Gonzaga, it’s, “Don’t let them get a big lead.” Playing from ahead, the Zags are more confident and aggressive, and their scorers let it rip.

Case in point, Saturday’s 78-65 beat-down by the Zags in the Gaels’ house in Moraga.

The Zags dropped three three-pointers by three different players over three different Gael defenders in the game’s opening minutes: Perkins scored over Jordan Ford, who played his worst defensive game of the season at a bad time, Silas Melson beat Emmett Naar and Zach Norvell Jr. dropped a three-ball on Calvin Hermanson for a 9-2 lead seemingly before the Gaels realized a game was underway.

The Zags weren’t finished with that opening salvo, scoring on a Johnathan Williams lob over Jock Landale; a coast-to-coast drive and lay-up by Norvell off a Hermanson miss in which Naar resembled a bemused spectator; then another bucket by Williams caused by Hermanson’s inability to stay with Norvell, forcing Landale to close on the guard. Norvell dished to Williams, the Zags were up 15-4 and Bennett called a timeout.

It had little effect, as the Zags continued to exploit a frighteningly soft Gael defense: a Killian Tillie three-pointer over Hermanson, another Williams put-back off a Perkins drive, one of many buckets in the paint by the sensational Rui Hachimura, then another inside score by Williams over Landale.

By the time the score went to 24-8 with 11:38 left in the first half — yes, the Zags tripled the Gaels in under nine minutes of play — Saint Mary’s had executed one efficient offensive possession. Landale reacted smartly to a Zags’ double-team,  and passed out to Cullen Neal who sank a three-pointer. That’s something the Gaels have done repeatedly this season as various opponents have attempted to double-team Landale.

Contrary to popular opinion, there was nothing special about the Zags double-team, nor anything deficient about Landale’s response to it. He stayed calm under pressure and found Gael shooters to make the Zags pay for over-reliance on stopping him. The shooters let him, and the Gaels, down: Hermanson missed a short jumper from the side of the lane, then a wide-open three-pointer, and Evan Fitzner did the same when he had an opportunity to force Gonzaga out of the double-team strategy.

Making those shots — or at least some of them — could have turned the tide of the game, but the Gaels weren’t up to it this night. They did rally before the first half ended, and pulled within seven points, 28-21 with a little more than five minutes left to play. This was a good position from which to mount a comeback that could have resulted in a tie or lead going into the halftime break — but the Gaels weren’t up to the challenge.

Hachimura, who will be playing in the NBA next year or I don’t understand what the pros look for in college talent, continued to bedevil the Gaels, scoring on five occasions after the Gaels got close. His 10 points in the closing minutes of the half were the main component of the Zags’ 42-30 halftime lead.

No halftime adjustments

Gael fans who have become accustomed to see their team bounce back after disappointing first halves probably expected a more productive effort in the second half, but none was forthcoming. It is unknown what Gael Coach Randy Bennett told his charges during the break, but it had no effect. In fact, they played worse in the second half, falling behind by as many as 22 points (72-50) with a little more than nine minutes left.

If there was a turning point, it came when Bennett made a bold move, subbing in center Jordan Hunter for Fitzner at the 9:10 mark after Fitzner committed another foul (he ended with four) attempting to guard Hachimura. With Hunter on the floor for most of the way down the stretch, the Gaels outscored the Zags 15-6 to cut that 72-50 margin to the final margin of 13, 78-65.

Hunter immediately defended against a Hachimura drive, then Landale did the same thing to Killie underneath the basket, paving the way for a three-pointer by Neal, the only Gael who shot effectively in the game (3-4 on three-pointers). Although Ford was excellent offensively, repeatedly driving the lane for lay-ups and floaters, he went 0-5 on three-point attempts, several of them coming at points when a rousing three-pointer could have turned the tide somewhat. He joined Hermanson (0-2) in the three-point futility brigade.

After Neal’s three-pointer, Hunter and Landale teamed up to defend Hachimura, giving Neal another opportunity to score on a run-out. Neal, however, was fouled egregiously by Melson on his drive, but nothing was called. The Zags came roaring back, with Norvell taking flight for an expected dunk.

Except Hunter met him in mid-air and slapped away his attempt in the best posterizing fashion. Shortly thereafter, Hunter, playing away from the basket in the stretch-4 position, found Landale under the basket for Landale’s only bucket of the second half. A little later, he tipped in a Neal free-throw miss for his only bucket of the night, then finished up with a block of a Perkins drive.

In seven minutes of play, Hunter scored two points, grabbed five rebounds and blocked two shots — the best line of any Gael. He gave Bennett food for thought if the Gaels and Zags meet for a rubber match in the WCC Tournament that could determine whether Saint Mary’s gets in the NCAA Tournament.

Could Hunter start for either Krebs or Fitzner, neither of whom has been tearing it up at the four? Fitzner was solid offensively, scoring eight points on 3-5 shooting, including 1-2 on three-pointers, but he was over-matched against Hachimura. Maybe a combination of Hunter and Fitzner at the four in the hoped-for Gonzaga rematch would energize the Gaels and prevent an early meltdown as they experienced on Saturday.

Bennett made another unusual move in the face of the growing Zag onslaught in the second half, benching an ineffective Naar with more than 12 minutes left in the game. As has been evident in many of their other games, the Zags are vulnerable to quick guards penetrating the lane. Ford and Neal were the Gaels’ best weapons against the Zags, and Bennett may have to re-think his “Naar for 40 minutes” strategy in March — if the Gaels get the rematch opportunity.

All is not lost

Despite the understandable sense of gloom following Saturday’s loss, the season is far from over for Saint Mary’s. They have a tough challenge in San Francisco Thursday night, followed by a road game against Portland that could get dicey if the Gaels fail to aggressively guard the Portland shooters. Two final games at home against Pepperdine and Santa Clara could bring the Gaels’ WCC record to 17-1 and season record to 28-3 heading into the WCC Tournament.

Those are excellent numbers, but the Gaels find themselves in a familiar spot with the NCAA selection gurus — bereft of a compelling out-of-conference road record. Wins over Cal and San Jose State don’t count for much. Thus, the need to work through the WCC Tournament and face Gonzaga again for the conference title and automatic NCAA bid that goes to the winner.

Saturday’s loss gives Bennett’s charges reason for concern, but there is also room for hope. The Gaels have four games to work on Hunter playing alongside Landale, and to recommit themselves to playing tough defense from the opening tip. Bringing both of those elements to Las Vegas for the WCC Tournament should be enough to get the fan base excited again.

Cullen Neal, shown above against Pacific earlier this year, was the only Gael who did not suffer from three-point paralysis against Gonzaga, sinking 3-4 shots from afar. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.



Staying the course

by Michael Vernetti

It would have been easy to overlook Loyola Marymount Thursday night in Los Angeles, looking ahead to the momentous clash with Gonzaga on the horizon for Saturday.

But the Gaels didn’t fall into that trap, playing smart and efficiently to build a comfortable lead and outscoring the Lions by 12 points in the second half (43 to 31) by shooting a scorching 71% en route to an 83-62 win.

LMU helped the Gaels focus by upsetting BYU (76-69) a week ago on their home court, but the Lions were no match for this Gael team that seems laser-focused on winning the WCC title and positioning itself for a strong performance in the NCAA Tournament. Jordan Ford, who came off the bench in the final minutes last Saturday to lead the Gaels to a squeaker (65-62) over San Diego, provided the initial spark against LMU.

Ford scored twice on driving lay-ups before most fans had settled in their seats, and ended up with 13 points in the first half on 6-8 shooting in 17 minutes. Ironically, 17 minutes is the exact amount of time Ford spent on the bench in the second half against San Diego, as his teammates labored into a precarious position in the waning  minutes. Given 30 minutes of playing time against LMU by Gael Coach Randy Bennett, Ford matched his season high of 20 points for the game.

Maybe there’s a theme here: if he plays, he scores.

Fitzner again effective

Another positive for the Gaels was the continued effectiveness of Evan Fitzner off the bench. As happens periodically when Tanner Krebs, who has supplanted Fitzner as the Gaels’ starting power forward, is over-powered by a bugger, stronger opponent, the Lions’ Eli Scott was having his way with Krebs in the early going. As he did against Isaiah Peniero at San Diego, Fitzner slowed Scott down and broke LMU’s early momentum.

The Gaels were dominating so much, racing to a 24-10 lead  by the 10-minute nark of the half, that LMU Coach Mike Dunlap called a timeout to stop the bleeding. It worked, as LMU scored four straight three-point possessions to pull within 31-22. Part of the run could be called a fluke, as Zafir Williams, one of Dunlap’s prized freshman recruits, hit only his fourth three-pointer of the year to start the comeback.

But James Batemon, LMU’s leading scorer after transferring from North Dakota State, is no fluke, and six points of the run came from him, three on a conventional three-pointer and another three on a spin drive in the paint that lost Ford and caused Fitzner to foul Batemon in desperation. Batemon sank the free throw and seemed poised to give the Gaels trouble throughout the game, although he ended up with only nine points on 3-12 shooting.

Dunlap had settled down his charges, and LMU could be said to have regained momentum by cutting the Gaels’ lead to 40-31 at the half. Saint Mary’s did not falter in the second half, however, as Emmett Naar, perhaps embarrassed by his nine-turnover effort against San Diego, piled up 12 assists to surpass a fellow named Dellavedova as the Gaels’ all-time assist maker (he has 769 if you’re counting). Naar committed only two turnovers in the game, and one of them was a traveling call on a made basket that I didn’t see after rewinding the replay several times. The referee also took away the bucket.

Jock Landale, coming off monster games against San Diego and San Francisco — 60 points total — sat out a considerable portion of the game after committing four fouls. He settled for what for him was a humdrum game — 21 points and nine rebounds — but there was a silver lining in that result. Jordan Hunter turned in a superb game in Landale’s absence, scoring seven points on 3-3 shooting and pulling down three rebounds in 12 minutes of play.

Hunter did not get off the bench against San Diego, but had a strong line in the San Francisco game as well, making all three shot attempts and grabbing four rebounds in seven minutes. Hunter also seemed more effective against the Lions’ massive center, 7-3 Mattias Markusson, than Landale had. The game announcers said Markusson has grown from 7-1 as a freshman to 7-3 this year. If that keeps up, LMU might have quite a specimen in the post by his senior year.

Down the stretch

Saint Mary’s has positioned itself well for the five-game stretch run that will decide a lot about its national ranking and NCAA seeding — if the Gaels get into the tournament. The Gonzaga game Saturday night in Moraga is huge, of course, but win or lose, it hardly concludes things for the Gaels.

The week following the Gonzaga game, Saint Mary’s goes on the road to San Francisco and Portland, then finishes up at home against WCC bottom-feeders Pepperdine and Santa Clara. San Francisco will be nursing a huge grudge after the Gaels smothered them 79-43 last week in Moraga, and Portland is dangerous at home. The Pilots sneaked by LMU (68-66) after the Lions had upset BYU, and will be loose and dangerous in the Rose City on Feb. 17.

Gonzaga has a more difficult path after the Saint Mary’s game, finishing up on the road against San Diego and BYU — no box of chocolates for the Zags. But the Gaels do not want to rely on anyone else to pave the way to a WCC regular-season title, and will be looking for a sweep against Gonzaga Saturday night, as well as the WCC Tournament crown that will guarantee an NCAA bid.

The Gaels are going for all the marbles, and don’t want any consolation prizes.

Jordan Ford, shown above from an earlier game, tied his season high with 20 points against LMU Thursday night. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Two sides of the coin

by Michael Vernetti

On the one hand, when you’ve got a beast in the paint against a mostly undersized opponent, why not feed the beast (Jock Landale, 34 points on 22 shots)?

On the other hand, if all you do is feed the beast, the other animals get hungry. When Evan Fitzner attempted a three-pointer with with 3:55 left in the Gaels’ unnecessarily tight 65-62 win over San Diego Saturday (he missed), it was only the third shot taken by somebody other than himself or Landale in the entire second half. Calvin Hermanson and Emmett Naar also missed three-pointers, and Fitzner converted a bunny over San Diego’s shortish Olin Carter III earlier in the half.

That’s  it — the entire non-Landale offensive effort in the second half until Gael Coach Randy Bennett got the bright idea of putting guard Jordan Ford back in the game for the first time in 17 minutes. All Ford did was save the Gaels’ bacon with two aggressive drives against the taller but less athletic Tyler Williams. He scored both times, and set up Landale for a one-and-one opportunity with a nice pass off a pick and roll that drew a foul. It was the only free-throw miss of the day for Landale, who was brilliant in every way against the Toreros.

Watching Ford coolly assess the floor and make his move against Williams as the Gaels’ lead shrank to 57-54, one couldn’t help but wonder two things: where in the heck were the other Gael shooters – Hermanson and Tanner Krebs — during the second half; and why did Ford play only a little more than three minutes in the half?

Hermanson and Krebs were practically catatonic for most of the game — Krebs attempted three shots and Hermanson four. Time after time as Hermanson stood in one place and looked  for an opportunity to toss a pass into Landale, I wanted to scream: “Cross ’em up, Calvin. Rise up with that deadly jump shot of yours!”

But it was no soap, either on orders from Bennett or out of his own timidity or lack of imagination. That’s why it was so refreshing to see Ford enter the game and take it over. He apparently wasn’t subjected to the shackles that inhibited Hermanson and Krebs, and wasted no time in launching two beautiful floaters over the 6-6 Williams that gave the Gaels five-point and four-point leads in the waning seconds.

Defense-first strategy

Ford was initially yanked at the 10-minute mark of the first half despite defending San Diego’s Isaiah Wright well and sinking the only three-pointer he attempted in the game. The defensive imperative at that point was to sub in Fitzner for Krebs, after Krebs proved unable to slow down San Diego’s other explosive Isaiah — Mr. Pineiro. The Fitzner-for-Krebs substitution was fortuitous, as Fitzner provided stout defense against the elusive Pineiro, despite Pineiro’s 24 points (many of which were scored over defenders other than Fitzner).

But Bennett lifted Ford for the defensively-challenged Cullen Neal at the same time, initially assigning Neal to guard the 6-10 Juwan Gray. San Diego wasted no time taking advantage of this mismatch, posting up Gray over Neal for a bucket and a free throw that interrupted a nice offensive run by the Gaels. Instead of just sending Ford back in, Bennett decided to go with one guard, Naar, and put Krebs back in along with Hermanson, Fitzner and Landale.

Bennett did the same thing at the beginning of the second half, starting Ford then yanking him after a minute or so to put Krebs back in. It seemed to solve a problem that didn’t exist, as the Gaels’ had found the best solution for Pineiro by putting Fitzner on him, San Diego didn’t even try to score any points against Landale, Hermanson was more than solid against either Wright or Williams, and Naar’s opponent, Carter III, took the afternoon off (five points on five shots).

Using Krebs on defense against Williams seemed like overkill, as either Hermanson or Ford could have handled him. It didn’t work anyway, as Williams nailed four-of-five three-pointers in the second half to become the Gaels’ nastiest adversary after Pineiro.

The Fitzner question — again

Watching Fitzner battle Pineiro after Krebs failed miserably against him, I wondered what had become of Bennett’s decision earlier in the season to substitute Krebs for Fitzner in the starting lineup. The ostensible reason for that, fans decided, was that Krebs made up for his lack of power-forward height — he’s 6-6 — with quickness and tenacity that Fitzner appears to lack at times. Plus, Krebs is an excellent rebounder and, occasionally, a dangerous scorer.

However, against Portland and its 6-9 power forward Tahirou Diabate, Fitzner had to take over Krebs’ role when Diabate over-powered Krebs a few times in the paint. The problem then, as against Pineiro, was the height difference — Diabate and Pineiro are both 6-9. Similarly, against Gonzaga, Fitzner at 6-10 proved a much better answer for the Zags’ powerful Killian Tillie than Krebs. Conversely, Krebs was better than Fitzner against Rui Hachinura, so that was a situation where both were needed.

It is unlikely that Bennett will alter his starting lineup again, but it must be acknowledged that Fitzner has taken giant strides defensively. To see him enter games as a defensive stopper is one of the most rewarding developments of this remarkable season.

I don’t know what to make of Bennett’s recent predilection for using Naar as the only guard on the floor, relegating Ford to the bench. Naar committed nine turnovers (against seven assists) against San Diego, many of them caused by losing control of his dribble. I don’t buy the casual fans’ take that Naar got tired against the Toreros, as his body language and animation during timeouts argued against that theory. He was dialed in and fired up, and coolly sank two crucial free throws in the final seconds that extended the Gaels’ lead from one point to three. Tired players leave their free throws short.

I  think it’s more a case of going to the same well — call it Landale — too often. With Naar having the ball in his hands so much of the game, a smart and tenacious team like San Diego is sure to figure out some of his moves and find ways to counteract them. Having Ford on the floor takes some of the ball-handling responsibility from Naar and gives the Gaels an additional offensive option.

As Ford demonstrated dramatically against San Diego, that option can be invaluable.

Evan Fitzner, now a substitute instead of a starter as he was in the photo above from an earlier game, has won playing time in recent games by providing stout defense — as he demonstrated in the Gaels’ 65-62 win over San Diego. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.


The Landale effect

by Michael Vernetti

At the 5:16 mark of a stunningly lop-sided Saint Mary’s romp over San Francisco Thursday night — 79-43 — Souley Boum, the Dons’ leading scorer at 13.5 PPG coming into the game, made his first bucket of the game, a three-pointer.

Boum’s bucket was not only indicative of the Dons’ overall ineffectiveness, it was interesting because of who was responsible for keeping him off the books until the   contest was long decided — Gael guard Emmett Naar. Naar doesn’t usually draw the assignment of guarding an opposing team’s top scorer, but he handled Boum easily until he (Naar) went to the bench at the astonishingly early point of 9:25 left in the game.

Gael Coach Randy Bennett certainly knew that Boum was a dangerous scorer, but he also knew that Boum’s back-court mate, Frankie Ferrari, was the engine that makes the San Francisco offense run. So, Bennett put his defensive ace, Jordan  Ford, on Ferrari, and the combination of Naar and Ford held Boum to five points and Ferrari to four, although Ferrari matched his season’s average for assists with four.

No one on the Dons scored in double digits, as their other leading scorers, Jordan Ratinho and Chase Foster, both averaging around 10 PPG, were held to eight and seven points, respectively. The only thing that saved the Dons from the embarrassment of failing to score at least 40 points was two late-game three-pointers by subs Erik Poulsen, 1-4 overall, and Remu Raitanen, 1-3 for the game. The Dons shot a woeful 32% for the game, including 25% from three-point land.

Comparison with Gonzaga effort

By comparison, in battling Gonzaga to a nine-point loss last week in Spokane, San Francisco shot 50% overall and from three-point land. Foster, Ferrari and Ratinho all scored in double figures, and, more surprising, Dons’ 6-9 center Matt McCarthy, over- matched by the Gaels’ 6-11 Jock Landale, managed 10 points against Gonzaga on 4-7 shooting. McCarthy was 0-7 against the Gaels.

Gonzaga followed up that lackluster effort against San Francisco with another ho-hum home win last night, 69-59 over San Diego. The Toreros came back from a big deficit to lead 50-48 in the second half, then made another run to close within 51-50 before succumbing down the stretch.

This is not to say that the Gaels are home free for the rest of the season, but recent results do suggest that Saint Mary’s is tightening its defense at the right time and Gonzaga is failing to dominate teams as it did earlier in the season. The Gaels, of course, have still to face Gonzaga one  more time (Feb. 10) at home, and also must take on San Diego Saturday on the Toreros’ home court. That is never a fun assignment.

Speaking of Landale

The Gaels’ offense against San Francisco revolved around Landale, who finished with 26  points (11-17 shooting), 12 rebounds and three assists. He showed San Francisco both sides of his game, assist-maker Landale in the first half and shot-maker Landale in the second. He also threw in a little razzle-dazzle just to keep the Abdul Jabaar Award judges interested.

Landale had about 20 touches in the first half, give or take a few re-posts, but shot only seven times, making four. On the other touches, he passed out to willing shooters, none more willing than Tanner Krebs, who sank four-of-five three-pointers. Calvin Hermanson chipped in with two three-pointers, as did Evan Fitzner. That amounted to eight made three-pointers, which the Gaels didn’t add to in the second half, going 0-7 from distance. It hardly mattered.

Figuring San Francisco would abandon its fruitless effort to double-team Landale, Saint Mary’s fed him relentlessly after the half-time break. The Gaels’ first 10 possessions of the second half involved feeding Landale in the post, and he responded with a variety of moves to score seven times (including one possession ending in two free throws). Showing he was getting bored by scoring on routine over-the-shoulder hooks, Landale attempted a reverse lay-up at one point that came up a bit short. But he was just getting warmed up.

On the Gaels’ nest possession, Landale received a pass at the top  of the key, and indicated he would do what he almost always does — hand off the ball to Naar. Except he didn’t, keeping his dribble alive and driving the lane for a thundering dunk and a 56-30 lead with 11:30 left in the game. It is probably over-dramatic to say that play broke the spirit of San Francisco, but it certainly didn’t cheer ’em up. A few minutes later, they had scored nine points in the half’s first 11 minutes.

Landale stuck around for one more lay-up off a Naar feed, then joined the rest of the starters on the bench. A second unit composed of Jordan Hunter at the five, Jock Perry at the four, Elijah Thomas at the three, Cullen Neal at the point and Tommy Kuhse at the two pushed a 62-30 lead to the final margin of 79-43 over the last six minutes or so — a 17-13 advantage over most of San Francisco’s starters.

Hunter, the athletic 6-10 junior who has been tantalizing Gael fans with his promise but disappointing them with his mixed results for three years, made the most of his extensive time on the floor. He scored on all three of his shot attempts — including a rousing dunk off a lob by Neal — grabbed four rebounds and kept several possessions alive by swatting out misses to the Gael guards.

Rehearsal for next year?

It would not be fanciful to consider Hunter’s late-season resurgence — he has showed more patience and tempered his fouling in several recent games — as a rehearsal for next year when Landale is gone. The Gaels will have an intriguing selection of big men to succeed Landale, including incoming recruit Mattias Tass from Estonia. Returning besides Hunter is the 7-1 Perry, who has been showcasing his three-point prowess in recent late-game appearances.

Hunter could be considered the logical choice to take Landale’s starting position, as he has considerably more experience than the redshirt freshman Perry and Tass will be a freshman. These are all decisions for another day, however, as the Gaels are laser-focused on finishing the WCC season, WCC Tournament and, they fervently hope, the NCAA Tournament to follow that.

For that ride, they will rest comfortably on the shoulders of the original Jock, Mr. Landale.

Jordan Hunter, shown above in a 2016 intra-squad game, has impressed Gael fans with his scoring, defense and rebounding in several  recent late-game appearances. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.


Take that!

by Michael Vernetti

In his wisdom following Thursday’s win over BYU, the scribe wrote (about Jordan Ford):

“…it seems Ford is having trouble finding a role for himself on offense.”

And (about Calvin Hermanson):

“Hermanson fouled out after failing to guard [Elijah] Bryant effectively and going 1-4 on three-point attempts for a mere five points.”

In Saturday night’s cruise past Portland (72-55), Ford played like he had been shot out of a cannon. He picked Portland’s leading scorer Josh McSwiggan on the game’s second possession, and converted a lay-up at the other end of the court before McSwiggan figured out what had hit him.

Ford later sank a three-pointer against a soft Portland zone defense, then blasted down court again after a Naar steal to draw a foul and sink both free throws. When Gael Coach Randy Bennett relieved Ford with Cullen Neal at the 10-minute mark, the Gaels led 21-10, Ford had scored seven points and shut down one of Portland’s stars, Marcus Shaver, Jr.

Ford continued to find a major role for himself on offense, scoring 16 points by halftime and ending with 20 points, matching his career high.

Hermanson also strong

As for Hermanson, all he did was shoot 4-6 on three-pointers to score 16 points (second behind Ford) and shut down McSwiggan for a bagel: 0-5, including 0-3 on three-point attempts for the JC transfer from Leicestershire in the English countryside.

Do you suppose Ford and Hermanson had a joint reading session? No, of course not.

The first half was a showcase of how teams have struggled to defend the Gaels this season, primarily the lethal duo of Naar and Jock Landale. Portland has an excellent shot blocker in the 7-2 Phillipp Hartwich, and seemed content to leave him alone on Landale. Which worked, sort of. The problem was the four other Gaels whom Portland didn’t seem to think needed guarding.

Left alone, Hermanson, Ford, Tanner Krebs and Neal combined for 8-14 three-pointers in the first half, as the Gaels raced to an insurmountable 44-22 halftime lead. Landale had only three touches in the first half, making two shots and probably contemplating the damage he would do in the second half when Portland would tighten up its perimeter defense.

Didn’t happen, as Hartwich effectively moved Landale further from the basket than he likes, and Portland’s guards helped harass the Gaels’ big man. Landale got only a few more touches in the second half than he did in the first, and he didn’t make anything out of them: a fumbled dribble in the paint leading to a Portland run-out; strong defense by Hartwich on his usually effective up-and-under move; a mysterious foul that no one except the referee saw; then a strip by Shaver, who converted a jumper.

Landale was held under 10 points (six) for the first time since last season against BYU, and despite pulling down 11 rebounds missed scoring the double-double that has become almost commonplace. He got some rest, however, as Bennett subbed in Jordan Hunter and Jock Perry when the game became unwinnable for Portland, and Landale finished with “only” 31 minutes on the floor. For Bennett’s starters, that equals a mini-vacation.

Portland’s prospects

Portland Coach Terry Porter, the ex-NBA star player and coach, has drastically revamped the Pilots’ roster in his second season, bringing in hordes of freshmen and transfers. Two newcomers, Shaver and his back court partner Jojo Walker, look to be keepers. Shaver is from Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix, AZ, where he played for former NBA star Mike Bibby and led his team to an undefeated 27-0 record and a state championship.

Walker was a star at St. Joseph High School in Santa Maria, CA, leading his team to numerous CIF Southern Section titles and earning numerous all-league and all-section awards. One suspects that the slight stature that Shaver and Walker share — don’t believe the roster claim that they’re both 6-1 or more — might have kept them from more noted programs than Portland’s. Or maybe Porter is a great recruiter.

Walker gave the Gaels, particularly Naar, the most trouble, sinking five three-pointers for 15 points to lead the Pilots. Naar was victimized on four of those three-balls, as he couldn’t seem to bother Walker enough to upset his shot. Shaver had a tougher time against Ford, but still managed to score 12 points, including several in garbage time.

Walker and Shaver are good enough to displace Porter’s sons, ex-Gael Franklin and the younger Malcolm, as starters, although both Porters are excellent players. Franklin, who showed promise in limited minutes as a Gael two seasons ago, managed six points, while Malcolm, aided immeasurably by being guarded by the defensively-challenged Neal, totaled 12 points.

The Gaels have won 16 in a row — a school record —  since dropping two games in the Wooden Tournament last November, and are chugging relentlessly toward a re-match with Gonzaga in Moraga on Feb. 10. No one on the team will admit that they’re looking ahead to that game, however, as they repeat the “one game at a time” mantra. Next up to test that theory is San Francisco on Thursday in Moraga.

Jordan Ford, shown above in an earlier game against Pepperdine, led all Gaels with 20 points on 6-11 shooting against Portland. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.


And the beat goes on

by Michael Vernetti

There was a time when Saint Mary’s-BYU was a marquee match-up. At 5-0 in the Gaels’ favor over the past two seasons, those match-ups seem far behind us.

The Gaels’ methodical 75-62 win over BYU Thursday night to give them a 9-0 first-half record in the WCC was of a type: BYU couldn’t stop the Emmett Naar-to-Jock Landale combo, and they don’t have the firepower of past seasons to make up for what their defense gives up.

They are opportunistic and play hard, and can punish opponents who give up turnovers or fail to get back on defense. but can’t keep consistent pressure on their opponents. The Gaels looked to be rolling towards a 20-point win with about six minutes left in the first half when Jordan Ford drove the lane and scored on a lay-up to push the score to 31-21.

The Gaels faltered at that point, however, as Landale and Ford found both of themselves  guarding BYU’s TJ Haws, allowing Haws to find Yoeli Childs underneath for an easy bucket. There followed a lazy pass by Evan Fitzner that went off Calvin Hermanson’s hands, a Ford foul on Jahshire Hardnett on the baseline, Hermanson losing Elijah Bryant on a drive in the paint, and suddenly it was 31-25.

The Gaels recovered momentarily when Hermanson found Landale underneath for a slam, pushing the lead to 33-25, but that failed to stem the tide. Ford committed a turnover on a bad pass out of penetration, Hermanson drew a charge, Haws was left alone in the corner after Landale blocked his lay-up attempt, and drained the three-pointer for his first points of the game.

Throw in a five-second violation on an in-bounds play and another Bryant drive and score, and the Gaels’ seemingly comfortable 10-point cushion turned into a 33-30 halftime lead. ESPN announcer Sean Farnham declared that BYU had the momentum going into the break, and the Gaels’ play starting the second half seemed to bear him out.

Poor start to second half

Bryant drove Hermanson to start the half, narrowing the lead to one point, then Naar committed a turnover and Haws scored over Hermanson, who was having a rough game. That put BYU up 34-33, a free throw made it 35-33, then Naar sank a floater in the lane to bring the Gaels even at 35-all. Naar, who left the court briefly in the first half after turning his left ankle trying to guard Haws, then was beaten by Haws off the dribble and BYU went ahead 37-35.

With the score standing at 39-37 in BYU’s favor, Ford sank a corner three-pointer that seemed to energize the Gaels. Naar followed the Ford three-pointer with a beautiful drive in the lane, then Tanner Krebs sank another corner three-pointer to give the Gaels a 45-39 lead and an 8-0 run. Gael Coach Randy Bennett then moved Naar off Haws in favor of Krebs, but left Naar as the only guard on the floor for most of the second half.

For those who were worried about Naar’s gimpy ankle, he gave a clinic in point guard play from that point on. The capper came as the  clock wound down on a Gael possession, and BYU fell into the trap of doubling Naar in hopes of forcing him into a turnover. Instead, Naar found Landale outside the three-point line and Landale brought the sellout crowd to its feet with a three-pointer — his first of the season.

Naar and Landale went back to their usual repertoire of lobs and inside passes leading to bunnies, continuing a stretch in which Landale scored nine straight points. To put the dagger solidly in BYU’s heart, Fitzner sank a corner three-pointer at the 4:10 mark to move the Gaels ahead 66-56 and alert BYU’s bus driver to start the engine. All that was left was to see how many assists and points Naar and Landale would accumulate — it ended with 32 points for Landale and 12 assists for Naar.

Cause for concern

Gael fans who look for signs of trouble could point to lackluster efforts by Hermanson and Ford. Hermanson fouled out after consistently failing to guard Bryant effectively and going 1-4 on three-point attempts for a mere five points. Ford made the big three-pointer to stem BYU’s momentum in the second half, but was just 1-5 from distance and also scored just five points.

Bennett signaled his displeasure with Ford by benching him for most of the second half as Naar took total control of the offense. At times like this it seems Ford is having trouble finding a role for himself on offense. He continues to be the Gaels’ best perimeter defender, but can’t consistently find an offensive rhythm. After giving Cullen Neal a few minutes to shine in the first half, which Neal did with a three-pointer and a circus reverse lay-up off a run-out, Bennett decided against possible cardiac arrhythmia by keeping the mercurial Neal on the bench for the second half.

As long as Naar and Landale continue to control games almost by themselves, Gael players who give less-than-stellar efforts are going to have a hard time.

Emmett Naar, shown above scoring in an earlier game, scored 13 points and dished out 12 assists to lead the Gaels past BYU. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

After a tough, four-game road stretch…

by Michael Vernetti

The Gaels are feeling pretty good about themselves. All alone in first place in the WCC at 8-0, a game ahead of Gonzaga (7-1) and two ahead of BYU (6-2).

Oh sure, it would have been nice to handle Pacific more like the 74-56 thumping they administered on Jan. 4 in Moraga than the 72-69 hand-wringer they endured at the Spanos Center on Saturday, but the upset gods were working overtime to snare the Gaels in Stockton.

Pacific was in perfect shape to upset the high-flying Gaels two nights after their exhilarating 74-71 victory over Gonzaga in Spokane. Instead of the late Thursday night flight to Concord and bus trip to Stockton facing Saint Mary’s, Pacific was waiting comfortably at home after dispatching a woeful Pepperdine squad 92-78 on Thursday.

That win was Damon Stoudamire’s squad’s fourth in a row following the loss in Moraga, and the Tigers were gaining confidence after beating BYU (67-66) and San Diego (74-70) at home. The team Stoudamire has assembled in his second year at the Tigers’ helm is rounding into shape and looking more formidable each week.

At its heart are two newcomers, who are getting better as they play more together: guards Jahlil Tripp from Brooklyn by way of a Texas JC, and Lafayette Dorsey, a true freshman out of Dorsey High School in Los Angeles. Tripp, a muscled 6-5, 190 lbs., is a natural floor leader, who is willing to de-emphasize scoring in order to distribute and run his team’s offense.

He was the Gaels’ toughest guard Saturday, as Coach Randy Bennett scrambled to find someone who could slow him down. Calvin Hermanson drew the most minutes on Tripp, and he would have happily given the honor to someone else. As well as Hermanson has played on defense against guards the past two seasons, he simply could not keep Tripp out of the lane. The Gaels should be happy Tripp took only six shots (making five),

Dorsey scored more than Tripp — 18 points on 6-11 shooting — but he is streaky and was having one of those nights that talented offensive players sometimes have. The Gaels’ own freshman, redshirt Elijah Thomas, was on Dorsey in crunch time, and may have freaked him out as he flew over to defend Dorsey’s last-second three-point attempt to tie the game. At any rate, Dorsey missed and the Gaels escaped without going to overtime.

Three-point drought

The Gaels have suffered through a variety of three-point shooting slumps this season, but against Pacific they managed to go the entire first half without making one (0-6). They recovered with a 4-8 second half, and it was just enough to prevent disaster. As he did against Gonzaga, Tanner Krebs swished a dagger late in the second half that kept the Gaels in the game. It was his only “make” of the night, and the broadcasters were amazed at his nerve in taking such a tough shot and skill in draining it. So was I, but it is becoming more and more evident that Krebs is crowding the Gaels’ Big Three — Jock Landale, Emmett Naar and Hermanson — as an indispensable cog in the offensive machine.

Krebs’ performance is all the more remarkable when you consider he is playing out of place on defense as an under-sized power forward. At a slender 6-6, Krebs is usually matched up against taller, burlier players, but he has battled admirably to minimize the disadvantage. Gael fans can be forgiven if they think ahead to next season when transfer forward Malik Fitts, a 6-8 natural forward, will be available on the front line.

Under the WCC’s unusual 2017-18 scheduling, Saint Mary’s now can look forward to three home games following four straight on the road. They will face a revenge-minded BYU this Thursday, then will meet Portland and San Francisco for the first time on the following Saturday and Thursday.

Because the Gaels’ first-half schedule was front-loaded with road games, they are in good position to defend their first-place status against BYU and Gonzaga at home. They do face a difficult challenge in traveling to San Diego on Feb. 3, followed by a jaunt across the Bay Bridge to face San Francisco on Feb. 13. Both the Toreros’ Lamont Smith and the Dons’ Kyle Smith — both former members of Bennett’s coaching staff — will be looking to inflict late-season damage to the Gaels’ championship drive.

But, heck, so will everyone else.

Tanner Krebs, shown above taking his deadly three-point jump shot in an earlier game, has emerged as a clutch performer for the Gaels. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.