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 W.tv 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.

Gaels claw into sole possession of first place

by Michael Vernetti


After struggling with several possible themes — Jock Landale’s dominance, senior experience (Landale, Calvin Hermanson and Emmett Naar), contributions by lesser lights (Jordan Ford, Tanner Krebs) — I decided perseverance was the key.

The Gaels resolutely kept to what they do best, and eked out a 74-71 win over Gonzaga Thursday night in the visitors’ death dome known as the McCarthey Athletic Center. Despite being down by nine and seven points at two different times in the second half, despite an other-worldly performance by a player they hardly knew, Rui Hachimura, and despite the legacy of last season’s 3-0 sweep by the Zags, the Gaels kept chipping away.

Although they would win the second half by a score of 36-29 (and hold the Zags to 38% shooting), the half couldn’t have begun any worse for the Gaels. Landale missed two free throws to start things off, and the Zags’ Killian Tillie sank a three-pointer over Krebs. Just like that, a manageable four-point deficit to end the half turned into a scary-looking seven-point deficit (45-38).

Even though Ford got the three-pointer back with one of his own — he was 2-2 from distance as part of an overall excellent game — the Zags’ Johnathan Williams knocked down a three-pointer against a sloughing-off Landale, then Zach Norvell drove Naar for a lay-up to increase the Zags’ advantage to 50-41 with 16:32 left. Not good, Gaels.

Comeback time

Unperturbed, Landale calmly sank a left-handed hook over Willliams, then laid in a bunny off a jewel of an assist from Naar wrapped around a Tillie score inside. Tillie undid some of the good from that effort by fouling Krebs on a three-point attempt, and Krebs converted two of three free throws. Getting better at 52-47.

Defining senior grit, Hermanson then sank a clutch three-pointer to bring the Gaels within two points at 52-50 and end a 7-2 run with 13:05 left on the clock. A hectic back-and forth ensued, with the Zags scoring on two Hachimura jump shots and the only three-pointer of the night by the Zags’ beleaguered point guard, Josh Perkins (1-9, six points). At the 10:43 mark, the Gaels were back in a seven-point hole at 61-54.

Many teams might have crumbled on the road facing such a barrier, but the Gaels leaned on Hermanson to weather the storm. Benefiting from a Zag coaching decision to give some play to freshman Corey Kispert, Hermanson schooled the rookie on two straight drives to the hoop. Kispert fouled him on one, giving Hermanson two free throws, then Hermanson converted the second drive for a lay-up to bring the Gaels within five at 63-58. Have a seat on the bench, Mr. Kispert.

On the defensive end, Hermanson next blocked a shot attempt by Williams, leading to a transition opportunity for Krebs. No bigger three-pointer has been made by a Gael this season than the one Krebs drained to cut the Zags’ lead to 63-61 t the 8:12 mark. Landale then made one of the sweetest shots of his career, a spinning fade-away jumper over Williams to tie the game at 63-all with 6:53 left.

Pressing the advantage, Ford lofted a pass off the backboard for a trailing Landale to flush, and the Gaels went up for the first time since halfway through the first half, 65-63. Williams scored inside to end the Gael run at 9-0, but the Gaels’ confidence was up after the comeback. Only a Gael miscue on the next Zag possession prevented the Gaels from closing out the game at that point.

Ford fouls Perkins

Although Perkins had struggled with his shot all night, and although the shot clock was winding down, Ford fouled Perkins on a desperate three-point heave, sending Perkins to the free-throw line. Perkins sank all three free throws, stalling the Gaels’ momentum temporarily and giving the Zags a 68-66 lead. That lasted until the next possession, when Landale again scored underneath to re-tie the game.

Facing another key possession, Landale blocked a drive by the Zags’ Silas Melson that gave the Gaels the ball without a Zag score. Zag fans and the TV announcers criticized the no-call on Melson’s drive, but if the call was wrong the Gaels had one coming. Fueling a Zag surge in the first half was a flurry of questionable calls against them, including an undetectable Landale foul on a screen that nullified a runner by Cullen Neal, and an even-more ticky-tack screening foul on Hermanson that robbed them of a possession right after the Landale call.

On the Gaels’ next possession, Hermanson scored on still another power drive to put the Gaels up 70-68, but Hachimura — who went 11-16 on the night for 23 points — tied it at 70-all with another jumper. Until Hachimura sank that jumper, the Zags had gone 0-7 from the floor.

No problem, Gaels, just go inside to you-know-who. Landale made a nifty juke on Williams, then converted inside with his left-hand to give the lead back to the Gaels. Williams threw up his hands after defending Landale closely on the play, and no one could blame him. Although a good jumper and athletic in every other aspect, Williams at 6-8 was simply over-matched against Landale, who ended up with 26 points, 12 rebounds and three assists.

Inserting Williams for the departed post tandem of 7-1 Przemek Karnowski and 7-0 Zach Collins is the Zags’ single biggest vulnerability, and the Gaels exploited it mercilessly.

The Zags made it interesting at the end after Norvell sank one of two free throws to bring the score to 72-71in the Gaels’ favor with 41:8 seconds to go. Gonzaga Coach Mark Few tried to coach his team out of pickle and only made things worse. Few turned to seldom-used reserve Jeremy Jones to guard Hermanson, but the move back-fired.

After the Gaels broke the Zags’ pressure and advanced the ball up-court, Hermanson set a pick on Perkins to give some space for the ball-handling Krebs. It was quite a pick, sending Perkins sprawling to the ground and apparently shocking the newly-inserted Jones.. Jones, now defending Krebs, reeled backwards upon seeing Perkins on the floor, which gave Krebs perfect court vision.

Krebs spied Williams fronting Landale underneath the bucket and tossed a perfect lob to the Gael center. Another bunny conversion by Landale put the Gaels up 74-71, where it remained following a desperation heave at the buzzer by Hachimura It was one of the few shots the emerging star missed.

Jock Landale assumed the beast mode he showed in last year’s NCAA Tournament game against Arizona, pictured above, with a dominating, 26-point, 12-rebound effort against Gonzaga. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.


Back to normal

by Michael Vernetti

Saint Mary’s did just what it should have done in its 81-57 dissection of Santa Clara on the road Thursday: got separation early, defended stoutly and cruised to a 24-point win that could have easily been a 30-point blowout.

The tone of this one was set right off the bat, when Calvin Hermanson sank a corner three-pointer that eluded him — and his teammates — in a desultory 70-63 win over San Diego last Saturday in Moraga. The Gaels then forced a turnover and Hermanson found his partner in recent three-point futility, Tanner Krebs, for a  corner three-pointer of his own — bingo, a 2-4 deficit became an 8-4 lead in the blink of an eye.

Emphasizing how these early three-pointers energize Randy Bennett’s Gaels, they then worked Jock Landale for a right-hand hook shot in the paint over Santa Clara’s 6-10 Emmanuel Ndumanya, Krebs struck again from distance and Jordan Ford — another important Gael contributor who was forgotten in the San Diego game (10 minutes playing time) — drove Santa Clara’s Henry Caruso for a gritty lay-up.

The score was 15-6 in the Gaels’ favor at the 13:11 mark and Santa  Clara Coach Herb Sendek called timeout before things got any worse. It was already too late, however, as the Gaels had established all the elements of their offense — three-point shooting, Landale dominance underneath and guard penetration — and held Santa Clara to three buckets by an overworked KJ Feagin.

With all offensive elements clicking and their defense continuing the steady improvement it has shown during an 11-gaame winning streak, Saint Mary’s compiled the statistical superiority that indicates it is in a groove:

55.2% field goal shooting; 50% shooting (9-18) on three-pointers; held Santa Clara to 40% shooting; totaled 24 assists (11 of them by Emmett Naar) to only nine turnovers — all coming in the first half; and out-rebounded the Broncos 33-26.

The Gaels are in good shape to finish phase one of a two-week road schedule on Saturday night in Malibu, as they take on Pepperdine, winless in the WCC at 0-5. Then comes a road gantlet against Gonzaga and suddenly-aroused Pacific next week before they return home for a return engagement against BYU on Jan.25.

Ford and Fitzner shine

In the midst of the general team excellence demonstrated against Santa Clara, two Gaels who have been in the shadows lately emerged brightly. As mentioned, Ford barely registered a pulse against San Diego, taking only one shot and missing that in his brief appearance. Ford had suffered through an 0-8 three-point shooting slump in the two games preceding San Diego, and his early emergence as a capable stand-in for the departed Joe Rahon was beginning to come into question.

If Bennett’s benching of him during the San Diego game was a message, Ford clearly received it. He was excellent in defending Santa Clara’s only reliable weapon, Feagin, and went 3-4 from the field, including the only three-pointer he attempted, along with dishing out two assists and grabbing three steals.

Feagin ended up with 19 points to lead Santa Clara, but he did on 6-15 shooting and did most of his damage when other Gaels were guarding him.

Fitzner has a longer history of agony as a Gael than Ford, having endured periods of instant benching despite starting every game in his freshman and sophomore seasons and, more recently, being replaced in the starting lineup in favor of Krebs. He came into the Santa Clara game with less than four minutes gone in the second half when Hermanson used his chin to break a fall after a strong drive to the bucket.

Fitzner was Bennett’s choice to substitute for Hermanson on the free-throw line after Hermanson’s injury necessitated a trip to the training table for a couple of stitches. Before Fitzner could shoot, however, Bennett had to convince the officials that Hermanson actually shed blood with his face plant.

Apparently the rules state that if a player is bleeding, his coach can substitute anyone the coach chooses to take a free throw. If, however, there is no blood, the opposing team’s coach can choose the substitute free-throw shooter. It what looked like a scene from “There Will Be Blood,” Bennett had to get in the ref’s face and point to the spot on the floor where Hermanson’s blood was evident before Fitzner stepped to the free-throw line.

He made the shot.

Fitzner wasn’t finished affecting the outcome, however. Taking a pass from Landale — who had five assists to go along with 19 points and 10 rebounds — Fitzner sank a soft floater amidst a crowd in the paint and was fouled. He sank the free throw for his fourth point in less than two minutes.

A few possessions later, Fitzner backed down his defender and sank a soft left-handed hook to put the Gaels up 50-33 with less than 14 minutes remaining. There followed a runout by Ford after he and Krebs teamed up to strip Feagin, which resulted in Ford sinking one of two free throws, and then a corner three-pointer by Cullen Neal, who had come in for Ford.

Sendek called another time out as the score blossomed to 57-36, but it had about the same effect as the one in the first half. Game over, essentially.

On to Malibu, dude.

Jordan Ford, shown above scoring on a lay-up against Loyola Marymount, posted a strong effort against Santa Clara on both offense and defense. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

New gunslinger in the West (Coast Conference)

by Michael Vernetti

As his re-invented Toreros kicked around Saint Mary’s for 30 minutes in Moraga Saturday night before fading down the stretch, San Diego Coach Lamont Smith announced he is ready to shake up the status quo in the West Coast Conference.

Out goes BYU as a contender for league honors along with Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga, and in comes San Diego. As if it could hear the echos of San Diego’s strong performance, BYU fell to the lowly Pacific Tigers in Stockton Saturday night by 67-66 and finds itself tied with San Francisco and Pacific for fifth place at 2-2. San Diego slips right under Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga, both 4-0, at 3-1.

It wasn’t so much tenacious defense or brilliant offense that kept San Diego out front for most of a 70-63 loss to Saint Mary’s as a new attitude. These Toreros are confident and aggressive; they play fast and hard, and have two new offensive pieces that have energized last year’s inert squad.

Isaiah Wright was Idaho’s high school Player of the Year in 2014, and headed to Utah of the Pac-12 to continue his hoops career. Although a rotation player for the Utes, he was not featured and decided to switch schools after his freshman year. He sat out last year and has been San Diego’s leading scorer all this year, averaging 15.1 PPG and enjoying a weekend in which he scored 48 points in games against Portland and Saint Mary’s.

The other Isaiah, Pineiro, was a two-sport star — football and basketball — at Placer High School in Auburn, attended a JC as a freshman and transferred to Portland State. He put up solid numbers at PSU, 12 PPG and 5.5 RPG, but he, too, was looking for greener pastures. He joined Wright on the bench last year and dreamed of a better future under Smith, which he has achieved to the tune of 14.6 PPG this year, including 17 against the Gaels.

Smith plays Pineiro and the rest of his front court players on the high post, where they look for back cuts by the San Diego guards, and are free to take on bigger post players one-on-one. It’s a good style of play for the San Diego personnel, and Smith obviously has his team believing in it and their prospects.

Ever since his days as a Saint Mary’s assistant under Coach Randy Bennett, Smith has been a disciple of tough man-to-man defense, and he has also instilled that principle in his team. All San Diego’s attributes, a strong game by Wright and Pineiro, solid defense and aggressive play on both sides of the court, were on display in Moraga Saturday night. And it was almost enough to pull off an upset that would have shaken up the WCC.

Gaels muddle through

It was a strange game for Saint Mary’s, and the victory was a testament to the resilience and unflappability of this senior-led squad. For the third game in a row, the Gaels had trouble hitting open three-point shots, and were an incredible 1-11 from distance against San Diego. The Toreros came into Moraga as the nation’s leading team defending three-pointers, holding opponents to 24%, a figure that will only be improved by the 9% “success” rate achieved by Saint Mary’s Saturday night.

Saint Mary’s made things more difficult for themselves against BYU (9-27 on three-pointers) and Pacific (4-15), but they took it to extraordinary lengths against San Diego. Tanner Krebs, the streaky three-point shooter who has suffered ups and downs in the past, hurt the Gaels the most, as he has become the favorite target of Gael point guard Emmett Naar.

In the early going, when the Gaels were hurting themselves with turnovers and the inability of center Jock Landale to convert the in-close shots he normally makes about 70% of the time — Landale was only 6-13  against San Diego — Naar penetrated the Torero defense and kicked a pass out to Krebs. He misfired, as he did twice again in crucial situations before finally sinking the Gaels only three-pointer of the game in the second half.

The Gaels count on three-pointers to lubricate their sometimes creaky offense and to compensate when Landale is having an off night. When both factors are in play — Landale can’t convert bunnies and the three-point shooters are missing, you get Saturday night’s result.

Questionable coaching

While the players rightly get the brunt of blame and praise, a couple of coaching decisions also contributed to San Diego’s success Saturday night. As they did against Dayton, the coaches who compiled the scouting report on San Diego decided that one player did not warrant guarding on three-point attempts. That player was sophomore Juwan Gray, who had made only six of 27 three-point attempts before the Saint Mary’s game.

Accordingly, Krebs sloughed off on Gray and positioned himself in the lane when the Toreros were operating their offense — no matter where Gray was. Gray answered by sinking four-of-four three-point attempts (not all when he was Krebs’ responsibility), and scoring 16 points overall on 6-6 shooting. Give that scouting report an “F.”

My other quibble is with Bennett’s handling of sophomore guard Jordan Ford, who is going through a rough patch after flirting with stardom with strong performances against Cal — 17 points and shut-down  defense against Cal point guard Darius McNeill — and Dayton — 16 points and similarly stifling defense on Dayton guard Jalen Crutcher.

Ford had gone 0-8 on three-pointers against BYU and Pacific, and Bennett had started leaning more on Cullen Neal to play alongside Naar. Ford opened the game defending San Diego’s Wright, and was playing his trademark in-your-face style. He did let Wright get free for a lay-up, and Bennett utilized his patented quick hook to replace him with Neal. Neal, who would later redeem himself with some clutch drives, steals and free throws (14 points), knocked a screener to the ground in his effort to corral Wright and Bennett pulled him after a few minutes.

As if to signal his disgust with his off-guard choices, Bennett didn’t send Ford back in, but instead let Naar run the whole show with no other guards on the floor. That put Krebs on Wright, and Krebs quickly fouled Wright on a three-point attempt, then fouled him again on a scoring drive. Krebs gave up five quick points while Ford sat on the bench.

Bennett relented and sent Ford back into see him make one of the best plays of the first half. Defending a San Diego guard on a breakout after an errant pass by Naar, Ford wrestled the rebound of the guard’s miss from burly forward Alex Floresca and raced up-court.

Ford found Calvin Hermanson streaking down the left side, hit him with a perfect pass and Hermanson made the lay-up. A few minutes later, Ford blocked a Wright attempted lay-up on the baseline, giving the Gaels another possession. His reward for defending San Diego’s most explosive scorer? Bennett yanked him at the 3:42 mark, forcing Hermanson to guard Wright, which Hermanson did not do successfully.

The same pattern unfolded in the second half, when Bennett yanked Ford for turning his head on a Wright back-cut, giving up a lay-up. The problem was no other Gael was suited to guard Wright, and Hermanson and Krebs alternated in futility while Ford sat on the bench. Ford ended up with just 10 minutes of action, and the Gael defense was distorted by his absence.

Gaels come back

Shaking off sloppy play and their inability to hit from distance, the Gaels did mount a  comeback after trailing 49-42 with about 13 minutes left in the game. As if to punctuate the team’s malaise, the run started with the only successful three-pointer of the night, courtesy of Krebs. Energized by the jolt from distance, Naar scored on a couple of drives to tie things up at 49-all and San Diego called time out to regroup.

Replicating the key role he played in a comeback against BYU last week, Evan Fitzner scored underneath off a missed Landale attempt (there were plenty of those) to give Saint Mary’s a 51-49 lead they would not surrender. Naar followed with an and-one on a baseline drive, then came Neal’s biggest play as a Gael.

Victimizing Wright’s weakness in failing to protect his dribble, Neal swiped the ball and headed up-court. Wright tried to slow Neal down by grabbing his jersey and an alert official noticed, called a flagrant foul and sent Neal to the free-throw line. Neal sank both free throws, Naar scored again and the Gaels were set up for a successful conclusion with a 58-49 lead.

It was not pretty, and the result gives the Gaels plenty to ponder before they go on the road for four straight road games against Santa Clara, Pepperdine, Gonzaga and Pacific. They have got to put their offense back together until it involves more than Naar driving to the basket. Three-point shooting teams necessarily undergo occasional droughts, but the Gaels’ drought is growing serious. Krebs, Hermanson, Ford and Fitzner need to step up their games if the Gaels are to remain atop the WCC.

Fifth-year guard Cullen Neal’s aggressive play is starting to pay dividends for the Gaels. Shown above driving against Pacific, Neal came off the bench to score 14 vital points in the Gaels’ win over San Diego. Photo  courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Takeaways from Provo

by Michael Vernetti

The prevailing point of view concerning Saint Mary’s 74-64 overtime win over BYU Saturday afternoon in Provo was, “Gritty Gael effort overcomes suddenly aroused BYU defense to win big road game.”

I’m okay with the “gritty Gael effort” part, but I’m not sold on the BYU defensive renaissance. There is no question BYU is selling this idea, as could be learned from the ESPNU broadcasting team of former Maryland star Adrian Branch and Some Other Guy. Whenever a team hosts a TV crew there is ample opportunity for peddling snake oil. Branch and his sidekick were obviously sold on the idea that BYU got religion after Saint Mary’s waxed them 81-50 in last year’s WCC Tournament.

Much was made of the 2017 hire of Heath Schroyer, a former assistant to BYU Coach Dave Rose from 1997-2001, who has also served as head coach at Wyoming, Portland State and Tennessee-Martin and as an assistant at North Carolina State last year. Schroyer is known for his intensity and belief in tenacious defense, and his effect on BYU this year has been a frequent topic of media coverage.

Fine. It’s a good idea to bring in new blood, especially with a team like BYU, which has been declining and suffered the premature loss of two of its stars from last year — Eric Mica to pro ball somewhere and Nick Emery to fatherhood (it’s a long story). But, after two reviews of the Saint Mary’s-BYU game I’m still not convinced that BYU is all that tough defensively. Slower and more deliberate on offense, absolutely, but let’s look for evidence of greater defensive prowess.

Gaels can’t shoot

One explanation for BYU’s two runs that put them ahead by eight points in each half was wretched Saint Mary’s shooting. Ah, but were the Gaels just lousy from the floor or did BYU defense them into 3-13 (23%) three-point shooting in the first half and a respectable but not scintillating 4-11 (36%) in the second?

Evidence shows the Gaels defended themselves better than BYU did.

Saint Mary’s started the game with three-point misses by wide-open shooters Jordan Ford, Tanner Krebs and Calvin Hermanson, before Krebs drained one. In all four cases, the shooters worked themselves open with ease and faced no apparent Herculean effort by BYU defenders to stop them.

After the Krebs make, Hermanson and Ford each missed  additional wide-open three-pointers and Emmett Naar missed another. Krebs ended a 12-0 BYU run that brought them from 21-19 down to 29-21 up with his second made three-pointer with about three minutes left in the half. Pressing their advantage as they often do to break an opponent’s momentum, the Gaels worked Ford free for another three-pointer that would have narrowed the BYU lead to 29-27.

Ford again missed a wide-open shot.

BYU did have some good minutes on defense during its run. Payton Dastrup, the 6-10 former Ohio State commit who played sparingly in support Mica last year, stole a lame entry pass by Evan Fitzner, then blocked a shot under the bucket by Jordan Hunter, who had replaced Jock Landale after Landale carried the Gaels’ offense throughout the first half. Showing he could defend against the first team, Daystrup a little later blocked a Landale effort.

But even during that run, the Gaels helped out BYU with careless dribbling and a boneheaded play by Hunter on defense. Both Naar and Ford coughed up the ball after decent pressure from BYU’s TJ Haws. Hunter then left BYU’s star, Yoeli Childs, to pick up a BYU guard who had juked Naar, and the BYU guard tossed a pass to Childs for the easy stuff. Cue Landale to get off the bench.

Krebs’ run-ending three-pointer and another by Cullen Neal as the first-half clock wound down gave the Gaels some momentum going into the locker room down by only 31-29. They failed to capitalize after the break, however, and the reason again was poor three-point shooting.

Krebs persistent, but misfiring

Whether Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett thought it was necessary to keep Krebs’ confidence up after his rocky first half, or Krebs just took things into his own hands, the result was disastrous. After Hermanson missed a three-pointer of his own, Krebs tossed up three in a row — clink, clank, clunk — and the Gaels were on their way to another eight-point deficit, 38-30. At that point, Saint Mary’s was 0-6 from the floor, scoring only on a Landale free throw in the first four minutes of the second half.

Putting aside the Krebs experiment, Naar and Landale took over and began whittling away at the BYU lead. Landale scored inside to cut the lead to 40-34, then BYU lost track of Hermanson on the next possession. Left alone in his favorite short corner, Hermanson sank a corner trey at the 13:37 mark to bring the Gaels within three points, 40-37.

Naar kept the momentum going by sinking a crucial three-pointer to bring the Gaels within one point, 50-49, at the 7:23 mark. Seemingly on the brink of a run that would put them in control, the Gaels still couldn’t shoot straight, as Krebs incredibly missed his fourth in a row and Ford matched him in futility. Only a key contribution from erstwhile starter Evan Fitzner kept the Gaels on track as the game wound to a close — Fitz tossed in a three-pointer with a defender actually guarding him to cut a six-point deficit to three, 55-52.

As if to show he can still be relevant despite giving up his starting job to Krebs, Fitzner nailed another gut-check jumper a little later to give Saint Mary’s the lead at 56-55. Fitz wasn’t the only Gael to make the trip from dog house to penthouse, as none other than the embattled Krebs sank a three-pointer at the 1:39 mark to give the Gaels a 60-58 lead. One can only speculate about the gumption, confidence or just plain stubbornness that led Krebs to take that shot, but the Gaels were glad he did.

Rolling in OT

The Gaels finally assumed control of the game in overtime after Hermanson missed a three-point attempt at the end of regulation with the score tied 60-60. With Landale rolling relentlessly toward 31 points (to go with 13 rebounds) and Naar and Hermanson chipping in three-pointers, the Gaels went on an 8-0 run of their own and coasted to a 10-point win. Piece of cake.

The BYU game reminded me of the lackluster Sacramento State win (70-54) on Dec. 4 in that Landale had to carry almost all the Gael scoring load — 37 points against Sac State, 31 against BYU. No one was talking about Sac State’s great defense in that one, and I don’t think BYU has much to hang its hat on after Saturday’s loss to the Gaels. Saint Mary’s is vulnerable to scoring droughts, and is just as susceptible to them at home as on the road. Find an answer to that one and Bennett will rest easier this season.

Evan Fitzner, shown above from earlier in the season when he was a starter, came up big in reserve against BYU with seven clutch points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.