Deja vu all over again

by Michael Vernetti

Suddenly the Gaels’ future is not so bright.

In a flashback to the bad old days of last season when they stumbled to a 3-4 record before finding themselves and crafting a memorable season, the Gaels seemed lost in their home opener Monday night, falling to unheralded Winthrop, 61-59.

Yes, Winthrop, the not-so-mighty Eagles of the Big South Conference, who rode the bus to Moraga from Fresno on Monday after narrowly losing to Fresno State on Sunday by a score of 77-74. How’s that for preparation to play the (briefly) 18th-ranked Saint Mary’s Gaels, conqueror of Wisconsin just six days earlier.

Savor that no. 18 ranking Gael fans, because it and those ESPN scrolls featuring Top 20 teams will all be gone when the next rankings come out. Pundits will be only too glad to trot out the overrated label for this Saint Mary’s team that seemed poised to capitalize on end-of-season momentum, an NCAA Tournament berth and rumblings that they would challenge Gonzaga for WCC supremacy in 2019-20.

Scrap all that and go back to the drawing board, Gaels. Start with figuring out who your point guard is, and what your offensive philosophy is. It was somewhat puzzling to see Jordan Ford playing the point against Wisconsin after he was so successful at the two-guard last season, but Tommy Kuhse was nursing an injury then and transfer point guard Logan Johnson was new to the Gael lineup.

Ford was back at the point against Winthrop, but Gael Coach Randy Bennett seemed eager to recapture the rhythm of last season when he subbed in Kuhse for Johnson with just four minutes gone against Winthrop. Kuhse was clearly over whatever physical ailment sidetracked him in the pre-season, but the chemistry between him and Ford proved not so easy to recover.

Kuhse recorded not a single point or assist in 24 minutes of play, and Ford seemed to be running the point even when Kuhse was on the floor. Has Bennett become so reliant on Ford to lead his offense that he has abandoned the idea of a balanced attack? The Gaels’ seven assists to 15 turnovers against Winthrop indicates there are still a lot of kinks to work out, as did their 5-17 three-point shooting performance — less than 30 per cent.

About the post position

And don’t even ask what has happened to the Gaels’ inside-out game, featuring Matthias Tass in the post. Tass took one shot against the Eagles in 26 minutes and missed it to match Kuhse’s goose-egg on the night. Tass’s backup, the undersized Dan Fotu, scored a single basket to account for all the Gaels’ production from the five-spot. Transfer Aaron Menzies made a brief appearance in the first half and quickly drew a traveling call when he touched the ball for the first time.

Tass was a potent force in the post last season, sharing time with Jordan Hunter to give the Gaels a solid one-two punch. But he was MIA against Winthrop, and the Gaels rarely even tossed the ball in his direction. Is there a new plan here, or is it like the point guard situation — up in the air?

The Gaels’ incompetence wasn’t the whole story Monday night, as Winthrop was everything the home team wasn’t — spirited, gutty, quicker to the ball, etc. The Eagles have two go-to players, both new to their roster this season, and, based on their California road-trip, seem capable of making some waves in their conference.

The chief Gael-slayer was Chandler Vaudrin, a 6’7″ guard who seemed to have every Saint Mary’s defensive move figured out. He drew Gael senior wing man Tanner Krebs on defense, but Krebs — who is often successful in stifling opponent threats — couldn’t figure out Vaudrin’s herky-jerky moves. Vaudrin led Winthrop with 19 points on 8-15 shooting, and came up with key buckets whenever the Gaels crept closer on the scoreboard.

Not bad for a transfer from Walsh University in North Canton, OH, a D-II school.

D.J. Burns was the other chief thorn in the Gaels’ side, as he threw around his 6’9″, 260-pound bulk effectively in the post: 12 points on 6-10 shooting. Burns was runner-up to Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett in South Carolina prep rankings in his senior year, and accepted a scholarship offer to Tennessee. Perhaps he missed the home cooking in Rock Hill, SC — home to him and Winthrop — so he transferred to Winthrop after redshirting his freshman year.

Combined with senior stalwart Josh Ferguson, who totaled 14 points and seven rebounds against the Gaels, Winthrop fields a talented lineup. Their other players didn’t put up big numbers, but made opportunistic shots when needed. Guard Micheal Anumba, for instance, made only one of four field goal attempts, but it was a big one.

After the Gaels made a late-game run to pull within two points, 56-54 with a little more than a minute left, the Gaels forgot about Anumba in the corner. Of course he sank the three-pointer without a Gael seemingly in the same area code, and that put an end to the Gaels’ chances for a comeback.

Saint Mary’s did get possession with a few ticks left on the clock, trailing by the final score of 61-59, and Ford did maneuver for a lay-up at the buzzer. On another night, perhaps Ford’s attempt would have been good and he might have been fouled with a chance to pull out the game at the free throw line. Not on this night, unfortunately.

The Gaels don’t have long to lick their chops and straighten out all the things that went wrong against Winthrop, as Dan Monson’s opportunistic Long Beach State squad rolls into Moraga on Thursday night. The Beach has defeated the WCC’s San Diego Toreros 74-62 and lost a close game to UCLA 69-65. They get an additional tune-up tonight against Stanford, and Monson will have a hard time keeping his players from reading everything they can about how mighty Winthrop took down the Gaels.

Long Beach will undoubtedly be ready on Thursday night, but will Saint Mary’s?

Malik Fitts, shown above with longer hair driving against Gonzaga last season, recorded a double-double against Winthrop with 18 points and 13 rebounds, but it was not enough to lead the Gaels to victory. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

One for the road

by Michael Vernetti

Gael fans had much to enjoy in Saint Mary’s 65-63 overtime win over Wisconsin Monday night in Sioux Falls, SD: Jordan Ford’s mesmerizing 26 points on a variety of shots that threatened to cause ESPNU announcer Robbie Hummel to stroke out; Malik Fitts’ second-half explosion for 16 points; and the heady debuts of Aussie freshmen Alex Ducas and Kyle Bowen.

Those were nice.

But the thing that propelled this victory after a horrendous, everything-went-bad-that-could-go-bad start was the Gaels’ tenacious, clinging defense. No Badger got by his primary defender, no shot went unchallenged, no screen thwarted a Gael defender. Continuing a string of games from the end of last season where defense became the Saint Mary’s calling card, Randy Bennett’s Gaels seem determined to prove that holding Gonzaga to 47 points in the WCC Championship game was no fluke.

Consider Tanner Krebs, who drew perhaps the most difficult challenge against Wisconsin: guarding Kobe King, the 6’4″ redshirt sophomore who became a Wisconsin legend after a senior season at La Crosse Central in which he averaged 28 points and nine rebounds per game and was voted Wisconsin Player of the Year.

After an injury in his freshman year, King regained his form last year and is ready to explode this season. Krebs simply gave him no opportunity to do so, cutting off his drives  and smothering every shot attempt. King ended up with six points in 30 minutes on the floor, making just one of two FG attempts and four free throws.

Equally effective on a budding Wisconsin star was Fitts, who drew 6’8″ redshirt junior forward Aleem Ford, whom the Badgers look to be one of their three-point shooting leaders. Ford went 1-6 on three-point attempts against Fitts, and ended up with seven points in 34 minutes.

The lone exception

The only Badger the Gaels couldn’t contain was junior center Nate Reuvers, a 6’11” shot- blocker (he had four Monday night) who pestered the Gaels with 22 points on 8-18 shooting. Gael starting center Matthias Tass was actually effective against Reuvers, but Tass is foul prone and picked up two quick infractions that revealed a giant weakness for Saint Mary’s — backup center.

The Gaels are without the services of either 7’1″ Jock Perry (knee injury) or 7’3″ Aaron Menzies (back woes), so had to rely on 6’7″ sophomore Dan Fotu to keep Reuvers in check. Alas, Fotu is also foul-prone, and after doing everything he could against Reuvers Fotu joined Tass on the bench with five fouls.

Bennett tantalized Gael fans by sending in Menzies for brief spells in each half, but other than giving Menzies practice in checking in at the scorer’s table, the move seemed to have no purpose. He barely touched the ball or did anything else that revealed whether he is or isn’t fit to play.

At game’s end, Saint Mary’s called on the precocious Bowen, a 6’8″ freshman who was playing in high school a few months ago, to man the post position. Bowen acquitted himself well, grabbing a crucial offensive rebound in overtime and sinking one of two free throws that moved the Gael lead to two points — the final margin — and forced Wisconsin to attempt a three-pointer if they wanted to avoid a second overtime.

Bowen also did what he could to keep that from happening by picking up the Wisconsin dribbler at half-court in the waning seconds, preventing a good look that could have caused a nightmare finish. Good on ya’, mate.

Other injury issues

Bowen’s emergency duty wasn’t the only indicator of Gael injury problems. Cincinnati transfer Logan Johnson joined Ford in the starting back court, and was spelled by Kristers Zoriks, returning to duty after successive ACL surgeries. Johnson is a solid addition to the Gael lineup and he will eventually add some offense to his impressive defensive chops (he went 1-7 from the floor in his debut).

But as Zoriks revealed considerable rust after being away from D-1 competition for two years, one longed for the comforting presence of Tommy Kuhse in the back court. Kuhse, the walk-on who steadied the Gael offense after moving to the point last season, is nursing an undisclosed injury and didn’t get off the bench.

Perhaps for that reason, Ford moved from the off-guard position he played superbly last year with Kuhse at the point and ran the point himself. Ford carried responsibility for running the Gael offense, leading all scorers and rallying his teammates after their stumbling start — and he did it for all 45 minutes of regulation and overtime.

Coach Bennett, can you spell “relief,” or, more importantly, can you provide some for Ford.

About that start

No one watching the first 12 minutes of the Wisconsin game would have predicted Saint Mary’s would escape Sioux Falls with a stirring win. The Gaels were flummoxed by Wisconsin’s aggressive defense, and found themselves trailing 17-9 at the 7:28 minute mark. That’s right, they had scored nine points after more than 12 minutes of turnover-riddled offensive futility.

Undaunted, Ford hit a three-pointer to pull the Gaels within 17-12. The Badgers’ King sank his lone basket of the game to push the margin back to 19-12, then the Gaels made an unexpected run. Krebs started things off with a nice jumper on the move in the paint, then sank a corner three-pointer to bring the Gaels within two points at 19-17.

Ducas came in at that point to spell Krebs, and calmly sank a corner three-pointer of his own to give the Gaels their first lead of the evening at 20-19. The composure of Ducas and Bowen in their first college game was extraordinary, and would lead one to think that they had been playing top-flight international competition for much of their teen years. Oh, that’s right, they have.

Ford then went into another gear, hitting a three-pointer, a floater off the glass and a nifty jumper in the paint to put the Gaels up 27-20 at the 1:21 mark. He capped off a 15-point first half with another three-pointer, and the Gaels went into the locker room with an unlikely 30-24 lead.

It would be nice to say the Gaels capitalized on their first-half comeback to put up a stirring second half that allowed them to breeze to victory. That wasn’t to be, owing to the fact that Wisconsin is a solid team playing in a tough conference and has NCAA aspirations of its own for 2019-20.

Saint Mary’s eventually gave up that six-point lead and faced a testing overtime period to salvage its daring opening-season foray to the Midwest. But they prevailed in overtime, and will now go back to the business of shoring up their lineup with hoped-for returns of Kuhse and Perry, and more minutes for Menzies.

It’s going to be a long, testing season, with tough non-conference opponents such as Utah State, Dayton and Arizona State looming before the WCC grind begins. The Galloping Gaels need all their horses.

Jordan Ford, shown above in action from last season, was brilliant against Wisconsin, going 4-8 on three-point attempts and putting the Gaels on his back after an atrocious start. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

The state of the Gaels…

by Michael Vernetti

…is good.

Two weeks ago the Saint Mary’s first team (Blue) trounced the second team (White) by a score of 68-50 in a thirty-minute intra-squad scrimmage consisting of two 15-minute halves. One would expect the Gael starters — Jordan Ford, Malik Fitts, Tanner Krebs, Matthias Tass and Kristers Zoriks — to prevail over the second team, even though that squad boasted a backcourt stronger than any the Gaels may see this year: Cincinnati transfer Logan Johnson at one guard spot and a guy name McConnell at the other.

Yes, that McConnell, former West Coast Conference Player of the Year Mickey McConnell, new to the Gael coaching staff after a successful eight-year career in various European cities. McConnell is beyond accomplished, leading the second-stringers more effectively than any such group could imagine in its wildest dreams.

McConnell found Gaels’ backup center Jock Perry so often in scoring situations under the basket that Perry must have thought he had died and gone to hoops heaven. Unfortunately for Gael fans who wonder if Perry will become a reliable substitute for Tass in the post this season, Perry moved too slowly and too indecisively to take advantage of McConnell’s dimes. He was swarmed every time the ball came to him, and had several balls taken from his hands or swatted away. The greatest point guard can only do so much, but McConnell’s polish and experience will be a boon to Gael guards of the future.

As for Johnson, the ex-Peninsula (St. Francis of Mountain View) high school star who wandered off to Cincinnati despite Coach Randy Bennett’s fervent efforts to recruit him, he will be a revelation to Gael fans this season (he was recently cleared by the NCAA to compete immediately instead of sitting out a year after transferring.)

Lightning quick, a ferocious defender and a surprisingly adept rebounder, he will give the Gaels an athleticism in their back court that should catch many opponents by surprise. His left-handed three-point shot is not a thing of beauty, but he made enough of them in the scrimmage to indicate he can keep defenders off-balance and set up his drives to the basket.

Zoriks’s return

That wasn’t a misprint about Zoriks starting for the Blue squad in place of redshirt junior Tommy Kuhse — but it wasn’t indicative of an un-Gael-like lineup realignment. Kuhse, who solidified the Gael back court last season and turned into a dynamic presence in the point down the stretch, was suffering from an undisclosed — but minor — injury, and was kept out of the scrimmage along with 7’3″ Aaron Menzies and sophomore Kiwi guard Quinn Clinton.

Whatever it means for the Gaels’ starting lineup on opening night against Wisconsin in Sioux Falls, SD on Nov. 5, Zoriks’s performance in the scrimmage was satisfying. He showed no effects from two consecutive ACL repairs in his previous two years in Moraga, and, along with Johnson, should add immeasurably to the Gaels’ depth. Will he or Johnson replace Kuhse in the starting lineup? Only Bennett knows and only time will tell.

Ford and Fitts 

Leading the Blue team in scoring, unsurprisingly, were Fitts with 21 points and Ford with 17. Both scored effortlessly, and racked up their totals in about 20 minutes of playing time. Although the entire Gael roster is strong and prepared for an epic 2019-20 season, Ford and Fitts seem to be operating at an elevated level of excellence. Ford never stops developing sneaky moves to compensate for his slight frame, and may have the best floater in D-1 college hoops to complement his excellent three-point shooting — 42% over three seasons.

Fitts is sleeker and seems more motivated than last year, when he burst into the national consciousness with a 15.2 PPG average and hauled down 7.6 RPG. Bennett has stated that Fitts shed 15 pounds over the off-season, and he seems to have gained quickness and explosiveness in the bargain. Although brilliant at times, Fitts was inconsistent in his first year in Moraga, and he seems committed to avoiding letdowns that marked last season.

Those two are a constant in the Gaels’ equation, and Gael fans usually look to senior wing Krebs or sophomore center Tass as likely third scoring options. Those calculations may need to be revised, as Johnson’s numbers in the scrimmage indicated — 18 points and seven rebounds. Depending on the development of Johnson and Zoriks, Saint Mary’s may have the most complete squad since the 2009-10 group led by McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova in the back court and Omar Samhan, Ben Allen and Clint Steindl in the front court. That was the Sweet Sixteen team that defeated Richmond and Villanova in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Which brings us to…

Last night’s Tip-Off Dinner was not only the most heavily-attended in the event’s history, with more than 350 people crowding the McKeon Pavilion floor, it also may have set an unofficial record for high expectations. No one associated with the Gaels was making bold predictions or showing signs of over-confidence, but there was something in the air that reeked of expectation.

That tone was set by an unexpected source, ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi, the evening’s guest speaker.

Gael fans may associate Lunardi with anguish, as he annually trots out his projected NCAA brackets which too often consign the Gaels to “bubble” territory or to seemingly unfair low seedings. But that is not because Lunardi disrespects the Gaels, as he emphasized over and over last night, but because his predicted brackets reflect which way he thinks the dreaded NCAA Selection Committee is leaning.

As for Lunardi’s personal opinion, he summed it up in one sentence which brought cheers from the crowd: “Saint Mary’s is the best mid-major program in the country. The word ‘bubble’ is not coming out of my mouth.”

Turns out Lunardi is, at heart, a soulmate of the Gaels, as he has been part of the Saint Joseph’s (PA) basketball program since 1987, and still serves in a senior communications function there, while providing color analysis for the Hawk broadcasts. He was on board for the Hawks’ historic undefeated season of 2003-04, which gained them a number one national ranking and a number one seed in the NCAA tourney.

His perspective is significant, therefore, when he points out that the Gaels’ repeated success under Bennett in garnering NCAA appearances “has happened nowhere else.” He ran down the math of the NCAA selection process as befits someone who invented the concept of Bracketology: 33 automatic bids to the field of 69 for teams that win conference championships, leaving 36 at-large bid recipients. Of those, Lunardi said, 32 or 34 go to six teams.

“You’ve gotten in often, and that doesn’t happen anyplace else,” he summarized.

Lunardi’s current pre-season bracket forecast slots the Gaels as a fifth seed playing against Western Kentucky in St. Louis. However, he held out an alluring possibility for Gael fans who are used to traveling to such exotic locales as Dayton, OH, Omaha, NE or Providence, RI to catch opening-round games.

Acknowledging a possibility raised by peerless Tip Off Dinner emcee Matt Maiocco, the NBC Sports Bay Area reporter who is an avid Gael fan, Lunardi blessed the Gaels’ chances of playing a 2020 first-round game in Sacramento.

“If Saint Mary’s enters the tournament as a fifth seed or better, it’s almost certain to get a game in Sacramento,” he predicted. Slip to a sixth or seventh seed, however, and its fate is playing somewhere east of the Mississippi.

Such was the tone of the evening, and such are the Gaels’ prospects as the season approaches.

Jordan Ford, shown above in a game from last season, remains the team leader heading into 2019-20. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.


A bracket too far

by Michael Vernetti

And so, after the exhilaration of the Gonzaga upset, after the excitement of being back in the NCAA Tournament following last year’s brutal snub, the Gaels suffered another three-to-five-point loss, 61-57, to a good-but-not-great Villanova team.

Similar to the 61-57 loss to Mississippi State, the 80-75 loss to UC Irvine, the 78-74 loss to LSU and the 71-68 loss to Western Kentucky. Close but no cigar, see you next year.

What is it about these 2018-19 Gaels that brought them so close to getting over the hump of good into elite territory? The early-season losses such as those listed above can certainly be chalked up to coping with the transition of five key players (Landale, Naar, Hermanson, Fitzner and Neal) and the injuries suffered by Kristers Zoriks, Kyle Clark and Aaron Menzies in pre-season.

But after suffering the humiliation of a 48-point loss to Gonzaga in February, this team had turned things around. Winning seven of its last eight games, including a redemption victory over Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament Championship, it was poised to get past the first weekend of March Madness and distinguish itself. Through the first half of Thursday’s Villanova game, that promise was still alive.

First half fine

Ahead 30-28, making more three-pointers than the sharp-shooting Wildcats (5-4), out-rebounding them 17-13 and committing only two turnovers, the Gaels showed that the offensive execution and defensive intensity they demonstrated against Gonzaga was not a mirage. Then came the second half.

Surely the Gaels would remember how the game had begun, with three-pointers from unlikely sources Jermaine Samuels and Saddiq Bey, followed by a too-easy jumper from veteran guard Phil Booth, giving the Wildcats a quick 8-2 lead. Surely they would be on guard to prevent that from happening again. Except they weren’t.

On ‘Nova’s first possession, Booth went to his right, a change in the left-hander’s first-half pattern, and easily hit a jumper over Jordan Hunter, who picked him up on a switch. Booth then drove Tanner Krebs, scoring on a lay-up and a free throw. After Jordan Ford pumped some life into the Gaels with a step-back three -pointer, Malik Fitts and Hunter got their signals crossed on a screen to free Villanova’s other veteran scorer, Eric Paschall.

Neither pressed Paschall tightly, and he responded by sinking a three-pointer to push the Wildcats ahead by 35-33. Completing a 10-3 run, Bey repeated his first-half surprise with a three-pointer following a block against a driving Ford and an ensuing scramble that found the Gaels disorganized on defense.

Losing composure for the first time, Fitts coughed up a pass into the paint, where he was poised to go to the rim against Paschall. Another Villanova run-out off that turnover ended with a driving dunk by Samuels that pushed the margin to 40-33 and ended the run at 12-3. Time out Gaels, take your breath, re-group.

Too much to overcome

But the damage was done. The Gaels would outscore ‘Nova 24-21 from that point on, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a several-minute lapse of concentration that put them into a hole too deep to escape. This veteran ‘Nova team, coached by the veteran Jay Wright, has a pedigree of three straight NCAA Championship games — and it has won two of them.

Never did ‘Nova panic, pushing its lead to eight points twice (50-42 at the 7:32 mark and 59-51 in the final minute), and withstanding heroics from Kuhse, who hit a clutch three-pointer to cut the lead to 50-47, and two big plays in the paint by Fitts, the second bringing Saint Mary’s within four points at 61-57 with 23 seconds left. It wasn’t enough.

In a game where every possession counted, ‘Nova would score 10 points off turnovers. The one on the entry pass to Fitts, a Kuhse travel in the paint and a lazy pass from Ford to Hunter that Booth intercepted were the killers. Although the Gaels boasted a 22-1 record when leading at halftime before Thursday’s game, a fall-off from 30 points in the first half to 27 in the second, coupled with an improvement from 28 points to 33 by Villanova, spelled the difference.

Much to cheer

As disappointed as the Gaels were, there was much to applaud about their effort. Matthias Tass hit a key three-pointer in the first half, and scored on two nifty inside moves — plus a pair of free throws — to score nine points. On two occasions, just the fear of him holding the ball confidently in the paint caused Villanova to bend its defense enough to allow open three-pointers by Ford and Kuhse — both of which were successful.

Hunter, who played ahead of Tass much of this season, is the only Gael departing from this squad, leaving Tass as the heir apparent in the post or as a stretch four. Gael Coach Randy Bennett will have to figure out whether rising 7’1″ junior Jock Perry or 7’3″ red-shirt senior Menzies — assuming he wants to come back without a scholarship — will take Hunter’s place, but there is plenty of time to worry about that.

The 2019-20 Gaels will not be as green as the current squad, and might be boosted by the return from knee injury of Zoriks. Before going down in an October scrimmage against Stanford, Zoriks was penciled in at point guard alongside Ford. That was his second ACL tear in the same knee, so Zoriks cannot be considered a sure thing, but Kuhse performed admirably in his stead and will be back to offer depth to the Gaels’ lineup.

Ford and Fitts, along with rising senior Krebs, will return as the primary offensive options, and the Gaels will hope for some contribution from rising sophomore guards Alex Mudronja and Quinn Clinton, who barely made it off the bench this season. Will it be enough to get over that three-to-five-point divide that cost the Gaels their usual success this season? Only time will tell.

Malik Fitts, who scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds in the season-ending loss to Villanova, will be back to lead the Gaels again in the fall. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.


by Michael Vernetti

The 2018-19 season was a rocky one for Randy Bennett’s young Gaels: a four-game losing streak early on, including losses at home to Harvard and UC Irvine; a two game road nosedive against BYU and Pepperdine in late January; and, finally, the Feb. 9 meltdown in Spokane where Gonzaga hung a 94-46 embarrassment on them.

Those low points didn’t portend an auspicious outcome Tuesday night in the Gaels’ third match-up with Gonzaga at the WCC Championship game in Las Vegas. Nevertheless, Saint Mary’s fully engaged the reved-up defense it had used to hold three opponents under 50 points between Feb. 21-28, and throttled he Zags by the improbable score of 60-47.

Forty-seven points is approximately the amount Gonzaga’s second team scores by halftime in a routine scrimmage, not the total expected from the nation’s number one ranked team that was averaging 90 PPG before the Saint Mary’s contest and rocking along with a nation’s-best field goal percentage north of 53%.

But 47 was all the Gaels allowed, as they entered the game determined to control the pace, limit the blitzkrieg-like Zag runs and prevent second-chance points by controlling the boards. Check, check and check.

Kuhse to the rescue

Tommy Kuhse, the Gaels’ stand-in point guard, was unflappable in directing the Gaels’ offense, committing only two turnovers in 40 minutes of action, and dishing out three of the Gaels’ total of four assists. After his first TO midway through the second half with the Gaels leading by only point, 40-39, Bennett corralled him for some stern words, then patted him on the butt as if to say, “You’re doing okay overall, kid.”

Tellingly, Gonzaga failed to convert after Kuhse’s misplay, as the Zags’ Zach Norvell, working on a 1-11 night, missed a runner in the paint. Jordan Ford answered with a runner of his own at the other end and the Gaels inched up to a 42-39 lead. A few minutes later Kuhse coughed up another turnover trying to force a backdoor pass by Zag guard Geno Crandall, but, again, Gonzaga failed to convert the miscue into points.

All this drama was leading to the biggest moment of the night. At the 8:19 mark, with Gonzaga again trailing by only one point following a runner by Corey Kispert, the Gaels were forced to in-bound the ball with only five seconds left on the shot clock. Tanner Krebs, who scored almost half the Gaels’ first-half points with 13, missed a three-point attempt, but the Gaels’ Jordan Hunter had good position on Gonzaga’s 6’10′” Killian Tillie.

This was no isolated incident for Hunter, who was brilliant on the boards throughout the night, grabbing 15 rebounds and scoring 12 points against the Zags’ fearsome front court threesome of Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke and Tillie. Hunter soared to grab the rebound after Krebs’ misfire, and Tillie used his body to move Hunter away from the basket.

Somehow, Hunter got enough of his right hand on the ball to force it off the backboard and into the net for the biggest bucket of the game, and, perhaps, the Gaels’ season. Tillie was called for a foul on the play, and Hunter retained his concentration to sink the free-throw and move his team ahead by four points, 45-41.

Again misplacing the poise polished by a 30-2 season, Gonzaga committed a crucial turnover, as Hachimura palmed the ball on a dribble-drive into the paint. With Crandall hounding Ford relentlessly on the ensuing possession, the Zags came close to getting a turnover back, but Crandall made a crucial miscalculation after knocking the ball out of Ford’s hands.

Crandall dived for the momentarily loose ball, but Ford beat him to it. With his defender sprawled on the floor, Ford calmly regained control and tossed in a 25-foot three-pointer just before the buzzer, moving the Gaels ahead by an insurmountable 48-41.

“Upset, baby!” was the response by excitable ESPN analyst/icon Dick Vitale, and he voiced some other dagger words following two consecutive, unforced turnovers by the Zags.

“They’re losing their poise,” he told the nationwide ESPN audience, and truer words were never spoken. The Zags looked beaten at that point, and it was left to Saint Mary’s non-scholarship walk-on, Kuhse, to deliver the coup de grace with two moves against veteran Zag guard Josh Perkins.

Boxed in on the right elbow, Kuhse faked Perkins off his feet, then twisted around Perkins’ airborne body to bank in an eight-footer for a nine-point Gael lead, 54-45, at the 3:38 mark. Vitale was reaching for the smelling salts after that one, but Kuhse wasn’t finished. A few possessions later, he took Perkins to the rack from the left side of the paint and scored on a reverse lay-up to make the score 56-47.

The Zags were reduced to fouling Ford to get the ball back, but Ford sank four straight free throws to bring the memorable night to a close.

The future awaits

As rewarding as it was on its merits, the Gaels’ win brought with it an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, with the Zags put in the usual Saint Mary’s role of awaiting an at-large invitation to claim a possible number one seed in the West bracket. This coming Sunday won’t hold the anxiety that previous selection days have for the Gaels, but it is doubtful they will be seeded anywhere near the Zags’ lofty perch.

ESPN bracket “expert” Joe Lunardi posited an immediate post-game match-up between Saint Mary’s as a twelve seed against Virginia Tech, currently sitting at 24-7 in the middle of the ACC Tournament, as a five seed. Virginia Tech boasts victories over Duke (without Zion Williamson), Syracuse, Washington and Purdue, so taking them on — even in San Jose as Lunardi projected — would be no walk in the park.

Lunardi’s calls beyond the top seeds have no more value than those of a guy on a bar stool next to you at this point, but his thinking is illustrative of the mindset of the selection gurus — Saint Mary’s isn’t getting a pass into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

I don’t think this prospect will faze Bennett’s lads a bit. They’ve seen it all this season, and seem to have found their identity as ferocious defenders. Hunter’s maturity, the evolving role of Matthias Tass in the front court and Ford’s continuing offensive legerdemain are strengths. Malik Fitts, who managed just 12 minutes against Gonzaga but scored a crucial eight second-half points, and Krebs, who reversed Fitts’ pattern with a 13-point first half and a goose-egg in the second, have to be listed as question marks because their play is up and down.

But these Gaels know they won’t face anyone better than Gonzaga — just as Gonzaga probably thinks about future opponents not named Saint Mary’s — so I don’t think a long plane trip to someplace they don’t want to visit will mean much. In a pinch, the Gaels can always turn to Kuhse to pull one out of his bag of tricks.

Jordan Hunter, named the WCC Tournament’s Most Valuable Player after his stellar performance against Gonzaga, exults at game’s end. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.


ET comes home

by Michael Vernetti

At halftime of Saint Mary’s 78-66 win over Pacific Thursday night in Moraga, Malik Fitts had two points and three fouls, Pacific had shot 67% from the floor and the Gaels needed a three-point heave at the buzzer by Jordan Ford to go ahead by 42-39.

Had ’em just where you wanted ’em, eh Coach Bennett? Probably not.

Whether basking in the memory of last Saturday’s 86-80 win over San Francisco or looking ahead to the fearsome task of facing Gonzaga in Spokane on Saturday, the Gaels were not hitting on all cylinders against the Tigers. Take Fitts.

The Gaels’ potential next all-America candidate — unless Ford beats him to it — had dominated San Francisco with 30 points and eight rebounds. He completely confounded the Dons’ best defender, Nate Renfro, and looked every inch the team leader that Coach Randy Bennett wants him to be.

Fitts was matched up against the Tigers’ Jeremiah Bailey, a 6’6″ sophomore transfer from Pima College in Tucson, who was averaging fewer than five PPG and had not burned up the nets with his three-point shooting. Fitts is neither a very good nor very poor defender, but maybe he didn’t take Bailey too seriously.

Bailey proceeded to go 5-6 from the floor in the first half, including 3-3 from three-point range, although one of those was recorded against Dan Fotu, whom Bennett inserted to keep Fitts from fouling out. Bailey ended the half with 14 points, and Fitts ended it on the bench, perhaps wondering why the Tigers had not read his press clippings from the San Francisco game.

Stoudamire’s troops

Bailey is emblematic of the scrappy, underrated squad that third-year Coach Damon Stoudamire has assembled in Stockton. Stoudamire, a former NBA and Arizona standout who was known as “Mighty Mouse” in his playing days — he is listed in Wikipedia, generously, as 5’10” — took over a job  that would not have appealed to the faint of heart.

Pacific had self-reported to the NCAA numerous academic misconduct and recruiting violations and fired its head coach and key assistants before Stoudamire arrived in March of 2016, so he knew bad news was coming. That bad news, delivered in September, 2017, included a loss of six scholarships over three years and serious cuts to the number of visits allowed potential recruits, how much off-campus recruiting Pacific could do, even cut-backs to telephone and electronic messages sent to recruits.

Stoudamire has stood tall — figuratively — during the stormy days that followed the NCAA restrictions, and led Pacific to its best conference record, 9-9, good for fourth place, in the West Coast Conference last year. His tenure has been marked by five bare-knuckle encounters with the Gaels, all of which Saint Mary’s has won, with a sixth coming up Feb. 21 in Stockton. It is doubtful the Gaels will dismiss the Tigers in that contest, but it is equally doubtful they will enjoy the experience.

Welcome back Elijah Thomas

The Gaels recovered nicely from the rocky first half, holding Pacific to 27 second-half points on 36% shooting, and there were several positive notes. Fitts went to work underneath, scoring repeatedly against the Tigers’ undermanned front court, and Jordan Hunter, who pulled down 14 rebounds, aided that effort by keeping several possessions alive with either rebounds or tap-outs to teammates.

Ford, who had scorched Pacific for 18 first-half points, added another 10 and appeared to have regained confidence in his three-point shot, sinking 4-6. Ford needs to hit consistently from the outside to open lanes for his runners and acrobatic lay-ups.

For the second game in a row, Tanner Krebs laid aside his considerable offensive talents to home in on a rival scorer, in this case the Tigers’ slippery Jahlil Tripp. Tripp ended with 23 points on 10-18 shooting, so it would be inaccurate to say Krebs shut him down, but Krebs made him work for his points, just as he did against Charles Mineland in the San Francisco game.

Krebs took only three shots against Pacific, sinking a crucial three-pointer from the short corner in the second half, just as he took only five against San Francisco. Watching Krebs in warm-ups and during the game, he seems to be more comfortable with his long-range jumper than any time in the season. The one he made against Pacific was an effortless flick, and his 4-4 free-throw shooting was of the same order: “Let me get these over with, ref, I’ve got some defending to do.”

Of all the feel-good aspects of the Pacific game, however, the reappearance of Elijah Thomas as a force on offense and defense was perhaps the most important for the Gaels’ chances going forward. Thomas had deteriorated from a slumping sophomore season, in which his once-reliable three-point shot seemed to have abandoned him, to a DNP against San Francisco. I sensed a resurgence was coming in warm-ups for the San Francisco game, as Thomas bounced on the court with a new, trim haircut and a familiar jauntiness.

Still with the shorter hair, he got off the bench against Pacific and gave Saint Mary’s an immediate boost. He spelled Krebs in guarding Tripp, and backed down his defender with a slick turn-around jumper in the paint. More importantly, he finally sank a three-pointer — one of three he attempted — to end what seemed like an interminable drought. Fouled on one of those attempts, he shored up a shaky Gael night at the free throw line — Ford missed three! — by sinking all three of his attempts.

Eight points, two rebounds and stout defense made Thomas’ 13 minutes on the floor memorable.

Elijah Thomas, shown above in an intra-squad game against his own teammates, had an impact on the Pacific win with eight points in 13 minutes of playing time. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Giving ’em Fitts

by Michael Vernetti

Okay, so it took a superlative effort by Malik Fitts — 30 points, eight rebounds — and a hold-your-breath final two minutes for Saint Mary’s to scrape out an 86-80 win over San Francisco Saturday afternoon in Moraga.

Who’s complaining?

Certainly not Gael Coach Randy Bennett, who might have been wondering who stole his team after desultory road losses at BYU (71-66) and Pepperdine (84-77) in the week before San Francisco crossed the Bay Bridge. One thing Bennett — and Gael fans — have learned about this year’s young, inexperienced squad is, “Don’t take anything for granted.”

Before the two road losses, the Gaels had clawed their way to second place in the West Coast Conference at 4-1, and had soundly thrashed one of the rising powers in the conference, San Diego, by 76-59. Corner turned, demons exorcised, right?

While one could write off the BYU loss as an inexplicable act of revenge by the basketball gods, who conspired to limit this excellent three-point-shooting team to 5-20 overall from distance after an 0-9 first half, it is hard to rationalize what happened against the resurgent Pepperdine Waves.

The Gaels’ on again-off again defense simply dissolved in Malibu, allowing the Waves’ elusive and cocky guard, Colbey Ross, to explode for 29 points. Ross went 15-16 from the free throw line, emphasizing the Gaels’ inability to defend him without fouling. Culprit number one was the Gaels’ own star guard, Jordan Ford, who couldn’t contain Ross down the stretch after Ford converted a lay-up to push his team into the lead at 67-66 with 2:26 left in the game.

Ford then fouled Ross on the next two Pepperdine possessions, leading to three points which were just enough to forge a 69-69 tie at the end of regulation. The Gaels weren’t competitive in the extra period, scoring only eight points to the Waves’ 15.

Enter San Francisco

Saint Mary’s desperately needed the week-long break the schedule provided after the disastrous road trip to prepare for a rematch against the Dons, who defeated the Gaels 76-72 in San Francisco on January 3.  San Francisco Coach Kyle Smith has primed his squad to unseat Saint Mary’s as the back-up to Gonzaga atop the WCC, and could not afford a third loss as the conference schedule reached its halfway point. San Francisco gave up a 14-point halftime lead to drop a 67-63 decision to San Diego Thursday in San Diego, falling to 4-2 in conference play — a game ahead of the 4-3 Gaels.

There was drama aplenty on a rainy Saturday afternoon as the two coaches with a lot of common history — Smith served alongside Bennett for nine years as an assistant in Moraga — faced off for a badly-needed win. The Gaels promptly deflated dramatic expectations by playing their most dominating first half this season, running to a 47-30 lead behind scorching three-point shooting by Fitts, Ford and, of all people, Tommy Kuhse — he of the 27% three-point shooting percentage.

The Gaels shot 54% overall and 44% from three-point range, led by Fitts’ 19, points, 14 from Ford and 12 from the low-scoring Kuhse — including two-of-four three-point attempts. Redemption, thy name is a made three-pointer.

Just as impressive as the offensive fireworks was the tight defense played on San Francisco’s two big guns, guards Frankie Ferrari and Charles Mineland. Kuhse held Ferrari to eight points on three-of-seven shooting, and Krebs bothered Mineland into a one-for-four performance for a measly three points. Alas, Krebs and Kuhse relaxed a bit — okay, a lot — in the second half, as Ferrari scorched the Gaels for 14 points on six-of-nine shooting, and Mineland was even better, going seven-of-10, including five-of-six from three-point range, to score 33 points between them.

Bennett scrambled to stop the bleeding, switching Krebs onto Ferrari and Fitts onto Mineland, but to little effect. The Gaels simply do not have any consistent defensive stoppers, one of their most nagging deficiencies.

The home stretch

Sitting at 5-3, Saint Mary’s is effectively in a three-way tie for second with BYU and San Francisco. BYU has a temporary half-game lead at 6-3 because it didn’t have a bye in the first half,  but that discrepancy will be corrected in the second half. The losses are the key, and none of the three teams can afford to pile on many more. That leads us to look at the remaining schedule and handicap the chances of Saint Mary’s San Francisco and BYU to finish second behind Gonzaga and earn a bye to the semifinal round of the WCC Tournament in March.

The Dons walk into the Lions Den known as the McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane next Thursday and play BYU in Provo on Feb. 21, but should get by the rest of its opponents before facing off against San Diego at home in the final week. Good chance to finish at 12-4.

Saint Mary’s has not one but two games against Gonzaga, beginning next Saturday in Spokane, and will get a chance for revenge against Pepperdine on Feb. 16 in Moraga. It’s conceivable the Gaels could go 6-2 in the second half for an 11-5 conference record, but that would require a win over revenge-minded San Diego on the road on Feb. 23.

BYU has to play San Diego twice, including a league-ending March 2 date in Provo, along with Gonzaga in Spokane and San Francisco at home. It’s not hard to foresee another four losses for the Cougs, which would bring them to 9-7 for the season. So, San Francisco could have the easiest road to second place, Saint Mary’s the next easiest and BYU the hardest. San Diego will be a key to all of their fortunes, and the Toreros stand a decent chance of unseating one of the second-place contenders.

Let the second half begin.

Malik Fitts, shown above in an earlier game, was dominant against San Francisco with 30 points and eight rebounds. Fitts might have NBA scouts returning to Moraga before long. Photo  courtesy of Tod Fierner.