By John Crumpacker
That GONZAGA-SAINT MARY’S game on Thursday lived up to its billing as Game of the Year in conference, at least for the first half of the WCC schedule. Can’t wait for the rematch on Feb. 20 in Spokane.
With their 70-67 win, the Gaels moved into first place in the conference standings at 8-1 and relegated the Zags to 7-2. Gonzaga has the more favorable schedule the rest of the way with five of its remaining nine WCC games at the McCarthey Center. Saint Mary’s will be put to the test as six of its nine conference games are on the road.
If I were limited to one word in describing Saint Mary’s that word would be “efficient.’’ The Gaels do not wow you with great athletes or a single star but at the end of the game, their final stats generally look better than their opponent’s. It’s been well documented that coach Randy Bennett’s team leads the conference in many categories but the most important ones are scoring defense, scoring margin, assists per game and shooting percentage from the field and three-point range.
Individually, the defensive job Evan Fitzner did on Gonzaga’s star, Kyle Wiltjer, was outstanding. At 6-foot-10, Fitzner had the length and reach to frustrate Wiltjer and keep him away from the basket. Wiltjer finished with six points on 3-for-7 shooting, 0-for-3 on 3-point shots and no free throws. Fitzner, in turn, scored 20 points on 7-of-9 shooting, 1 of 3 from beyond the arc and 5 of 6 from the free throw line along with 5 rebounds.
It’s hard to beat a team that is so accomplished across the board. At 17-2, not many teams have. In fact, one of Saint Mary’s two defeats will likely be considered a “good’’ loss come NCAA Tournament time, that being its four-point decision at Cal in a game it had a chance to win until the final seconds.
At the halfway point in the WCC season, Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga are clearly the class of the conference. Pepperdine, which dealt the Gaels their other loss and is in third place, is capable of making some noise, as is BYU. With 4-5 league records, San Francisco and Pacific could go either way in the second half, with the Tigers trying to close strong since the regular season is all they have with their school-imposed ban from the WCC tourney.
With nine down and nine to go (except for travel partners BYU and San Diego, which have played eight games), this is What We Learned from last week’s games:
Quote of the week
“For some reason I heard ‘Foul’ at half court. It was my fault. It was a brain fart. He ended up missing the free throw and saving my butt.’’
That’s Saint Mary’s Joe Rahon, explaining his ill-advised foul on Gonzaga’s McClellan with 3.7 seconds left when the Gaels had no foul to give while leading 68-67. McClellan missed the front end of the one-and-one and Saint Mary’s won 70-67.
Tweet of the week
Trailer for HBO's upcoming five-part series on Gonzaga: https://www.youtube.com/embed/87saNs0-lsc …
That’s Jim Meehan of the Spokane Spokesman Review, warming up for “Gonzaga: March to Madness.’’
Stat line of the week
Big week for Loyola Marymount’s Adom Jacko, who was named WCC Player of the Week. In his team’s loss to BYU and victory over San Diego, Jacko had 49 points, 17 rebounds, 4 blocks, 3 assists and 1 steal. He really stood out in LMU’s 90-81 defeat by BYU and gets the nod for stat line of the week. Against the Cougars Jacko hit 11 of 12 shots from the field and 4 of 5 from the free throw line for 26 points to go with 2 assists, 2 blocks and 1 steal.
How about that?
Dane Pineau and Jock Landale of Saint Mary’s are both shooting .651 from the field.
Follow the three dots...
Looks like USF (10-9) and LMU (10-10) are in a battle for .500 the rest of the way, a reasonable goal for two teams below the upper level of the conference. … Speaking of .500, three players in the conference are shooting better than that from beyond the arc – Emmett Naar (.597) and Stefan Gonzalez (.525) of Saint Mary’s and Zac Seljaas (.506) of BYU. … Can we get a 90, please? Percent that is. No one in the conference is shooting 90 percent from the free throw line but Murray Jr. (.877), Naar (.867) and Wiltjer (.860) are close. … Although San Diego’s Jito Kok is the leading shot-blocker in the conference, BYU is the best team in the rejection department at 4.5 per game. … Something’s missing in Portland. The Pilots make 9.4 three-point shots per game and come up with 7.5 steals per, yet are mired at 9-13 overall and 3-6 in conference.
John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards.