MORAGA, Calif. — The starting backcourt for No. 20 Saint Mary’s displayed near perfect ball control at McKeon Pavilion Wednesday night as the Gaels (8-1) recorded their second consecutive win by defeating the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, 73-51.
The ball exchanged confidently from Gael-to-Gael -- a kind of fluidity that created numerous open looks. They entered Wednesday’s game leading all other West Coast Conference teams in assists per game (18), and finished off the night with an impressive 23.
“There was a lot minutes in that game where it was fun to watch us play because the ball just moved well,” said head coach Randy Bennett. “We’re getting better. We didn’t turn the ball over. We had seven turnovers and that’s where we try to keep it.
Starting guards for the Gaels, Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon, recorded 16 dimes with just one turnover. Joe Rahon was dealing early, using his eyes to create deception and finding his big men down low. He owned eight of his teams 12 first half assists and totaled 10 for the night -- matching his career high (Manhattan 11/16/15).
Again the Gaels wasted no time in displaying a hunger to dominate the scoreboard. For the second game in a row they opened up with a 12-2 run that welcomed five assists on five made field goals -- forward Evan Fitzner owned eight of the first 12 points. He finished with 11 points and six rebounds.
“It’s huge. As a starter, that’s what you’re supposed to do, you’re supposed to bring energy right away and just take it to the other team,” said Fitzner on his team's urgency.
Saint Mary’s big man Jock Landale continues to dazzle. His intensity level was fierce along the way to recording his second double-double of the season. He opened up the second half by scoring all of the Gaels first nine points and finished off the bout with 15 points and 13 rebounds.
“He’s just a big body and has great hands for a guy that size. And now that he’s not fat anymore, he’s quite athletic,” said Naar on 6-foot-11 Landale. “His mindset has changed since he has become the beast that he can be.”
Head coach Randy Bennett has stressed the need for improvement on the defensive side of the ball. Tonight the Gaels held the Hilltoppers (4-6) to 37.5 percent shooting and forced 13 turnovers -- they turned those 13 into 20 points. Only two Hilltoppers reached double-digits -- Cue Johnson (11) and Justin Johnson (11).
Saint Mary’s continues to show their depth. In total their bench contributed 28 points. Dane Pineau led that pack with 10-points on 5-for-7 from the field. Guard Jordan Ford provided a first half spark. He came in off the bench and landed a three-pointer from the wing, igniting a 10-0 run (5:37) highlighted by a an and-one drive to the basket for Calvin Hermanson, and an Emmett Naar three-pointer.
Naar heard the patented “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” chant that follows a mad basket six times throughout his performance of 14 points, six assists and a perfect 2-for-2 from three-point range. His long jumper with the shot clock nearly expired, and just over 14-minutes remaining in regulation, extended the Gaels’ lead to 20 (49-29). Only once did their lead dip any lower in the following minutes (68-49, 2:14).
Two possessions later a Naar pump fake sent a Hilltopper defender out of bounds in the corner. A swift side step gave the disgruntled defender a side view of Naar burying another from three-point range.
The Hilltoppers gave the Gaels a chance to work against the zone defense. Without complete certainty, Bennett acknowledged that it may have been the first time his guys have seen that defense this season.
“We hardly ever see it,” said Bennett. “We practice it all the time, but we need to see it in games so it doesn't catch us off guard [because] people are going to play that against us.”
The Gaels will play their next game at home against Texas A&M - Corpus Christi on Tuesday, Dec. 20th at 7 p.m. For tickets, visit the tickets link on SMCGaels.com or by calling the SMC Athletic Ticket Office during weekday business hours at (925) 631-GoTx (4689). Viewers can also catch the action live through Gael Vision and on the TuneIn app.
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