So much for all that pimping of St. Mary’s frontcourt we did in yesterday’s preview. In beating #12 Oregon last night in McKeon Pavilion, the Gaels trailed only once (8-7 five minutes into the game) and it was primarily on the back of guard Patrick Mills. Australia’s answer to Tony Parker, we hope without the shitty CD and hot yet annoying wife, Mills lit up the Ducks for 37 points in as many minutes. He beat them from outside the arc when the defense sagged, he beat them to the hole when they overplayed him at the perimeter, he beat them at the line when they tried to foul their way back into the game. I think he also made out with their girlfriends.
What will probably get lost in Mills’ performance, however, is that Saint Mary’s is a pretty damn good team. With two-thirds of the aforementioned frontcourt, Omar Samhan and Ian O’Leary, out much of the game due to foul trouble, the contributions from forward Diamon Simpson, nearly all of his 18 points and 12 rebounds of the hard-earned variety, and the Gaels’ bench was as essential to the win as Mills’ hot shooting. Every substitution of coach Randy Bennett, from the guy who looks like a tall Nelly to the guy who looks like a tall Landry from “Friday Night Lights”, seemed to know where to be and what to do. And they played with confidence, none of the “Oops I Crapped My Pants” looks you get from most college bench players in big games against big teams. St. Mary’s also played great help D, which sounds easy until you watch a game and realize it usually doesn’t happen. Or until you watch an Arizona game and realize it never happens. What all of this typically points to is great coaching, which is great news now for St. Mary’s though probably not in the long term, given that even Eric Musselman was in the lobby sniffing around the inevitable coaching vacancy.
Much of the contest felt like an early round Tourney game. There was a hot-shooting foreigner. There was a highly ranked team playing with the teamwork of a McDonald’s All-America game. There was a deafening throng of students who kept it up the entire game, despite a DJ who struggled through The Dropkick Murphys (not bad), Soulja Boy (surprisingly half the student body seemed to know the Soulja Boy while a decidedly smaller number knew hot to do it), and “What Is Love?” (WTF?), before finding the predominantly white, suburban crowd’s sweet spot with House of Pain’s “Jump Around”. The only thing that was missing was the panicked second half run by the athletic higher ranked team that the underdog generally has to weather. It never happened. Oregon did get its four easiest baskets against a tired defense in a sequence around the ten minute mark, but still never pulled closer than six.
Part of that was due to the strength of St. Mary’s, part of that was due to the weaknesses of the Ducks that were exposed in this game. This is a team that dearly misses Aaron Brooks right now. I can understand Ernie Kent’s logic in trying to mold Tajuan Porter into a point guard. He’s 5’6”, he’s scary quick, he has decent ball skills. But right now it’s clearly a square peg/round hole situation. Porter is still the 3 point gunner he was for last year’s team. He doesn’t take care of the ball or distribute like a point guard should, though in his defense no one else seems to either. In fact, perhaps the best candidate to do so on the Ducks is Marty Leunen, but having your big man handle the ball creates more problems than it solves. Still, the season is young, and Kent has at least a little time to work out the kinks in this team, though his second priority should be to wake up Malik Hairston, who disappeared for such a long stretch of the game I thought he graduated at halftime.
But give Ernie Kent credit for doing his old school a favor and scheduling what is an absolutely thankless game for his team. Seldom, if ever, would a program like this agree to play a tough, underrated mid-major on the road. There would have been no accolades for the Ducks had they won this game, they are expected to, but a loss will undoubtedly drop them a good chunk of spots in the polls. As for St. Mary’s, well like I said the season is young. It’s tricky to draw conclusions from one game in November, but the Gaels could be a dangerous squad in March. By that time their DJ hopefully will have lost his “Night At The Roxbury” soundtrack.