MORAGA, Calif. — On top of the Saint Mary’s white board in the locker room is a regular reminder that reads “transition defense.”
Coach Randy Bennett figures it has been there his entire time at the mid-major school that pushes two decades. And he will certainly be stressing that idea even more so after watching the Gaels struggle to stop Cal State Fullerton on the fast break.
Calvin Hermanson scored 22 points, Emmett Naar had 11 points and nine assists, and the 21st-ranked Gaels used a big second half to beat Fullerton 76-57 on Wednesday night.
“We were no more athletic last year, but we were more disciplined defensively,” Bennett said. “And we were very good defensively last year. We need to get back to that if we want to have a really good year.”
Jock Landale contributed 15 points on 7-for-10 shooting while in foul trouble and facing constant defensive pressure. The Gaels (3-0) outscored sloppy Fullerton off turnovers 31-5.
Jackson Rowe and Kyle Allman each scored 13 points as the Titans (0-2) put on a far better showing than in their forgettable 84-42 loss to No. 10 USC last Friday to begin the season.
This time, Fullerton shot 66.8 percent — 12 for 18 — in the first half but trailed 39-31 at the break in large part because of 13 turnovers.
Naar’s three-point play with 7:33 before halftime was part of a 7-0 Saint Mary’s run, but the Gaels couldn’t pull away.
“It’s been the same story, defense,” Hermanson said. “They turned the ball over a lot, which I think was what got us a lead in the first half but we gave up again a high percentage from the field. It’s something we’ve got to work on as a team. The last three games we’ve given up a higher percentage than we’d like.”
Cal State Fullerton, picked to finish third in the Big West, committed 11 turnovers by the 5:55 mark of the first half while taking just 10 shots but stayed close early hitting 6 of its first 9 shots and using its quickness to push the tempo and fluster the Gaels on defense.
Saint Mary’s moved up a spot in this week’s Associated Press poll and is picked to win the West Coast Conference ahead of NCAA Tournament runner-up and top rival Gonzaga.
Hermanson’s 3-pointer from the top with 15:08 left gave the Gaels an 11-point lead, their largest to that point.
There are big expectations for this Saint Mary’s team under 17th-year coach Bennett, who received a new 10-year contract last week on the heels of consecutive school-record 29-win seasons. The Gaels lost to Arizona in the second round of this year’s NCAA Tournament.
The schools hadn’t played in nearly nine years, since a 79-54 Saint Mary’s win in a tournament at Anaheim on Nov. 28, 2008. The Gaels have won the last four matchups in the series overall.
Saint Mary’s was outrebounded 36-26 while surrendering 13 offensive rebounds. It didn’t help to have Landale in foul trouble.
“I’ve just got to get smarter on defense,” Landale said. “I can’t give up silly fouls like that. It hurts the team, it hurts me.”
Bennett will challenge his big man to be smarter.
“As a senior, the level he’s at, he’s got to know better than to take a risk on a foul that will get you two in the first half or your third or fourth fouls in the second half,” Bennett said.
Fullerton coach Dedrique Taylor will try to figure out why his team has been so sloppy, committing 21 turnovers in each of the first two games.
“What I don’t have experience with is turning the ball over 21 times for 31 points,” he said.
Cal State Fullerton: By comparison, Fullerton shot 4 for 26 (15.4 percent) in the first half against USC. … After missing all but two of 19 3-point tries against USC, the Titans were 1 for 11 on 3s and missed their initial nine attempts. They also had been outrebounded 52-44 and dished out only four assists facing the Trojans, sparking Taylor to say, “We were lackluster in everything that we did.” The team’s energy and effort level was high against the Gaels.
Saint Mary’s: The Gaels took care of the ball with just eight turnovers and scored 21 points in the first half off Fullerton’s miscues. Saint Mary’s improved its nonconference record over the past 10 years to 124-34 by winning its fourth straight against Fullerton.
Cal State Fullerton: Hosts Bethesda in the Titans’ home opener Saturday.
Saint Mary’s: At San Jose State on Sunday.
More AP college basketball: www.collegebasketball.ap.org