Men's Basketball

Folsom grad led Saint Mary’s to upset of No. 1 Gonzaga; see who Gaels play in NCAA opener

Jordan Ford doesn’t necessarily want to sleep well these days.

He has all of April to catch up on a deep, hearty snooze. For now, the Saint Mary’s College junior guard out of Folsom High School rather enjoys the idea of being wired, of being amped, of feel-good anxiety coursing through him.

Days after leading the Gaels past No. 1 Gonzaga 60-47 in Las Vegas to win the West Coast Conference tournament championship in perhaps the season’s biggest upset, one that secured a bid to the NCAA Tournament, Ford was still buzzing about the significance of it all.

“I don’t always sleep well after games, especially big games, and I was too wired after that one, and I’m still wired,” Ford said excitedly over the phone. “It was just an amazing feeling. That’s a moment you think about when you’re 4 years old with a ball.

“I threw the ball up in the air (as time ran out against Gonzaga), and I’d always seen players do that. It was a moment that was so ... beautiful.”

The Gaels (22-11) and their unflappable floor leader served notice that upsets do happen in this sport and that the Gaels are tournament ready. If this is a sleeper team as March Madness takes hold across the country, then game on, Ford said.

Saint Mary’s is seeded 11th in the South Region and opens against No. 6 seed Villanova — the defending national champion — Thursday in Hartford, Conn.

The NCAA Tournament endures over the decades because of the upsets. Ford can taste more coming.

“To beat the No. 1 team in the country, we know we can hang with anyone,” Ford said.

What made this such a stunner beyond Saint Mary’s entering the contest 0-30 all time against top-5 teams is how bad the previous meeting was. On Feb. 8, Gonzaga devoured the Gaels 94-46. It was the worst defeat in coach Randy Bennett’s 18 years in Moraga, and it seemed to further indicate Saint Mary’s was, at best, headed to the NIT.

The victory had the 2,658-student campus in Contra Costa County buzzing and further convinced the Gaels the season had special meaning.

Saint Mary’s entered the WCC tournament with its poorest record in 12 years, and it entered the season with just one hold-over full-time starter. That was Ford.

He was tasked with upping his scoring average, of being a better defender. A natural leader, Ford embraced the challenges.

What he lacks in size as a slightly built 6-foot-1, 175-pounder, he makes up in ball-handling, court awareness, leadership and a knack for scoring. He’s shifty and slippery when he attacks the lane. And he’s Ford tough, seemingly never tired despite an exhaustive pace.

Ford led the WCC in scoring with a 21.3-point average while averaging 2.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.3 steals. He averaged 11.1 points as a junior and 2.3 as a freshman.

Ford had 17 points against Gonzaga in the WCC finale, prompting Bennett to say Ford was “a baller.”

Ford is also never one to feel satisfied. He continues to grind away. He works tirelessly on his shot, his dribble, his craft.

“I always work hard,” Ford said. “I always put in extra time. My dad (Cuzear) taught me that, and I’ve stuck with it. I know I’m one of the hardest workers in the country.”

Ford’s Folsom High coach, Mike Wall, would agree. Wall watched eagerly as Saint Mary’s salted Gonzaga away.

It was a proud papa remembering how Ford led the Folsom charge.

“True leaders and ball players can control a game without having to dominate the game,” Wall said.

Ford was a four-year starter at Folsom, learning the ropes as a freshman and then soaring his final three seasons. In that three-year stretch, Folsom went 32-2 in league play and 87-13 overall in earning Bee Player of the Year honors twice. The Bulldogs under Ford and Wall won two Sac-Joaquin Section championships, a CIF Northern California Division II title and showed it belonged in the 2016 NorCal Open Division tussle, a bracket designated for the elite teams.

In a NorCal playoff game against Sacramento High as a senior, Ford went for 34 points in an overtime loss. Bennett was there. He beat Gonzaga, Cal, Oregon and Oregon State to sign Ford.

Ford has always been a thinker on the court, much like he was with his first love — chess. He was nationally ranked as a chess player before he hit his teenage years.

Ford still dabbles in chess, sometimes playing teammates, and he still sees the floor like he does the chess board. Ford lives with four teammates in an off-campus house. As bachelors, imagine the horror of a place full of laundry, pizza boxes and dishes.

“We do our best to keep it clean, but things pile up,” Ford said with a laugh. “Sometimes, it’s not pretty.”

Ford is delighted with his decision to attend Saint Mary’s, where he’s a communications major. That’s a good fit, too.

Ford is affable, kind, well spoken, and then he morphs into a basketball terror come game time. Last summer included a team trip to Australia. The Gaels played seven games and soaked in the sites as tourists in Melbourne and Sydney.

“It’s all worked out great,” Ford said. “It’s been an unbelievable opportunity to go to school, to develop as a player, to build relationships with players and coaches. It’s been fantastic.

“Life is really good right now, especially that last win. It was the biggest win of my life, the best experience, and we’re going to the NCAA Tournament. We’re going to take it as far as we can.”