Outplayed

by Michael Vernetti

After Saint Mary’s lost to Washington by 68-64 on Thanksgiving, Gael fans could find some…rationalizations (never excuses):

How often would distance shooters Alex Ducas and Aidan Mahaney go 4-20 on three-point attempts?

How often would the Gaels compile 15 assists against 16 turnovers?

How often would they be out rebounded by eight boards (40-32)?

After a similar loss last night to the dynamic New Mexico Lobos by 69-65, the answer seems to be, “Whenever they play a strong team.”

Ugly patterns

The same woeful patterns that emerged from nowhere in a shining 6-0 season before facing Washington reared their ugly heads against a noticeably better Lobo team. Although Ducas redeemed himself with a 25-point beauty against New Mexico, his teammates apparently failed to get the memo for the second game in a row: “This isn’t Vermont, guys, this is a real team.”

The assist-to-turnover ratio worsened from 0.93 against Washington to 0.67 (10 assists, 16 turnovers) against New Mexico. The offense sputtered to almost a complete halt in the first half after the Gaels came out tenacious on defense to run up a 13-2 lead on the Lobos. After that mark was posted with 12:41 left in the half, New Mexico outscored Saint Mary’s 25-10 the rest of the way to take a 27-23 lead and a giant boost in confidence into the locker room.

And, just like in the Washington game, Saint Mary’s failed to maintain control of the game on several occasions when it looked like they had shuffled off the blahs and were back to being last year’s efficient bunch of over-achievers. To wit:

Even with a dearth of scoring, the Gaels managed to forge a 22-17 lead over New Mexico with 2:08 left in the half. Time to put the pedal down and gain separation before halftime. As if.

Lobo guards rise

One of New Mexico’s trio of outstanding guards, 6’2″ Donovan Dent of Centennial High school in Riverside, CA — only California’s Mr. Basketball and John Wooden High school Player of the Year as a senior — drove Luke Barrett (Barrett, the Gaels’ former walk-on who has earned a scholarship and a rotation spot backing up Ducas, picked him up on a switch) for a bucket to cut the Gael lead to 22-19.

The Gaels’ Augustus Marciulionis, who had made two strong buckets in the paint earlier in the half, misfired on a drive, and another Lobo guard, Jamal Mashburn Jr., drove Gael center Mitchell Saxen — who also drew the guard on a switch — for another basket, plus a free throw, for a 22-22 tie. After Saxen converted one free throw — he was only 5-12 for the line for the night — the third Lobo guard tormenter, Jaelen House, hit a three-pointer to put his team ahead for the first time at 25-23. Saxen then was called for a moving screen and another Gael turnover, setting the stage for a halftime nightmare for the Gaels.

After successfully defending a Dent drive — a rarity, as he went 5-8 from the floor — the Gaels watched in horror as Lobo forward Josiah Allick stuffed the miss to send his teammates bouncing into halftime with a 27-23 lead. The Gaels had turned a 22-17 advantage into a 27-23 deficit in just two minutes.

Patino’s juggernaut

New Mexico is coached for the second year by Rick Pitino Jr., son of the peripatetic former Kentucky, Boston Celtics and Louisville (among other stops) coach who has moved on to the Iona Gaels in his 70th year. Pitino Jr. is carefully assembling the pieces needed to build a deep NCAA competitor at New Mexico. He coaxed House, son of all-time Arizona State and NBA great Eddie, from Arizona State, and House blossomed into a 16.9 PPG star last year.

Mashburn Jr., son of another college and pro great, followed Pitino from his former position as head coach of Minnesota, and led the Lobos in scoring last year at 18.2 PPG. Pitino scored a recruiting coup to lure Dent to Las Cruces. These three form the nucleus of a team that should challenge for a Mountain West title and at least begin Pitino’s quest for NCAA stardom.

The three guards scored a combined 42 points against Saint Mary’s, led by House’s 17, compared to 22 points put up by Gael guards Mahaney (11), Marciulionis (7) and Logan Johnson (4). That stark differential only scratches the surface of the Gaels’ offensive woes. After back-to-back dispiriting losses, the question arises, “Who is the leader of these Gaels?”

Gaels future

It was around this time last year that Gael Coach Randy Bennett decided to replace Marciulionis at point guard with sixth-year legend Tommy Kuhse. Kuhse solidified the Gael attack and became a scoring leader at the same time, and Saint Mary’s soared to one of its greatest seasons in history.

Marciulionis remained an active and involved member of the team, didn’t drop his head and mope, and seemed to dedicate his off-season to eradicating weaknesses that showed up in his freshman year. To these eyes he has done so, providing a toughness at the point that is noticeable in his time on the court, which has been limited. Just as Kuhse drifted off to the sunset — and the NBA G-league — another promising guard enrolled at Saint Mary’s — Mr. Mahaney of nearby Campolinda High School and a lifetime of buddy ship with Bennett’s two sons, Chase and Cade.

Mahaney has ben sensational overall, and provides scoring punch that Marciulonis doesn’t have — especially from three-point range. But, he is erratic, went 3-13 from three-point range against Washington and managed to make only 1-6 three-pointers against New Mexico. Johnson, the third wheel of the Gael guard contingent, has been up and down in his fifth-year, providing defensive grit and hustle, but spotty scoring. His four points against New Mexico — none in the second half — was a case in point.

So, what should Bennett do to provide some stability to his team that faces the daunting prospect of playing number-one ranked Houston on Saturday in Ft. Worth, TX? Shuffle the deck? Here’s one option: keep Marciulionis at the point and replace Johnson at the starting off-guard spot with Mahaney. This will give Marciulionis undiluted charge of running the offense, take the ball out of Mahaney’s hands — including bringing the ball up court after possession changes — and give Johnson a charter that might suit his talents better: off-the-bench sparkplug.

It is no knock on Mahaney to note that he made two of the crucial four turnovers committed by the Gaels in the closing moments against New Mexico. He is a freshman and not a natural point guard, and would seem to be more effective as off-guard under a strong court leader. Something to think about as the Gael coaching staff pores through the ashes of the New Mexico game.

Alex Ducas, shown above in a game from last year, was the only bright spot for the Gael offense against New Mexico, scoring 25 points on 7-10 shooting. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

One to forget

by Michael Vernetti

Seldom does a quality team with excellent coaching become flummoxed by a basic tactic used by its opponent, yet that is what happened to Saint Mary’s as it went down to Washington 68-64 in overtime Thursday night in Anaheim.

Simply put, UW is a zone team in a day of man-to-man defenses, and the Gaels never figured out how to attack the Husky zone.

The Gaels had a plan, and had obviously prepared to implement it. Casting aside the pick-and-roll offense that had carried it to victory over Vanderbilt on Wednesday, the Gaels came out firing against Washington. Firing and missing.

In its first three possessions, struggling distance shooter Alex Ducas badly missed two three-point attempts sandwiched around another bad miss by Kyle Bowen. After the Gaels attacked Washington in the paint and evened the score at 4-4, Ducas clanked another, setting the stage for a miserable night of going 1-7 on three-point attempts. Combined with his 1-6 effort from distance against Vanderbilt, Ducas shot 2-13 on the three-pointers that have become his hallmark.

Attack the middle

The Gaels didn’t rely completely on three-pointers to weaken UW’s zone, but also found Bowen near the free-throw line where he could pass to the wings or back out to the guards. That is only one part of the strategy against a zone, however — that player slashing to the middle also has to present an offensive threat if the zone is going to collapse on him and open up opportunities for distance shooters.

Gael fans who have followed and cheered Bowen during his four years at Saint Mary’s have seen him develop a creditable three-point shot to complement his stellar defense, but know he is uncomfortable with almost any other offensive move. He doesn’t back down opponents in the paint as other power forwards do, nor is he particularly adept at converting missed shots or bunnies underneath the basket. A mid-range jumper is completely unknown to him.

That Bowen was going to be a liability against Washington’s zone became apparent midway through the first half when Gael Coach Randy Bennett, who looks upon Bowen as the rock upon which his defense is built, pulled him after repeated offensive possessions that produced little for the Gaels — the score stood at 9-6 in favor of UW with 11:27 left in the half.

Jefferson in the middle

Substituting for Bowen was Joshua Jefferson, the 6’9″, 235-pound freshman from Henderson NV, who looks like a prototype of the power forward position. Jefferson immediately found fellow frosh Aidan Mahaney for an open three-pointer and Mahaney converted to tie the score. Check one box for using Jefferson to foil the zone — hitting open shooters on the wings.

Then Jefferson hit two medium-range jumpers from the area around the free throw line, and the Saint Mary’s offense seemed reborn as the Gaels surged into a 13-11 lead. It looked as if subbing Jefferson for Bowen gave them a weapon to weaken the UW defense.

Doubling down on the youth movement, Bennett then subbed in another freshman, Aussie center Harry Wessels, for Saxen. Wessels immediately corralled a rebound and made a put-back to push the Saint Mary’s lead to 15-12. The Huskies rallied themselves to push the score to 21-17 in their favor, but it was two of their guards, Koren Johnson and PJ Fuller, who did the damage, not the players guarded by Jefferson and Wessels.

Nevertheless, after Jefferson missed on his third jumper and failed to convert a bunny in the paint, Bennett subbed Bowen and Saxen back in. Jefferson’s seven minutes and Wessels’s two minutes were their only action of the night. Despite showing the ability to change the trajectory of the game, Jefferson never got off the bench again.

After limping into the locker room on the short end of a 28-22 score — the first time trailing at the half this season — the Gaels didn’t find any immediate relief as the second half began. Although Washington was anything but a juggernaut — they worked hard to pile up more turnovers than the bumbling Gaels (23 to 16) — the Huskies did just enough on offense to keep Saint Mary’s at bay.

Gaels rally

Then, without warning, the Gaels found a pulse.

Mahaney, whose overall three-point shooting effort against Washington was in line with his teammates — he went 3-17 from distance — nevertheless made several key plays to rally the Gaels. At the 9:23 mark of the second half, Mahaney drained a three-pointer to bring the Gaels to a 43-41 deficit. The beleaguered Bowen then made one of his three buckets on the night to tie the game.

As happened repeatedly, however, the Gaels failed to keep the defensive pressure on Washington, and guard Jamal Bey hit a three-pointer to blunt the Gael attack. Bowen got two points back by sinking two free throws — anything but a given for the Gaels in this tournament as they shot a paltry 61.5 per cent from the free-throw line — but Mahaney coughed up a turnover to pave the way for another three-pointer from Washington and a 49-45 lead.

But the unflappable Logan Johnson, who does not recognize deflating circumstances, managed to score on a rare drive and bring the Gaels back to 49-47. After still another countering jumper by UW’s Bey pushed the lead to 51-47, Mahaney sank another three-pointer to cut the deficit to one point. Saxen, the Gaels’ steadiest player in the tournament with back-to-back 19-point efforts, then converted on two buckets down low. Suddenly, the Gaels had a 54-51 lead with 3:22 to go in the game.

Failing down the stretch

Surely, with all the adversity, missed shots and turnovers they had overcome to grab the lead, they would hold onto it for dear life. If only.

Keion Brooks Jr., the three-year star for Kentucky who became one of the most significant transfers to join the Huskies in the off-season, answered with a jumper, and the three-point lead shrank to one. Ducas, who couldn’t make a three-pointer to save his life but sank all six of his free throw attempts, made two more to get the lead back to three points, 56-53 with just 2:30 left.

When Ducas then made two more free throws, the Gaels had a five-point lead, 58-53, with just 1:43 left. How could they blow that? By allowing Brooks to score again, then coughing up the most damaging turnover of a game filled with them — Saxen the perpetrator this time. Although Saxen was one of the Gaels’ least turnover-prone players with just two on the night, his bobble in the paint led to a driving lay-up on the other end by Fuller, who was fouled and sank the and-one to tie the game and send it to overtime.

It was a heartbreaking case of mismanagement by the Gaels, and gave Washington momentum heading into overtime. The Gaels managed just two free throws by Ducas and a lay-up by Saxen in the overtime, while Washington relied on Brooks for a jumper and on center Braxton Yeah for key rebounds and free throws to put away the game 68-64.

Maybe the bitter defeat will harden the Gaels, and inspire them to rid their offense of the crippling turnovers that plagued them in Anaheim. It had better, as they now head into the most difficult stretch of a challenging out-of-conference schedule: New Mexico, Houston, Missouri State, San Diego State, New Mexico State, Colorado State and Wyoming await the Gaels before the WCC season starts on Dec. 29.

All of them will be watching film of the Washington game, and the Gaels can only hope that they take away more lessons than their opponents.

Mitchell Saxen, shown above in an earlier game, was the Gaels most reliable player in Anaheim, averaging 19 points in the two games and being named to the All-Tournament team. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Gutting it out

by Michael Vernetti

So, your team opens the season with five wins at home, then heads off to a holiday tournament against a member of the Southeastern Conference (SEC). What should you expect?

For fans of the Saint Mary’s Gaels, playing Vanderbilt last night (and this morning) in the Wooden Legacy Tournament in Anaheim, it probably wasn’t a game in which your best defender couldn’t defend, your best three-point shooter couldn’t make a shot, your team made only 56 per cent of its free throws, was out-rebounded and had the same number of turnovers as assists.

And won by 10 points, 75-65.

So much for holiday tournaments, which have long been a source of heartburn for Gael fans. It’s just not the same as playing at home.

Vanderbilt was an intriguing opportunity for the Gaels, a proud team from a vaunted conference that has struggled in recent years but seems poised to find its way back to the upper echelon of college hoops. Under former North Carolina and NBA star Jerry Stackhouse, the Commodores have improved their NET ranking in each of Stackhouse’s three years, and came into the Saint Mary’s game with a 77 ranking from KenPom. They looked like trouble.

Pick-and-roll to happiness

The Gaels’ answer was a massive dose of Mitchell Saxen, gritty play from super-senior Logan Johnson and a bolt of lightning off the bench provided by freshman Aidan Mahaney. Eschewing the three-point shot that is one of its hallmarks, Saint Mary’s went right at Vanderbilt’s 7-foot fifth-year senior Liam Robbins, a veteran of both Drake and Minnesota before finding his way to Nashville.

Notwithstanding that Robbins is one of the premier shot-blockers in the country, the Gaels attacked him head-on. Saxen, rounding into one of the Gaels’ best post men in his third year, scored early and often off nifty passes in the paint from Johnson. Johnson and Saxen teamed up for four pick-and-roll buckets to power Saint Mary’s to an 18-16 lead before Saxen went to the bench with 8:49 left in the half.

Shortly before Saxen left the floor, Mahaney also checked into the game in place of starting point guard Augustus Marciulionis. He promptly sank a medium-range jumper, as Saxen and Johnson continued their two-man game. With Saxen on the bench, Mahaney went off, sinking three more jumpers from medium range and giving Saint Mary’s a 26-21 lead by the time Saxen returned with 4:42 left in the half.

Mahaney made one more jumper, and Alex Ducas, who had top-scored for the Gaels with 20 points in his previous outing against Hofstra, made his only shot of the half following several missed three-pointers, to push the Saint Mary’s lead to 32-24. The Gaels misplayed Vandy’s next possession, managing to turn an apparent stop into a three-point opportunity for Robbins and allow the Commodores to close the gap to 32-27.

Cue Mr. Mahaney

With fewer than five seconds left in the half, Mahaney took the inbounds pass and headed up- court. Just past the mid-court line, he heaved what looked like a prayer but turned into a nothing-but-net dagger for Vanderbilt’s hopes. His only three-pointer of the game — the Gaels made only 3-11 from distance on the evening — pushed the Saint Mary’ lead to 35-27. Mahaney barely noticed his teammates’ adulation, looking as if he does that sort of thing on a routine basis. He probably does.

Showing that Stackhouse has not lost his team’s confidence, Vanderbilt came out of the gate after the half with renewed purpose, and clawed into a 36-35 lead in less than three minutes. But the Gaels were no less gritty in this one, refusing to wilt under Vandy’s pressure. Saxen scored on another pick-and-roll feed from Marciulionis, then Marciulionis stole the ball and fed Johnson on a breakaway lay-up that put Saint Mary’ back in front at 39-36. They never trailed again.

Ducas, who battled Vandy’s star Jordan Wright throughout the game despite his shooting woes, finally found the range on a three-pointer a little later and pushed the Gaels’ lead to 42-38. Johnson matched Ducas’s three-pointer with one of his own for a 45-40 lead, and the tone was set for the rest of the match: Saint Mary’s would eke out a six, seven or eight-point lead, and Vandy would come back to cut the lead and stoke the heartburn simmering in many fans’ chests.

Harry Wessels — again!

As has become the custom with this Gael squad, all 10 scholarship players saw action, but one did more than make a token appearance. True freshman Harry Wessels, coming off a star turn against Hofstra last Saturday, again did yeoman’s work in relief of Saxen. Saxen picked up his fourth foul early in the second half, and it fell to Wessels to keep up the battle in the paint against the formidable Robbins.

Just after Robbins scored one of his impossible-to-defend fadeaway jumpers to cut the Saint Mary’s lead to 49-46, Wessels foiled a Vandy attempt to double-team the picker in the pick-and-roll. He slipped underneath the basket, Johnson found him and Wessels slammed home the basket to push the lead back to five points at 51-46. Settling into his role, Wessels soon scored on a pick-and-roll of his own to total four points in nine minutes of action.

Many fans will look at the Vanderbilt game, notice that Saint Mary’s made just 14-25 free throws, wonder why defensive demon Kyle Bowen had trouble shutting down Vandy’s three-point ace, Myles Shute, and conclude that the game should have been a 15-20-point breeze instead of a nail-biter.

Maybe.

But these holiday tournaments seldom run true to form, and the Gaels’ struggles were on a par with many other teams playing basketball instead of eating turkey on this Thanksgiving. Look no further than the fearsome San Diego State Aztecs, whom the Gaels will face on Dec. 10. Leading a talented Arkansas squad with time running out, SDSU found a way to stumble into overtime and an eventual loss. That could have been the Gaels’ fate, but they persevered in spite of adversity and lived to face Washington in the Wooden Legacy championship tonight at 9:30 p.m. on ESPN.

Prepare for another adventure, Gael fans.

Aidan Mahaney, shown above in a game from earlier in the season, led all Gael scorers with 20 points on 7-10 shooting against Vanderbilt. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

5-0, off they go

by Michael Vernetti

With the Randy Bennett incubator experience completed, the Saint Mary’s Gaels head off for their first contests of the 2022-23 season held someplace other than Moraga: two games in the Paycom Wooden Legacy in Anaheim, CA, starting with a 9 p.m. encounter Wednesday with Vanderbilt of the fearsome Southeastern Conference (SEC).

As Bennett presided over construction of arguably the most daunting schedule in his 21 years at Saint Mary’s, he insisted on one thing: he would have a two-week period of intensive home court scrutiny of his somewhat new charges before turning them loose on the world. As a result, Gael fans have watched the new-look Gaels destroy the hopes of five teams with NCAA ambitions: Oral Roberts, Vermont, North Texas, Southern and, last night, Hofstra, by a score of 76-48, and it wasn’t that close.

The Gaels lost stars Tommy Kuhse and Matthias Tass, along with valuable reserve Dan Fotu, to graduation, then saw promising small forward Leemet Bockler leave the program to undertake a pro career in his home country of Estonia, whence hails his buddy Tass. That was enough uncertainty to send the punditry into an excess of caution concerning this year’s Gael team, even though seasoned fans were giddy with the prospect of replacing the losses with exciting new prospects.

Score one for the fans, so far at least.

The old and the new

Bennett has carefully melded a new guard rotation including fifth-year senior Logan Johnson — pre-season candidate for defensive player of the year in the West Coast Conference — sophomore Augustus Marciulionis and freshman Aidan Mahaney. Mahaney, lifelong buddy of Bennett’s sons Chase and Cade, with whom he played on championship teams at Campolinda High School in Moraga, burst onto the scene with a gaudy 25-point effort against Oral Roberts in his first college game. Tommy who?

Marciulionis, who lost his starting point guard position to a rejuvenated Kuhse early in the 21-22 season, did a double-take on Mahaney’s splash, then bore down to make sure he didn’t lose the starting gig two years in a row. He has displayed leadership and toughness over the five-game home stand, and last night against Hofstra played perhaps his best game as a Gael with 14 points on 6-9 shooting, including 2-3 from distance, where his stroke has been questionable in the past, and four assists.

With Johnson chipping in with nine points and four assists of his own and Mahaney adding eight points — he doesn’t do assists yet — the Gael backcourt accounted for 31 points and eight assists. That part of the remodel appears to be coming along nicely.

Saxen in the post

Part Two of the remodeled Gael lineup involved junior Mitchell Saxen taking over in the post from Tass, who gave Saint Mary’s consistent excellence during his four-year tenure. Saxen, matching Tass’s height at 6’10”, with longer arms to better snatch rebounds from opponents’ reach, has been everything Bennett and Gael fans could have wished for. He has scored and rebounded at a near-double-digit pace since day one, and last night scored his first double-double of the season with 15 points and 12 rebounds, adding two blocks and two steals.

Combined with the energetic spot relief from Aussie freshman Harry Wessels, all 7’1″ of him, the fresh faces in the post have been equally successful as those in the back court. The Gaels were set at small forward with the return of senior Alex Ducas, and at power forward with Ducas’s fellow Australian, Kyle Bowen. Ducas, who has been tantalizing fans with flashes of his three-point ability, broke loose last night against Hofstra with a 20-point outburst that included sinking 6-7 three-pointers.

An added bonus in the front court has been the inspired play of former walk-on Luke Barrett from nearby Piedmont High School. Bennett calls on Barrett when Ducas becomes a little lackadaisical in his defense, and he has proven to be a bulldog at the small forward position. He has only one speed — lightning fast — and flies around the court grabbing rebounds, picking up loose balls and generally wreaking havoc on Gael opponents.

Ahead in Anaheim

The games in the Wooden Legacy tournament will mark the first time a national audience has been able to see Saint Mary’s this season. Even though all five of the previous opponents are highly regarded in their own conferences, there was little TV exposure of the games. Only two of them were broadcast over the little-known Stadium network, while three were relegated to the Internet-based WCC Network.

The Gaels’ debut on ESPN2 Wednesday night at 9 p.m. (it’s the second game of the night, following Washington and Fresno in the 7 p.m. opener) has a bit of the excitement from last March’s NCAA Tournament, when Saint Mary’s faced legendary programs Indiana (W) and UCLA (L) on the opening weekend.

Vanderbilt is a member of the vaunted SEC, which has risen to prominence nearly rivaling its football brethren following the success of programs such as Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee and Alabama. And Vandy has given the Gaels headaches in the past, edging them 72-70 in Matthew Dellavedova’s third game as a Gael in Moraga in 2009, and walloping them 89-70 two years later in Nashville. Vandy also knocked Saint Mary’s out of the NIT in 2015 with a first-round 75-64 victory.

But the Commodores have fallen on hard times in recent years, and former NBA star Jerry Stackhouse has been unable to move them into the upper half of the tough SEC. Picked to finish 12th in the conference following the loss of star Scotty Pippen Jr. to the NBA, Vandy has gone 2-2 so far this season, with wins over Temple and Morehead State and losses to Memphis and Southern Miss.

One would expect the Gaels to be a favorite to topple Vanderbilt Wednesday night and move into the championship final on Thanksgiving Day against Washington or Fresno State, but Bennett will have none of that in his locker room. He will have the Gaels fired up as if they were facing Gonzaga for a WCC Tournament title, so it will be well worth a late-night appointment before settling down for Thanksgiving Dinner onThursday.

Mitchell Saxen, shown above in last night’s 76-48 blowout of Hofstra, collected his first double-double of the season with 15 points and 12 rebounds. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Defending the defenders

by Michael Vernetti

Saint Mary’s prided itself on defense last season, finishing in the top 10 nationally in points allowed while playing offensive powerhouse Gonzaga three times along with other top-rated programs.

The North Texas State Mean Green, Saint Mary’s opponent on an unusual late afternoon game in Moraga on Sunday, could sneer at that record. It was the nation’s top-ranked defensive team in 2021-22, allowing opponents a meager 55 points per game, en route to a 25-7 season and a narrow loss to Virginia in the second round of the NIT. Clearly, something had to give when these two teams met.

It wasn’t the Gaels.

Unleashing its most complete defensive effort since vanquishing a strong Colorado State team by 53-33 in 2020, Saint Mary’s held the Mean Green to four field goals and 12 points in the first half, and a total of 33 points for the game in a convincing 63-33 win. The Gaels were simply unyielding.

Inside didn’t work

The Mean Green felt it could punish the Gaels inside, and over and over again sent 6’5″ sixth-year guard Tyree Eady, or 6’3″ guard Kai Huntsberry, into the paint in an attempt to juke the Gael defenders out of position and make an easy bucket. Gael forward Alex Ducas, who drew the assignment on Eady, and guard Logan Johnson, who guarded Huntsberry, weren’t having it.

Ducas, who had found himself replaced early in the Gaels’ first two games for allowing easy three-point buckets, stayed down against Eady and used his height advantage — either one or two inches whether you believe Ducas is 6’6″ or 6’7″ — to stifle the North Texas version of Tommy Kuhse. Eady was 0-4 for the evening, but did sink a free throw.

Huntsberry fared little better against Johnson, who has earned a reputation as one of the premier defensive players in the nation. He was 2-14 on the night for five points, and got his comeuppance near the mid-point of the first half. Trying to back down Johnson in the paint, Huntsberry saw Johnson swat away his dribble, then take a return pass and race toward the Gaels’ bucket. Johnson finished with a graceful finger-roll over Huntsberry as if to punctuate the danger of trying to get by him on defense.

Another potent weapon for North Texas coming into last night’s game was 6’10” forward Abou Ousmane, who averaged 15.2 PPG last season and 17.2 PPG the year before. Ousmane’s nemesis was the Gaels’ 6’10” junior center Mitchell Saxen, who swatted away several attempts by Ousmane and held him to one point on 0-9 shooting from the floor.

Saxen, who has allowed Gael fans to quit worrying about the graduation of stellar post man Matthias Tass, has flirted with a double-double in each game this season. When he tallied his 12th rebound with plenty of time left in the game and eight points to his credit, it seemed like Sunday would be the night. The Gaels’ comfortable lead over North Texas allowed Coach Randy Bennett to give his reserves more rein, however, so Saxen sat out the rest of the game.

Raining three-pointers

The Mean Green’s defensive prowess was no mirage, and Saint Mary’s had trouble penetrating the paint for drives or easy lay-ups. They did, however, take advantage of a handful of deadly three-point shooters to sink 6-9 shots from distance in the first half and 10-18 overall (56 per cent). Ducas and Aidan Mahaney had three each, super-sub Luke Barrett was 2-2 from distance and Johnson and Kyle Bowen contributed one each.

It wasn’t a big night for offensive numbers, and the Gaels were held below the 78.5 PPG average they compiled in their first two games, but their ability to pass out of double-teams and find open shooters on the perimeter wrecked any chance the Mean Green had of staying in the game.

Sophomore guard Augustus Marciulionis, fighting hard to prove to Bennett that he deserves the role of starting point guard in Kuhse’s absence, seemed determined to break down the tough Mean Green interior defense. Marciulionis has shown a more determined mindset in his game this season after Kuhse knocked him out of the starting guard spot last year, and he attempted five drives or short jumpers in the paint despite the menace awaiting him.

He got a bloody nose for his efforts early in the first half, but got patched up and sank a resulting free throw for an early 5-0 lead (he scored the first five points). For the night, he made 4-8 field goals and a free throw for nine points, matching his total for each of the previous two games. With he and freshman sensation Mahaney — 25 points in his first collegiate game — battling it out for floor time, and the veteran Johnson lurking in the shadows and picking his spots to attack, the Gaels have a powerful guard rotation. There will be no need for Bennett to use only two guards to play nearly every minute of every game this year, which should bolster the Gaels’ in post-season play.

The reserves romp

Befitting a romp, the Gael reserves got a lot of floor time Sunday. Barrett has already established himself as an excellent back-up to Ducas at one wing position, but freshman big man Harry Wessels — 7’1″ and 250-plus pounds — forward Joshua Jefferson and guard Chris Howell, also logged major minutes. Howell seems to be having rouble fitting into the offensive smoothly, but has shone on defense, while Jefferson has shown versatility while playing both the post and strong forward positions.

But the night belonged to Wessels, who made three spectacular plays to bring a lethargic Sunday-afternoon crowd to its feet. Early on, Wessels crashed the boards after a Gael attempt and jammed home the rebound with emphasis that only a true big man can provide. In the second half, Wessels picked up a loose ball and headed downcourt for a breakaway that looked more like an elephant stampede.

Perhaps inelegantly but with determination, Wessels gained control of the loose ball and out-dribbled the Mean Green defenders to slam home another emphatic bucket. Just to show the home folks he had some more tricks up his sleeve, Wessels juked his defender in the post and scored on a nifty spin move as the clock wound down. Three-for-three plus a free throw for seven points, two rebounds and a steal made quite a nice line for 11 minutes on the floor.

The Gaels continue their five-game home schedule Wednesday against Southern, then complete the homestand on Nov. 19 against Hofstra. Other more menacing opponents lurk on the horizon, but so far Bennett’s charges have shown defensive spine and offensive chops to raise fan hopes for another memorable season.

Augustus Marciulionis shown above lifting a floater in the paint against North Texas, has scored nine points in each of the first three games while sharing the floor at point guard with Aidan Mahaney. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Much better

by Michael Vernetti

Coming off a tougher-than-expected 78-70 win over Oral Roberts University in its season-opener Monday night in Moraga, the Saint Mary’s Gaels were expecting another stiff challenge when the Vermont Catamounts rolled into town Thursday. Vermont, defending champion of the America East Conference, compiled a 28-6 season in 2020-21 that included a narrow 75-71 loss to powerhouse Arkansas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

To make things worse, Vermont had helped replenish its lineup after four starters graduated by adding former Bellarmine University star Dylan Penn as a graduate transfer. Yeah, that Dylan Penn, who scorched the Gaels for 27 points as Bellarmine gave Saint Mary’s one of its toughest non-conference games of the season last November before falling 73-64.

No worries, Gael fans, call on Kyle Bowen when the going gets tough. Bowen, the Gaels’ 6’8″ senior power forward from Australia, had a rough night himself against ORU (or Oral Bob as one wag dubbed them). Bowen scored only five points Monday night, and looked uncomfortable playing the post when Mitchell Saxen got into into foul trouble.

As if to emphasize that Monday was an aberration, Bowen started the scoring against Vermont by sinking a three-pointer within the first 30 seconds. He ended up scoring 10 points on 4-9 shooting, including another three-pointer, and grabbed six rebounds to go with his 11 from Monday, as the Gaels smothered the Catamounts (that’s Vermont for mountain lion) 79-53.

But it was what he did to Mr. Penn that had knowledgeable Gael fans smiling after the game.

As stated, Bowen is a 6’8″ forward. Penn is a shifty, 6’3″ guard who does not shoot the three-ball and gets his points by juking defenders in the paint. No way Bowen can stay with that dude, some fans might have thought. But he did, holding Penn to a measly five points until late in the game when Gael Coach Randy Bennett began substituting freely and other Gael defenders such as redshirt freshman Chris Howell, who is considered a defensive stalwart, struggled to contain Penn. Penn ended up with 13 points on the night, but Bowen had neutralized a major threat.

Symbol of a renaissance

Bowen’s game was indicative of the qualitative improvement Bennett’s charges demonstrated against Vermont. They faltered in the second half against ORU, losing the scoring battle by 10 points, 41-31, something that was unheard of last year as they dominated second halves. Last night, they added to an 11-point halftime lead (35-24) by shooting 63 per cent in the second half and pulling away for a 26-point romp.

Also uncharacteristically against ORU, the Gaels relied on one player, freshman Aidan Mahaney, for the majority of their points. Mahaney, making the most sensational Gael debut in memory, scored 25 points on 19 attempts, a big number for a Saint Mary’s guard. Mahaney came down to earth against Vermont, as a swarming defense showed the disadvantages of drawing a lot of attention to oneself. He ended up with one bucket on the night, a three-pointer late in the game.

Never fear, however, as five Gaels — that’s five as in the number of players allowed on the floor at one time — scored in double figures: senior floor leader Logan Johnson had 15; senior small forward Alex Ducas had 14; Saxen, following a 16-point effort against ORU, had 11 and flirted with a double-double as he did against ORU by grabbing eight rebounds; as mentioned, Bowen had 10 and guard Augustus Marciulionis, making a statement after being overshadowed by Mahaney in the opener, almost cracked double figures with nine tough points, mostly on determined drives in the paint.

Then there’s Luke

The fifth Gael in double figures was former walk-on Luke Barrett, pride of nearby Piedmont High School. Barrett earned his spurs against ORU by throttling explosive guard Kareem Thompson, as Bennett decided that Ducas was not up the job. That alone made him a standout, and he settled for three points on 1-4 shooting.

Against Vermont, Barrett again entered the game in relief of Ducas, after Ducas surrendered two early three-pointers and was embarrassed by former San Diego Torero Finn Sullivan by having a shot blocked that led to a run-out bucket and a 7-5 lead for Vermont. Barrett tightened up the Gaels’ three-point defense, and managed one first-half bucket on a put-back, but was saving the best for later.

On a personal 9-0 run midway through the second half, Barrett hit three three-pointers in a less-then-two-minute span to turn a comfortable lead into a rout at 57-39. True to his character, Barrett didn’t break into a big smile or wildly gesticulate. He is all-business on the floor, and acted as if he knocks off nine-point bursts on a regular basis.

Substitution pattern evolves

Another improvement for the Gaels came in the substitution pattern. Bennett, having only 10 scholarship players available with the departure of Leemet Bockler, the continued foot injury of Matt Van Komen and a decision to redshirt grad transfer Mason Forbes, doesn’t feel comfortable yet in relying solely on Aussie freshman Harry Wessels to back up Saxen in the post — no matter that Wessels has played well in limited minutes.

Bennett moved Bowen to the post against ORU, and it wasn’t pretty. Last night, he called on prize recruit Joshua Jefferson, a high-scoring forward at Liberty High School in Henderson, NV outside Las Vegas. And it worked. Jefferson is a splendid athlete, who will eventually become a star for the Gaels, probably at power forward. But he handled his post duties beautifully in 11 minutes on the floor, and scored his first bucket as a Gael with a nifty turnaround jumper in the paint.

And, although Barrett played well in relief of Ducas as he did against ORU, Bennett used Ducas more extensively against Vermont, and it paid off. Ducas sank two three-pointers, as he did against ORU, but also made several strong drives along the baseline and in the paint to show his offensive prowess. Ducas will be counted on to supply much of the Gaels’ offensive muscle this season, and he needs to shore up his defense early in the game to win minutes from Barrett.

Senior Kyle Bowen, shown above launching a three-pointer against Vermont, shut down Vermont’s explosive Dylan Penn and scored 10 points of his own to spur a Gael win Thursday. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Work to do

by Michael Vernetti

Saint May’s led Oral Roberts 49-27 at the half of last night’s 2022-23 opener for both teams in Moraga. I was happy.

Oral Roberts won the second half by 41-31, and Saint Mary’s held on for a 78-70 win. Instead of a convincing win over a quality opponent, the Gaels won by eight in a game various oddsmakers picked them to win by nine or 10. I was not happy walking out of the mostly sold-out pavilion once known as McKeon.

Among many statistical causes for heartburn was the 40 per cent shooting percentage for Oral Roberts on three-point attempts — 12 for 30. The Gaels were among the nation’s leaders in three-point denial during last year’s magical ride to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Allowing opponents to shoot 40 per cent from distance will not get them anywhere the top 10 this season.

Here’s another: nine. That was the total number of Saint Mary’s assists, a paltry sum compared to the routine 15-20-odd assists they racked up in most games last season, occasionally topping 30. The two Gael point guards, starter Augustus Marciulionis and super-sub Aidan Mahaney, accounted for just one of those nine — Marciulionis making none against two turnovers and Mahaney scratching out a single assist against one turnover.

What should a fan take away from Monday’s game? Joy in the win and in the mind-boggling debut of Mahaney, the Lafayette resident who set Campolinda High School on fire during a sensational high school career?

Relief that junior post man Mitchell Saxen exorcised any ghosts of Matthias Tass, the four-year starter in the post who left Moraga for the playing fields of pro ball in Estonia? That, too, as Saxen did everything possible to prove that he will continue the Gaels’ tradition of post superiority.

About that glass

Half-full or half-empty?

It must be said that Oral Roberts is a tough, veteran team with four players who can shoot the three-ball consistently: their star guard, Max Abmas, his running mate, Issac McBride, pony-tailed 6’5″ bull of a guard, Kareem Thompson, and the 7’5″ string bean Connor Vanover. Those four accounted for 11 of OR’s 12 made threes, and will undoubtedly top that number many times this season when faced with defenses less inspired than the Gaels.

For some of the Gaels did play inspired defense, especially the indefatigable Logan Johnson, who hounded the quick and dynamic Abmas throughout the game, holding him from his accustomed 20-plus PPG to a respectable 14.

And former walk-on now scholarship holder Luke Barrett, who was pressed into action when Gael star Alex Ducas left his feet once too many times guarding Thompson or Carlos Jurgens. Barrett logged 21 minutes in relief of Ducas (22 minutes), and absolutely refused to leave his feet when Thompson tried head fake after head fake, and was unyielding when Thompson tried to play bully-ball in the paint.

Taming the giant

Saxen also wins praise for not succumbing to the pressure of playing against Vanover, whom Gael fans may remember from a 2018 game in Moraga as a freshman at Cal. Last night, Vanover harassed the Gaels all game long, swatting away six shots and making three-of-six three-point attempts. But Saxen kept going at him, using a sweet jump hook to help rack up 16 points, grabbed eight rebounds and led the Gaels in assists with five. He also had three of the Gaels eight steals.

I couldn’t help thinking of a time in the regrettable 20-21 Covid season when the Gaels with Tass in the post crumbled under the shot-blocking prowess of another 7’5″ center, Matt Haarms of BYU, in a mortifying 65-51 loss in Provo. Vanover, who was listed as 7’3″ when he was at Cal, did not have the same devastating effect on the Gaels as Haarms did, and most of the credit goes to Saxen.

So, what’s to worry about if the Gaels withstood a tremendous comeback by Oral Roberts, seeing a once-solid 21-point lead shrink to four points, righted themselves and won? For one, who’s the Gael point guard, a question usually subjected to major scrutiny by pundits and the fan base? Marciulionis started, and seemed to carry over his commanding performance in the Blue-White scrimmage several weeks ago. He looked strong and confident, but Gael Coach Randy Bennett trusted him with the ball in his hands for exactly four minutes and 50 seconds.

It was at the 15:10 mark of the first half when Mahaney came off the bench and replaced Marciulionis, who had attempted one errant three-point shot and neither scored nor made an assist in his short stay. Less than a minute after entering the game, Mahaney sank his first three-point shot of the night, one of five (in 12 attempts) he would make on the way to a commanding 25-point performance reminiscent of Patty Mills’s 31 against Oregon in his freshman year (but not his first game).

There is no other word for Mahaney’s debut except sensational. Unless you choose unsettling, thinking of the confusion over who is going to lead this Gaels’ offense going forward. Mahaney is a lot of things, but he does not seem to be point guard in his heart — he is a scorer. Will Marciulionis be given another chance to run the point? We’ll find out Thursday night, when the Gaels face another strong mid-major team in the Vermont Catamounts.

Whither Ducas and Wessels?

Gael fans will also be wringing their hands over the role of Ducas as the season progresses. Is he deep in Bennett’s dog house or just lying on the front porch? Barrett was stellar on defense against OR, but scored just one bucket in four attempts. When the Gael offense went stagnant during OR’s second-half run, it seemed certain that Ducas would re-enter the game to loosen things up. But he didn’t.

And why was Wessels relegated to the bench after a promising two-minute debut in the first half, when he grabbed two rebounds and a steal? When Saxen was whistled for his fourth foul, Bennett rejiggered the lineup to play Kyle Bowen in the post instead of Wessels, who is the putative back-up to Saxen. What was that about? Was Wessels injured during his brief appearance? No telling, although he did not appear to be hurt.

The story continues Thursday night.

Aidan Mahaney, the freshman from Campolinda in Moraga, led all scorers with 25 points Monday night, including the attempt pictured above. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

UCLA ends Gaels’ Sweet Sixteen hopes

by Michael Vernetti

Sometime in the early going of Saint Mary’s second-round NCAA game against UCLA on Saturday — when the Gaels were looking suspiciously like the squad that had annihilated Indiana by 29 points (82-53) two days earlier — UCLA Coach Mick Cronin found himself chafing under a sideline reporter’s annoying questions.

“Why had Saint Mary’s cruised to leads of 16-9 and 20-13 against his defensive-minded team?” she asked. “They’re too comfortable,” Cronin snapped, meaning his team had not harassed the Gaels sufficiently to disrupt their offensive flow. The Bruins took their leader’s advice and made things anything but comfortable from about the mid-point of the first half until the end of a disappointing 72-56 loss.

As if a switch had been thrown by the basketball gods, Saint Mary’s lost the glow that came from the Indiana win and the hope of facing North Carolina next week in the Sweet Sixteen round of March Madness. Turnovers, missed shots and blown defensive assignments brought the Gaels from that 16-9 lead with 12:29 left in the first half to a seven-point halftime deficit of 36-29.

Two turnovers, one a travel in the paint by a beleaguered Matthias Tass and the other a botched pass by Alex Ducas, gave UCLA life. A block of a Tass shot by Jaime Jacquez Jr. — an early best bet for tournament MVP — led to a run-out goal by UCLA that cut the deficit to 22-19, and then ensued a nightmare series for Tass’s back-up, sophomore Mitchell Saxen.

In the next several possessions, Saxen missed two bunnies that would have halted UCLA’s momentum, misfired on a put-back of a missed lay-up attempt by Tommy Kuhse, and finally tapped in a miss by Logan Johnson, but was called for basket interference. Saxen probably hated the Gaels’ flight home from Portland more than most of his teammates, but his troubles overshadowed the progress he has made his year and the promise he shows for the future.

Saxen wasn’t alone in the misery that took the Gaels from a comfortable-seeming lead to a 24-22 deficit at the 6:30 mark of the first half: Alex Ducas, one of the stars of the Indiana win, missed a floater in the paint and Tass missed a put-back; Johnson misfired on a three-point attempt, then couldn’t finish a drive; Kuhse followed suit with a missed drive of his own, then Johnson failed to convert another drive to the hoop; Kuhse turned up the misery index by then missing a jumper in the paint, and the Gaels had left 15 points on the floor over a span of about three minutes.

UCLA responds

Seemingly at every Saint Mary’s miss came a UCLA basket: following the blocked Tass shot, Jacquez scored on a run-out, then scored again when he drew Kuhse on a defensive switch, a bucket that brought UCLA dangerously close at 22-21. After Johnson’s missed three-pointer, the Bruins’s star of the future, Jules Bernard, sank a three-pointer over Kuhse that gave UCLA its first lead at 24-22. Another Bruin sub, Peyton Watson, put the finishing touch on the run by sinking a jumper in the paint to push UCLA’s lead to 26-22.

To emphasize the Gaels’ frustration, Johnson then threw away what should have been a routine entry pass to Tass, which earned Johnson a seat on the bench. Johnson, who would lead the Gaels in scoring with 18 points following a 20-point effort against Indiana, could only sit in misery as his substitute, Augustas Marciulionis, was burned twice by UCLA’s dynamic point guard, Tyger Campbell, to push UCLA’s lead to 30-22.

Although Saint Mary’s would creep to within a point, 38-37, thanks to a five-point run by Ducas, and, later to within four points, 48-44, at the 11:42 mark of the second half, that first-half push by UCLA seemingly doomed the Gaels. They wilted while the Bruins soared, and Saint Mary’s couldn’t find the magic that marked the final weeks of what remains a glorious ’21-22 season.

Gritty, not pretty

An undefeated home record — first in program history — a league win over Gonzaga and the team’s highest-ever NCAA seed, 5th, ensured that the “Gritty, not pretty” crew will be long remembered by Gael fans. Due to the uncertainties of Covid-related rules changes, Gael Coach Randy Bennett cannot be sure who will show up for the first day of practice next October.

Although Tass, Johnson, Dan Fotu and Kuhse received the traditional going-away honors on Senior Night before the Gonzaga game, all of them except Kuhse could invoke the new rules and return, even though Bennett has recruited three strong players to take their spots: center Harry Wessels of Australia, forward Joshua Jefferson of Liberty High in Henderson, NV, and guard Aidan Mahaney of Campolinda High in Moraga.

Questions remain about next year to be sure, but Bennett and the Gaels changed the conversation about Saint Mary’s basketball this season, quieting talk of competitors such as BYU, San Francisco or Santa Clara surpassing the Gaels as primary challengers to Gonzaga as league leaders.

BYU is on the way out of the WCC by a football-driven decision to join the Big 12 Conference, and San Francisco has lost is dynamic young coach, former Gael Todd Golden, to the allure of a six-year, $18 million contract with Florida. Bennett, finishing his 21st year in Moraga, doesn’t appear to be headed anywhere, and he relishes the opportunity to coach Mahaney, a childhood friend of his sons Chase and Cade, in the coming season.

Shed a tear for what might have been in Portland, but don’t despair of the Gaels’ future.

Logan Johnson, shown above from an earlier game, shone as a defensive and offensive star for the Gaels in the NCAA Tournament, totaling 38 points in the two games. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

On to the Dance

by Michael Vernetti

The turning point of Saint Mary’s two-day stay in Las Vegas — the point that determined it a favorable result instead of a titanic triumph — came at the 9:13 mark of he second half in last night’s game against Gonzaga.

Following a steal by Alex Ducas and a foul on Dan Fotu on the ensuing run-out, the Gaels pulled within two points of Gonzaga, 52-50, with Fotu’s two made free throws. That sequence topped a steady erosion of Gonzaga’s 10-point halftime lead, 38-28. It put the Gaels in position to complete a two-game, 10-day sweep of the Zags that would have stunned the college basketball world and possibly endangered Gonzaga’s position as the overall no. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

Alas, it wasn’t to be.

Many observers felt that Saint Mary’s 67-57 win over the Zags Feb. 26 in Moraga required a perfect performance by the Gaels — a razor-thin margin between just another good try and the massive effort required for a monumental upset. The Gaels had that edge on Feb. 26, but the Zags got it back last night.

How perfect was the Zags’ response to the Gaels nipping threateningly at their position atop college basketball?

Following Fotu’s free throws, Gonzaga made five tough, contested shots in a row — including a step-back three-pointer by Rasir Bolton with Tommy Kuhse in his face — while Saint Mary’s countered with just a Matthias Tass tip-in and two free throws from Ducas. While the Zags were perfect, Saint Mary’s suffered an agonizing miss by Logan Johnson on a ferocious drive into the paint that just rolled off the rim, and another near-miss on an equally-determined drive by Fotu.

That burst of excellence by Gonzaga and heartbreak by the Gaels turned a tenuous, two-point lead over a determined challenger, to a seven-point lead, 61-54, that must have seemed massive to the gritty Gael defenders. With the Gaels wounded, Gonzaga continued to separate, with Bolton extending the margin to nine points with a runner in the paint and a free throw to counter a single free throw by Kuhse.

Still fighting, Saint Mary’s crawled back behind another tough drive by Johnson to cut the margin to 65-57. As if to punish Johnson for his effrontery, Andrew Nembhard, the Zags’ scoring leader, sank a cold-blooded three-pointer with Johnson sagging off just enough to make the shot possible. The ensuing 11-point lead, 68-57, at the 4:15 mark, almost mirrored the final margin of 13 points, 82-69, and marked the unofficial end of the Gaels’ challenge.

Gonzaga was perfect, the Gaels merely scrappy, and that was the difference.

Similar to Santa Clara game

Ironically, the Gaels facing a stretch of nearly flawless basketball resembled the situation on Monday night against Santa Clara. In that instance, however, Saint Mary’s was in seeming control of the game with a 65-51 lead and 9:06 left in the game. The lead nearly increased to an insurmountable 68-53 when Kuhse apparently sank a three-pointer after a rebound scramble, but a review showed that the ball was still in Kuhse’s hand as the shot clock expired.

Whether Santa Clara drew strength from that reprieve, or just summoned its own inner excellence, the Broncos made life miserable for the Gaels from that point on. Their weapons were ferocious offensive rebounding to keep key possessions alive and some remarkable shooting by Josip Vrankic and Keshawn Justice.

Vrankic, who has been a menace to the Gaels throughout a standout career at Santa Clara, led the charge by rebounding a teammates’ miss and going up for a put-back. The Gaels’ reserve center, Mitchell Saxen, blocked Vrankic’s initial put-back attempt, but Vrankic recovered the ball and scored on a second effort to bring the Broncos to 65-56 with 7:12 left in the game.

A series of unfortunate calls and ball-control miscues ensued, including a traveling call on Tass, followed by Tass throwing away the ball on a routine pass. On the ensuing run-out by Santa Clara, Johnson made one of the best defensive efforts of the tournament, standing his ground under the basket as Vrankic charged into the lane and neatly taking the ball out of Vrankic’s hands before he could shoot.

His reward for that stellar bit of defense? A foul call by one of the referees, sending Vrankic to the free-throw line for two makes that cut the lead to 67-60. Vrankic followed up the free throws by taking a rebound away from Tass on a missed shot by Santa Clara star Jalen Williams and putting it back in to narrow the lead to 67-62.

Ups and downs for Tass

Gael Coach Randy Bennett showed his continued support for Tass by calling a play for the 6’10” Estonian out of a timeout — and Tass delivered a clutch bucket to give his teammates some breathing room at 69-62. Tass then suffered the same problem that Johnson did a few minutes earlier when an eager referee detected something amiss with a screen Tass set. Rigorous examination of the game tape could detect nothing more than a textbook screen by Tass, but, nevertheless, the result was a turnover to the Broncos at exactly the wrong time.

Then Mr. Justice made his presence felt in a painful way for the Gaels, sinking a corner three-pointer that brought the Broncos to within four points at 69-65. Following some back-and-forth action that moved the score to 73-67, the combination of offensive rebounding and Justice struck again.

Jaden Bediako usually provides Santa Clara not much more than a big body inside to intimidate shooters, but he showed the same determination on a miss by the Broncos’ PJ Pipes that hurt Saint Mary’s down the stretch. Bediako outfought Gael defenders after Pipes misfired, secured the ball and fired it out to the waiting arms of Justice in the short corner.

That Justice sank the three-pointer and cut the margin to one point, 73-72, should not have surprised any Gael supporters at the Orleans Arena or watching on ESPN. There were 42 seconds left in the game and the Broncos were in business, especially after Kuhse had a jumper in the paint blocked by Williams.

Williams, the Broncos star guard who had been hyped by ESPN announcer Sean Farnham into a potential lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft, steamed down court after blocking Kuhse. No one in the sensate world doubted he was taking his team’s destiny in his hands, and few doubted his ability to connect on one of his specialty shots — a runner in the paint.

But they didn’t count on Johnson, the epitome of Gael grit who had harassed Williams into a below-par 15-point effort, especially considering that Williams racked up 11 points in the first half alone. Johnson hovered near Williams’ right hand, then leaped into the air as the Bronco star released whet many thought would be a game-winning shot — and blocked it cleanly.

The Gaels’ Kyle Bowen rebounded the miss and shoveled it quickly to Johnson, who was promptly fouled. With 3.6 seconds left on the clock, Johnson calmly sank two free throw to put the Gaels ahead 75-72 and massively complicate Santa Clara’s chances for a buzzer-beater. Indeed, Johnson met Williams along the sideline after Santa Clara inbounded the ball, and forced him into a difficult heave that clanked harmlessly off the rim to give the Gaels a chance to face Gonzaga in the championship game.

Perfection/near perfection were the prime subjects of this two-day sojourn into the desert that left the Gaels’ regular-season record at 25-7 and solidly within the Top 20 teams in the nation. Selection Sunday on March 13 will determine which of those teams or the 40 or so other participants in the NCAA Tournament Saint Mary’s will face as the Dance progresses.

Tommy Kuhse has become the face of Saint Mary’s in the final weeks of the 21-22 season, including the WCC Tournament in which he scored 42 points and led his teammates in every way possible. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Don’t call it an upset

by Michael Vernetti

This one was different.

Unlike other Saint Mary’s wins over Gonzaga through the years — scarce as hens’ teeth — there was no singular outstanding performance or memorable turning point in the Gaels’ 67-57 win Saturday night in Moraga.

No Paul Marigney 40-point outburst from back in the day, no Mickey McConnell floater in the paint in Spokane, no Jordan Hunter monster game four years ago for the WCC championship. This was a methodical disassembly of one of the most prolific offensive juggernauts in recent college basketball history.

The Gaels harassed, defended and befuddled Zag nemeses such as Drew Timme from the outset, blocking shots, digging out turnovers and stealing passes to hold Gonzaga some 30 points under its usual per-game average. They outshot the Zags by 44 per cent to 37 per cent, out-rebounded them 37-33 and forced 14 Zag turnovers against four assists. Defensive domination.

The Zags’ vaunted front court combination of Timme and 7’1″ Chet Holmgren — endlessly characterized by pundits, announcers and sportswriters as the best tandem in the country — scored 12 points between them. The Gaels’ combo of Matthias Tass, Kyle Bowen and Mitchell Saxen totaled 26 points and pulled down 13 rebounds. Saxen, a sparingly-used sophomore from Washington, blocked three shots to Holmgren’s four, and outscored the Boy Wonder seven points to six — in 16 minutes compared to Holmgren’s 32.

Wire-to-wire

The Gaels blasted out of the gate to an 8-0 lead in the first three minutes behind the incomparable Tommy Kuhse and the oft-embattled Tass. The Zags’ first pass of the game was intercepted by Bowen, and Kuhse calmly waltzed down the paint at the other end of the court and scored a lay-up to start things off. Logan Johnson, who had a defensive game for the history books, promptly snatched the ball out of Holmgren’s hands and led a textbook fast break with Alex Ducas that ended with a Ducas lay-up and a 4-0 lead.

Tass, serving notice that the paint was not going to be Zag territory, followed with two scores around a three-pointer by the Zags’ stellar point guard, Andrew Nembhard, for a 10-3 lead that expanded to 12-3 on another lay-up by Kuhse before the first media time-out. The die was cast, although Saint Mary’s endured several stress points throughout the game.

To keep Tass from sinking into foul trouble — he picked up a quick one on a ticky-tack push-off call in the first five minutes — Gael Coach Randy Bennett subbed in Saxen. It turned out to be an inspired move, as Saxen immediately flummoxed Holmgren with a spin move, reverse lay-up and foul for a 15-5 lead. A few minutes later, the defensively-challenged Timme left Saxen alone while jumping out on a pick-and-roll initiated by Kuhse. Seeing Saxen alone under the bucket, Kuhse rifled a pass to him that he converted for a 19-12 lead (the Zags were rallying).

Saxen then defended Timme on his patented spin move, and on a subsequent possession knocked away an entry pass intended for Timme. When he finished his 10-minute relief stint for Tass with a put-back off a missed three-point attempt, Saxen had scored seven points, blocked three shots, grabbed three rebounds and stolen the ball once. Quality minutes, indeed.

Another bench star

Almost simultaneously with Saxen’s impressive play off the bench, Jabe Mullins made a mark of his own after subbing in for Ducas. After a bad miss by the Zags’ Hunter Sallis, Mullins pulled a trick out of the Gonzaga playbook and leaked out toward the Saint Mary’s basket. Johnson spotted him and sent a perfect lead pass that Mullins caught and laid in for a 24-16 lead with 6:32 left in the half.

Mullins, the sophomore recruiting class star with Saxen who is paying bigger dividends as the season progresses, then made back-to-back defensive stops. First came a clean steal from Timme, who was coughing up more turnovers (four) than he was making baskets (zero at that point). Nothing eventuated from that theft, but Mullins was just getting warmed up.

On the Zags’ next possession, Mullins victimized Holmgren with a steal of a weak cross-court pass and took off for the basket, finishing with his left hand when challenged at the rim. That brought the Gaels to a 31-16 lead and caused Gonzaga Coach Mark Few to call time out. At this point, Gael fans knew their heroes would face a severe Zag challenge to whittle away that lead before halftime, and they braced for the worse.

It looked as if it were coming, as Holmgren scored off an alley-top following the time out, Kuhse coughed up the ball under pressure and Nembhard made the Gaels pay with a three-pointer that cut the lead to 31-20. The Gaels held the lead at 10 points as the clock wound down under two minutes and Mullins positioned himself in the short corner of the offensive end. He confidently swished a three-pointer to push the lead back to 13 points and set the stage for a final Gael dagger before halftime.

Johnson turned the tables on the other excellent Gonzaga guard, Rasir Bolton, whom he had been battling throughout the game, by losing Bolton in traffic on an out-of-bounds play. Open under the bucket, Johnson converted to give his team a 15-point lead, 36-21 at the break. It was about as perfect a half as any Randy Bennett team has ever played, and major credit went to Saxen and Mullins and their 14 points off the bench.

The rest of the story

The second half began as did the Zag pseudo-run toward the end of the half, with Nembhard taking advantage of another SMC turnover — this one by Johnson — to nail a three-pointer. Then began a mystifying run of bad shooting by Bowen, who whiffed on four straight three-point attempts over the next 11 minutes. The Gaels didn’t wilt under the pressure caused by Bowen’s misfiring, however, bolstered by big buckets from Ducas — he hit his first three-pointer of the game at the 15:56 mark to keep the Gaels ahead by 44-30 — and a two-play mini-highlight reel by Johnson that sent a fevered crowd into near hysteria.

Following Timme’s first basket of the night at the 14:46 mark that brought the Zags within 46-32 and might have served as a rallying point for his team, Johnson again victimized Bolton on an out-of-bounds play. This time Johnson dribbled by Bolton at the top of the key and steamed toward the bucket, defended by Timme. Obviously judging his opponent correctly, Johnson challenged Timme with a slam-dunk attempt…and Timme blinked. He didn’t even challenge he 6’1″ Johnson, backing off his 6’10” frame as if to say, “I don’t want to be on a Gael poster.”

To say Johnson’s courageous slam riled up the crowd might imply that it was sleeping at that point. In fact, the Gael student body was on hyper-activity mode from the get-go, so Johnson’s play merely poured gasoline on a roaring flame. Johnson wasn’t about to let the fire go out.

With the Gaels still holding a comfortable lead, 50-34, Kuhse was stripped on one of his forays into the paint, and it looked as if the Zags were off to the races. Sallis was out front with the ball, but Ducas gave ground near the bucket and kept Sallis in front of him. Ducas’ heady play allowed Johnson to make up enough ground to soar across the paint and swat away Sallis’ lay-up attempt, and then corral the ball before it went out of bounds.

What’s the point beyond hysteria? Check the crowd shots from that moment and you will have an answer.

More drama

Despite Johnson’s momentous plays, the Zags still were not finished, and Bowen was not through clanking three-point attempts. After missing his fourth in a row, during which time the Gael lead shrank to 50-40, Ducas bailed out his fellow Aussie. Ducas and Bowen came to Saint Mary’s from the same part of Australia, and, by all reports, are inseparable friends. So friendly, in fact, that the shiner Ducas has been sporting since the San Diego game last Thursday, was compliments of an errant Bowen elbow thrown inadvertently while the two watched a Gael baseball game.

Ducas clearly harbored no hard feelings, as he chose the moment of Bowen’s offensive nadir — that fourth missed three-pointer — to can a second huge three-pointer of his own that restored the Gael lead to 53-40 with 7:42 to go. That didn’t get the Gaels out of the woods, however, as the Zags’ Julian Strawther, a thorn in the Gaels’ side to rival Nembhard and Bolton, nailed a three-pointer to bring the game back within range at 57-50.

So how did Bowen react to this ebb and flow, prominently featuring his long-range shooting ineptitude? By sinking his next two three-point attempts and restoring the Gael lead to nine points, 63-54 with less than two minutes left. So compelling was this plot turn that Zag Coach Few chose an out-of-bounds play in front of the Zag bench to chat up Bowen about it. It would take a mind-reader to describe exactly what was being said, but Few was obviously amused enough by Bowen’s chutzpah to break out a smile in the face of defeat.

And a defeat it was, one that gave the Gaels’ undeniable momentum heading into the WCC Tournament next week in Las Vegas, an undefeated home record for the first time in school history and an undoubted improvement in their national ranking. Their reward for all these good deeds? Potentially a rematch with Gonzaga for the WCC Tournament championship on March 8. Stay tuned.

Logan Johnson, shown above harassing the Zags’ Andrew Nembhard, led a stout Gael defense, while scoring 10 points, leading all Gaels with eight rebounds and picking up two steals and a block. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.