Missions accomplished

by Michael Vernetti

You could look at the first half of Saint Mary’s 66-46 win over Missouri State Wednesday in Moraga in a couple of ways.

One would be that the Gaels were feeling their way against Mo State, even though the two teams met last year at Saint Mary’s and the Gaels won 75-58. However, this year’s edition of the Bears from the Missouri Valley Conference is almost completely different from last year’s scrappy crew that went 23-11 and earned a berth in the NIT. Mo State has 14 new players, including eight transfers, so some caution was to be expected.

Caution as in a 26-21 halftime lead.

An alternate view was that Saint Mary’s had an additional mission last night besides ending a three-game losing streak against Washington, New Mexico and top-ranked Houston: get Mitchell Saxen back to his usual position of dominance in the paint that suffered a big blow against the ultra-athletic Houston Cougars. After a game spent trying to pass out of an aggressive double-team and dodging leaping Cougars on every shot he attempted — netting just four points and coughing up four turnovers — Saxen was a prime focus of Randy Bennett’s offense from the opening tip.

Operating with confidence and crispness, Saxen scored the Gaels’ first six points on both right-and-left-handed short hooks, and eight of their first 12 points. He ended the half with 15 of the Gaels’ 26 points and no turnovers, giving the Bears’ 6’11”, 260-pound Dawson Carper fits. It was vintage Saxen, and just what the Gaels needed to re-establish their post-oriented, in-and-out offense.

So concentrated were the Gaels on featuring Saxen that two of its leading scorers, Alex Ducas and Aidan Mahaney, were scoreless at the half. That would soon end.

Second-half explosion

Where the Gaels were careful and precise in the first half — only four turnovers following 16 or 17 turnovers per game during their three-game losing streak — they were loose and deadly following the break. Mahaney single-handedly ended his scoring drought by stripping a Missouri State guard and sprinting the length of the floor for a thundering dunk to announce his presence.

After another steal — Saint Mary’s forced Mo State into 13 turnovers and swiped the ball five times — Ducas sank a three-pointer and suddenly the Gaels were up by 10 points, 33-23. Mo State called time-out at the 17:55 mark as if to ask, “What is going on here?”

It was a full-scale Saint Mary’s blitz, as in rapid succession Logan Johnson fired a dart to Ducas under the basket and he scored, Mahaney drove the paint for a lay-up, Ducas scored again from under the bucket and Mahaney hit a three-pointer. Presto-chango, the Gaels were up 44-31.

While the emphasis on Saxen waned — he finished the night with 19 points, six rebounds, two blocks and two steals — the Gaels’ up-and-down guard corps also staged a resurgence from the losing streak. The trio of Mahaney, Johnson and Augustus Marciulionis were slapped in the face by New Mexico’s talented guards, and even though Johnson and Mahaney were brilliant in the Houston loss, Marciulionis fired a goose egg in just 11 minutes on the floor.

Mahaney’s first start

Seemingly acknowledging a changing of the guard, actually and metaphorically, Bennett started Mahaney at the point in place of Marciulionis, the freshman’s first start of his short college career. What effect did that change have on Marciulionis or the Gael chemistry in general? No apparent change, as Marciulionis posted a sharp, eight-point effort in 17 minutes — including a three-pointer that he has struggled to master — and Mahaney and Johnson operated smoothly in their time together.

Although scoring just six points following his team-leading 17 against Houston, Johnson offered his usual hard-nosed defense and survived a jolt to his surgically-repaired shoulder in a second-half rebound collision. Mahaney, following his first-half shutout, almost matched Saxen’s numbers for the game, scoring 13 points on 6-11 shooting against Saxen’s 8-12 posting.

Gael fans have enjoyed dual point guards in the past — the combo of Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon comes immediately to mind — but got used to the Tommy Kuhse-dominated offense of the past few years. The three-man rotation on display this season may prove just as effective, and will have the added benefit of keeping all three guards fresher than if they each played 38-40 minutes per game.

All three delivered NBA-caliber assists against Mo State, with Johnson kicking things off with the bullet he fired to Ducas at the start of the second half, and with a delicate pocket-pass to the rolling Saxen later on. Marciulionis delivered a brilliant look-away pass to Saxen in the second half, and Mahaney dropped a no-look dime on Saxen just before his second steal-and-dunk of the game for a 58-40 lead near the end of the second half.

The trio accounted for seven assists against four turnovers , which will probably stand the Gaels in good stead as the season progresses. With Saxen back in the scoring saddle, and with the guard rotation seemingly in good shape, Saint Mary’s seems ready to take on the rest of its tough non-conference schedule.

Next up is a ranked San Diego State squad on Saturday in Phoenix, AZ, followed by New Mexico State and Colorado State at home before meeting Wyoming back in Phoenix on Dec. 21. The Gaels will be tested — and maybe well-prepared — when the first WCC game of the season takes place at home against an improved San Diego squad on Dec. 29.

Logan Johnson, shown above scoring against Missouri State last night, anchors a three-man guard rotation for Saint Mary’s. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Toe to toe

by Michael Vernetti

To say the Saint Mary’s Gaels had a lot to prove against the nation’s number one team, the Houston Cougars, Saturday in Ft. Worth, TX, was a bit of an understatement.

Following two successive losses to good but not invincible teams — Washington and New Mexico — many questions were floating in the air respecting the Gaels: were they as good as advertised in the pre-season and during a strong six-game wining streak to open the season?

Could they score consistently to back up a stout defense? Was their three-man back court of Logan Johnson, Augustus Marciulionis and freshman Aidan Mahaney up to the high standards of previous Randy Bennett-coached teams?

That last question arose primarily because of lackluster efforts by Johnson in the Washington and New Mexico games — five points against UW and four against UNM. One cheeky commentator even went so far as to theorize that perhaps Johnson should be replaced as a starter by Mahaney, who would team with Marciulionis as the point guard. Johnson, this commentator opined, might put his energy and defensive chops to better use coming off the bench than logging starter minutes.

As the lawyers like to say, those questions were asked and answered by the Houston game. Johnson revived his leadership status with a daring, often brilliant offensive outburst — team-leading 17 points — and a stifling defensive effort against Houston’s leading scorer, Marcus Sasser — 13 points on 4-12 shooting.

Johnson’s heroic performance was the shining light in the Gaels’ 53-48 loss to Houston.

That other guard spot

As for Mahaney, his performance was perhaps even more noteworthy than Johnson’s since he is a freshman. Mahaney had also sagged somewhat in the two losses, scoring a respectable 11 points in each, but misfiring badly from long-distance and making a combined 4-19 shots from three-point range.

He went 4-8 from distance against Houston on the way to 14 points, but the mere numbers don’t tell the whole story. Four times in the second half when the Gaels were mounting an improbable comeback against the Cougars, Mahaney nailed three-pointers that kept their slim hopes alive.

None was more crucial than the one he made with a little than 13 minutes left and Houston seemingly on a roll toward a convincing victory. Another Gael freshman, forward Joshua Jefferson, had a shot blocked by Houston’s J’Wan Roberts, then Roberts scored on the other end to put his team up by 12 points, 39-27.

Mahaney’s answering three-pointer cut that margin to 39-30, and the Gaels had a new lease on life. Forward Alex Ducas matched Mahaney’s three-pointer a few minutes later to cut the margin to 41-33 with 11:3 left in the game, and then it was time for still another freshman, Chris Howell, to provide a huge lift to his team.

Howell, a defensive standout from San Diego who red-shirted last year, saved Johnson’s pride after Johnson was stripped by a Houston defender. The Gaels survived Johnson’s gaffe, one of only two turnovers he suffered under intense pressure from the Houston ball hawks, and then Howell scored in the paint to bring them within eight points at 43-35.

Howell then stripped a Houston guard and scored again on a floater in the paint to bring the Gaels within six points, 43-37 with nine minutes left in the game. The impossible was within sight, as Saint Mary’s had held Houston to just 12 points in the second half. Feeling the momentum shift, Mahaney drained his second three-pointer to bring his team to within three points, 43-40.

Another Houston stalwart, forward Truman Mark, answered with a stinging three-pointer to put the margin at 46-40, but Mahaney again answered a Houston advance with his third three-pointer of the half and a 46-43 deficit with plenty of time left, more than six minutes. It was then that the Gaels’ weakness in the paint emerged again to derail the comeback effort.

Junior center Mitchell Saxen struggled mightily against Houston’s swarming defense, scoring just four points at that point and coughing up the ball numerous times. Saxen gave up a close-in bucket by the pesky Roberts — who hurt the Gaels more than Sasser — then failed to convert a bunny when the Gaels got the ball back. He was fouled, but missed both three throws to continue a trend that was magnified in the Washington game when he went 5-12 from the line in a four-point loss.

Disaster strikes

Up by five points, 48-43, Houston showed the moxie that has carried them to an unbeaten 8-0 record and the number one ranking among college teams. Sasser, Houston’s scoring and emotional leader, took things into his own hands. Dribbling to his right, Sasser floated toward the end line with three Gaels in close proximity. Kyle Bowen, the closest to him, bumped him slightly, but it didn’t seem to matter as Sasser tossed up what looked like a prayer as he fell out of bounds.

Incredibly, it went in. Even more incredibly, Bowen was called for a foul, which gave Sasser a bonus free throw. He sank that for a 51-43 lead at the 3:14 mark, and the Gael hopes seemed doomed.

Someone forgot to tell Mahaney.

After the teams traded points over the next few possessions, Mahaney sank another three-pointer — his fourth of the half — and gave the Gaels new fight at 53-48. Unfortunately, it failed to ignite a closing charge, and the game ended on that score.

There are no moral victories, as any coach will tell you, but the Gaels salvaged several important accomplishments which should stand them in good stead for the rest of the season. For one, they showed the world that they have a first class back court in Mahaney and Johnson, with Marciulionis in reserve. Mahaney is not a conventional point guard, but he and Johnson proved to be a formidable duo against the nation’s number one team, and will attempt to carry momentum from the Houston game into the future.

Saint Mary’s might also have resolved a question of back-up small forward through the play of Howell, who logged 10 minutes in his longest stint to date. Sandbagged by the departure of Jabe Mullins for Washington State and Leemet Bockler to his home country of Estonia. Bennett turned to former walk-on Luke Barrett to back up Ducas. Although proving himself a solid defender, Barrett did not give the Gaels much scoring off the bench.

Not only did Howell shine on defense against Houston, the two buckets he scored in a second-half burst were instrumental in the Gaels’ comeback. Although a guard, Howell stands 6’6″ and seems capable of filling the small forward position.

It will also not be lost on many observers that the Gaels — despite scoring just 48 points — outshot Houston both from conventional range, 37 per cent versus 36.8 per cent, but also from three-point range, 41 per cent versus 27 per cent. They out-rebounded the athletic Cougars 36-27, and registered 14 assists on 17 made shots.

Troubling for Bennett was the continuing issue with turnovers, as the Gaels coughed up the ball 17 times compared to only five turnovers for the Cougars. That will have to improve if the Gaels are to reach the lofty goals they set for themselves for this season.

Aidan Mahaney, shown above in a game from earlier this season, scored 14 points and accounted for five assists in a spectacular game against Houston. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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.