Now the rubber

by Michael Vernetti

After a pleasant evening Thursday in Moraga, beating a hapless Pacific squad 83-52 and clinching at least a share of the WCC title before a delirious crowd, Saint Mary’s faced a few harsh realities two nights later amid the pandemonium of Gonzaga’s kennel: a 77-68 loss that reminded them — if they needed reminding — that nothing less than a maximum effort will ever topple the Zags under Mark Few.

The Gaels performed well under the bar needed to upset Gonzaga on its home court, but nevertheless salvaged a few nuggets that will make a third showdown at next week’s WCC Tournament in Las Vegas worth watching — if both teams advance to the championship game.

Most importantly, they bounced back from two horrid stretches in both halves that gave Gonzaga seemingly insurmountable leads of 19 points (39-20) in the first half and the same margin (48-29) in the second, and actually outscored the Zags by four points in the second half, 42-38. Their refusal to buckle allowed them to close within five points of the Zags, 67-62, at the 2:54 mark of the second half following a three-point basket by freshman Joshua Jefferson.

The seeds of their deficits were different, but equally bitter. Oddly enough for a Gael squad that had seemingly perfected stoic indifference to any kind of adversity in crucial games against the Zags a few weeks ago in Moraga and BYU in both Provo and Moraga, they got rattled by a simple zone press thrown at them to begin Saturday’s game. Particularly freshman sensation Aidan Mahaney.

The Gaels have faced similar full-court presses many times this season, and overcome them with a similar formula: one guard, say Logan Johnson, takes the inbounds pass and dribbles until he faces double-team pressure. He then passes to the other guard, say Mahaney, who likewise dribbles until he reaches a pressure point.

In every instance I can remember, the second guard then passes backward to his teammate, who dribbles across the half court line into safety. Against Gonzaga, however, the Gael guards eschewed the second backward pass and looked to find someone down court. Mahaney did that twice in the early going, turning the ball over both times, and his carelessness with the ball seemed to infect his teammates.

Center Mitchell Saxen, who had a miserable time in Spokane, let the shot clock elapse without getting off a shot following Mahaney’s second turnover, then uber-reliable senior Kyle Bowen threw away a simple entry pass to freshman Harry Wessels — in for Saxen who picked up two quick fouls — allowing the Zags to ease into a 20-12 lead.

Back in, Saxen committed another turnover trying to connect with a slashing Alex Ducas, throwing the pass behind Ducas as he stormed toward the bucket. As if to reinforce a lesson they had been taught many times, the Gaels then ran into some bad luck to compound their bad play.

Zags take advantage

Having climbed back into range of the Zags at 24-19, the Gaels defended perennial thorn-in-the-side Drew Timme, only to allow Julian Strawther to grab the rebound and put back a bunny to push the score to 26-19. On the following possession, fifth-year senior Johnson eschewed the second back court pass and fired a cross-court missile to a fan in the stands instead of one of his teammates.

Wessels, back in for Saxen, then fouled Strawther on a too-aggressive hedge, and Strawther sank both free throws. Johnson stemmed the tide momentarily by making two free throws to put the score at 28-20 with 4:25 left in the half, then disaster struck.

Reserve Zag guard Malachi Smith burned Johnson on a drive; his back court mate, Nolan Hickman, hit his only three-pointer of the night in five tries; Mahaney was picked dribbling into traffic and the Zags scored to push the lead to 37-20. Saxen committed his third blunder of the half with another pass to the Zag fans in the stands — who looked as if they were having enough fun without the Gaels adding to their enjoyment — Timme scored underneath and, presto chango, the Zags were up 39-20.

Saint Mary’s didn’t start the second half as if Coach Randy Bennett had inspired them with a halftime speech, giving up an open three-pointer by Anton Watson, suffering two missed lay-ups by Wessels and then allowing Watson to score in the paint for the Zags’ second 19-point lead of the night at 48-29. Something had to change, and Bennett rolled the dice with Jefferson, the 6’8″ power forward from Henderson, NV, who has been earning increased court time as the season winds down, inserting him with 16:07 left.

The Jefferson highlight reel

Combining Jefferson with Bowen in the front court — leaving Saxen on the bench — seemed to give the Gaels life. Mahaney, blanked in the first half, scored his first bucket of the night, a three-pointer, to pull the Gaels to within 15 points at 50-35. Johnson added five quick points on three free throws and a lay-up, Jefferson scored in the paint and suddenly the score was 52-41.

On the Zags’ next possession, Jefferson stole the entry pass to Watson, and Mahaney cashed in with another three-pointer to cut the lead to eight points at 52-44. To help keep it that way, Jefferson then blocked a Timme shot underneath the basket. You might want to read that last sentence one more time: a Gael defender blocked a shot attempt by Timme.

Mahaney reprieved his magical performance against Gonzaga in Moraga on Feb. 4 by driving the Zags’ best defender, the 6’8″ Watson, for a bucket to bring the Gaels within six points at 52-46, but that success was short-lived. Although the Gaels’ Johnson played his usual yeoman’s defense on Zag guards Smith and Razir Bolton, Smith beat him on a backdoor cut to increase the Zag lead. Ducas answered with a flying tip-in of a Bowen miss, however, to put it back to a six-point game, 54-48, with about 11 minutes left, and Jefferson grabbed a huge rebound on a missed corner three-point attempt by Strawther.

This was a crucial point in the game for the Gaels’ chances to salvage a remarkable win after trailing at two different times by 19 points. And they couldn’t capitalize.

The turnover bug

With momentum in their favor, the Gaels came up court with a chance to trim the lead to four or even three points. Alas, the turnover bug, which they had squashed in the second half, came alive one more time. Mahaney thought Ducas was going to break toward the basket and fired a pass that would have led him there, but Ducas wasn’t on the same page. He stayed put, Mahaney’s pass rolled out of bounds and the Zags were licking their chops.

Once again Smith burned Johnson, sinking a killer three-point shot that sapped the Gaels’ momentum. Cynics might have declared the game over at that point with Gonzaga enjoying a nine-point lead, 57-48, with time running out. Gael fans aren’t cynics. Jefferson once again provided his teammates a lift, challenging Timme with a jumper in the paint, and the Zags’ star slashed Jefferson across the arm, sending him to the free-throw line.

With nothing less than the game and a chance for the Gaels to win an outright regular-season conference title at stake, Jefferson calmly sank both free throws to put the score at 57-50. Timme is not someone to take lightly however, and he then beat Bowen for a bucket and a foul underneath the basket t put the Zags up by 10, 60-50. Now it was certainly over, right?

With the Zags trying to cut off life support on another Timme score, their point guard, Hickman, coughed up the ball and Johnson took off down the court for a breakaway lay-up and free throw to cut the margin to seven points, 63-56, with 5:36 to play. A little later, Ducas drove the lane for a score and Jefferson blocked what looked like a certain Hickman lay-up, but the freshman still had more in his tank.

Trailing 67-59, the Gaels desperately needed a basket to keep their hopes alive. With the Gael offense operating smoothly, Jefferson found himself wide open for a three-point attempt, and drilled it to cut the lead to five, 67-62, with about three minutes left. Then, Jefferson made his only mistake in nearly 20 minutes of action.

Leaving Watson to double up Strawther in the corner, Jefferson gambled that Strawther wouldn’t be able to take advantage of Watson’s unexpected freedom. But Strawther met the challenge and hit Watson with a pass that allowed him to dunk the ball and put the Zags back in charge at 69-62. Time for a miracle from another Gael freshman, Mahaney?

Not to be, fans, as Mahaney’s attempt missed and the remaining minutes were spent exchanging baskets and free throws, leading to the final score of 77-68, almost a match of the Gaels’ 78-70 win in Moraga. The Zags and Gaels now head to Las Vegas for the WCC Tournament and a chance to meet for a rubber match on March 7.

Logan Johnson, shown above from action earlier in the season, continued his late-season heroics for Saint Mary’s last night, leading all scorers with 27 points in the Gaels’ 77-68 loss to Gonzaga. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

The week that was…head-scratching

by Michael Vernetti

The primary goal for Saint Mary’s as it took the floor against BYU Saturday night in Moraga was to forget what had happened the previous Thursday evening in San Diego.

In one of the most inexplicable performances in Coach Randy Bennett’s career, the Gaels basically stopped performing with 10:20 left and a 60-40 lead over a San Diego team that was without its best scorer, Marcellus Earlington, and three of the four other starters from the last time the two teams met, a 27-point scorcher (85-58) by Saint Mary’s.

So, instead of forward Bendji Pierre, guard Sigu Sisoho Jawara and key Oregon transfer Eric Williams Jr. — who accounted for 32 of San Diego’s 58 points in the previous match-up — the Toreros went with Steven Jameson II, Deven Dahike, Dominic Muncey and some others.

For most of the game, Saint Mary’s played like the heavy favorite it was, crisply and efficiently, knowing it had but one goal — get the win and protect its one-game lead over Gonzaga in the WCC. Then the wheels came off, and Bennett’s charges watched as San Diego held the Gaels to two free throws by Mitchell Saxen over the next three minutes while scoring six points itself.

After Saxen’s scoring outburst, making the score 62-46, the Gaels went into even deeper offensive slumber, managing not a single point the rest of the way as San Diego scored 13 straight points to finish at 62-59. Not to single out someone who has been the Gaels’ leader during the two games since a win over Gonzaga on Feb. 4 — one loss, one win, 65 points — but Logan Johnson managed just three free throws against San Diego, going 0-3 from the floor.

Energy needed

Clearly, Saint Mary’s needed an energy transfer from the San Diego game to the contest with BYU, which has seen its season crumble with heart-breaking losses to Gonzaga and the Gaels a week ago in Provo, and provoked anger from its fiery Coach Mark Pope by losing 81-74 to Santa Clara on Thursday. Pope would have the Cougars fired up, but what about the Gaels?

Not to worry, as a raucous crowd and an inspired Johnson led the Gaels to a nine-point lead nearing the end of the first half, only to see it whittled to six points, 33-27, on a buzzer-beating three-pointer by the Cougars’ pesky sixth man, Rudi Williams. While Johnson scored a team-high 14 points in the first half, his sidekick, Aidan Mahaney, had scored just a single basket, and still had the second half — where he has had some of his most brilliant performances in a brilliant season — ahead of him.

As if sensing the crowd was expecting him to do something spectacular, Mahaney made two quick mid-range jumpers and a pair of free throws to counter a fast start by BYU’s formidable post player, Fousseyni Traore, who had led BYU within two points of the Gaels at 43-41. This was a turning point in the contest, a moment when either the Gaels or the Cougars would strike a deadly blow to the other.

Mahaney decided he would do the striking. Defending the lightning-quick Williams with the score still at 43-41, Mahaney stole the ball from the BYU guard and began dribbling out of danger when he spied Johnson racing downcourt. Harassed by Williams, Mahaney fired a left-handed bounce-pass that hit Johnson in full stride, allowing Johnson to cruise to a basket and give the Gaels a little breathing room at 45-41.

Mahaney dagger

Sensing as he does that his opponent was vulnerable to a follow-on blow, Mahaney hit a step-back three-pointer on the Gaels’ next possession to push the lead to seven points, 48-41. A little later he sank two free throws to push the lead to 50-41, then drove the lane hard and barely missed a left-handed runner.

Mahaney had drawn a BYU big to him as he drove, however, so the Gaels’ ever-alert forward Kyle Bowen was able to tip in Mahaney’s miss for a nine-point lead at 52-43. The Cougars didn’t crack, however, and countered with a bucket and free throw from Noah Waterman to cut the deficit to six points.

Feeding off Mahaney’s energy, the Gaels’ Johnson got loose along the baseline for an emphatic stuff, then scored on a difficult shot in the paint to put the Gaels up 56-46 with 9:16 left in the game. Waterman got a little too cute on a succeeding three-point attempt, falling down after being defended well by Bowen. A sharp-eyed referee called a flop on Waterman and sent the Gaels’ best free-throw shooter, Alex Ducas, to the line for a free throw that pushed the lead to 11 points at 57-46.

Mahaney continued to make his presence felt, as he hounded Williams on an ensuing possession, and Williams responded by shoving Mahaney away. Foul! called a referee, and the Gaels were back in business. Johnson brought his team’s second-half surge to its highest point on an acrobatic score under the basket, and the Gaels were in front by 13 points, 59-46, with 7:26 left.

No quit in BYU

Out of contention for an upper-tier finish in the WCC, seeing post-season hopes going out the window, BYU nevertheless fought back against the deficit. Turning a missed second free throw by Atiki Ally Atiki into a four-point play off a three-pointer by Waterman, the Cougars were back in business. They brought little-used Richie Saunders off the bench for two quick three-pointers under casual defense by Ducas, then Dallin Hall, the freshman who hounded Saint Mary’s for 23 points in their narrow win in Provo, caught fire.

Hall, who had been defended solidly by Mahaney throughout the game, hit a short jumper in the paint, then found himself with the ball in his hands as time was running out on a later possession. Naturally he threw up a prayer, and naturally it was answered for another three-point bomb by the cougars and what looked to be a solid Gael lead was whittled to two points at 63-61.

Something prodded the officiating crew to review the Waterman three-pointer from several minutes previously, and they noticed that his foot was on the three-point line, so the score was reset to 63-60. Traore quickly cut that to 63-62 with a floater in the paint, then Johnson and Mahaney decided to end things once and for all.

Johnson answered Traore’s bucket with a driving lay-up, then Mahaney unleashed his second dagger of the night, beating Traore for a three-pointer that put the Gaels back up by 68-62 with 47 seconds left.

There were some free throws coming after predictable BYU fouls, and Williams sank a three-pointer near the end, but Johnson and Mahaney had returned the Gaels’ mojo as they face still another daunting week. A feisty Pacific squad with nothing to lose and glory to be won comes into Moraga on Thursday, and the the Gaels face a showdown with Gonzaga in Spokane next Saturday with the possibility of winning the WCC regular-season title for the first time since 2012.

The beat goes on.

Following a slump against San Diego on Thursday, Logan Johnson, shown above in an earlier game, bounced back for a team-high 27 points in the win over BYU. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.


by Michael Vernetti

For better or worse, last week’s two-game road trip for the Saint Mary’s Gaels — overtime loss to Loyola Marymount by 78-74, convincing win over Portland by 81-64 — was in the hands of fifth-year senior Logan Johnson.

Johnson, whose value to the Gaels is usually realized on the defensive side of the ball, scored a career-high 31 points against LMU — including eight of the Gaels’ 11 points in overtime — and followed that up with another career-high 34 points against Portland, including 4-8 on three-point attempts, usually not his strong suit.

So what’s the “or worse” part of the equation? Zoom in on the last two minutes of regulation and the overtime period of the LMU game to see.

Saint Mary’s seemingly was grinding to a hard-fought but satisfying win on the road against an up-and-down LMU team that proved its toughness with a rare win over Gonzaga in Spokane earlier this season. Up by 60-53 at the 1:58 mark of the second half, the Gaels just had to hold on for the victory.

Except everybody not named Johnson seemed not to realize they still had to play out those last two minutes, starting with spectacular freshman Aidan Mahaney, who had a rare off-game against the Lions on both sides of the ball. Mahaney had scratched his way to 22 points, but had made only 3-9 three-point attempts and had coughed up five turnovers.

For some reason, Mahaney fouled LMU star Cam Shelton underneath the basket, sending Shelton — who was on the cusp of a legendary finish to the game — to the free-throw line. Shelton sank both free throws, moving the score to 60-55, but the Gaels still seemed in good shape.

Soon after, senior forward Alex Ducas missed his fourth three-point attempt (he was 1-5 for the game from distance), a wide-open corner shot, then senior forward Kyle Bowen missed the second of his three three-point attempts as well — like Ducas’s, a wide-open corner shot. Two opportunities to close out the game, two opportunities wasted.

The Shelton strategy

Unruffled, Johnson continued to dog Shelton on the next possession, defending him as he had throughout the game and had done in an earlier matchup in Moraga on Jan. 12, and forcing a turnover with a mere 55.5 seconds left in the game. On LMU’s next possession, the Gaels revealed the strategy they had adopted to assure that Shelton did not get hot down the stretch: they hedged on LMU’s pick-and-roll set, with Ducas preventing Shelton from going to his left, then deftly picking him up when Johnson was screened and preventing Shelton from driving successfully just as Johnson had done previously. Piece of cake, score still 60-55, but with only 36.5 seconds to go.

The Gaels’ luck seemed to change with the next possession, as Shelton tried to back down Johnson in the paint — not something that is usually successful against the powerfully-built Johnson. Except Johnson fell down after what appeared to be a slight collision with Shelton, leaving Shelton free to attack the basket. Bowen, the Gaels’ second ace defender, rotated to pick up Shelton, but Shelton scored over him and was fouled. He made the free throw for a three-point play that brought LMU to within two points, 60-58, with 20.9 seconds left.

Just as quickly the tide seemed to turn the other way, as LMU committed a foul on Ducas as the Gaels were having trouble inbounding the ball. Ducas calmly sank two free throws, putting the Gaels in front by four points, 62-58. Then the Shelton strategy went awry for the first time.

The Gaels hedged Shelton with Mahaney on the next possession, and Johnson didn’t seem to trust that Mahaney would pick up Shelton on a switch with LMU guard Justin Ahrens. Thus, Johnson was slow to pick up Ahrens, keeping his attention on Shelton. Left with an open look at the basket, Ahrens, a three-point specialist for four years at Ohio State before transferring to LMU, drilled the three-pointer to bring LMU within a single point, 62-61, with 12 seconds left.

The momentum swung heavily to LMU at that point, but the Lions fouled unnecessarily for the second time, this time sending Mahaney to the free-throw line. He converted one of two attempts, giving the Gaels a two-point margin, and setting the stage for a colossal defensive failure for the defense-minded Gaels.

Saint Mary’s did not oppose LMU’s inbounds pass, nor pick up the Lions in the back court, allowing Shelton to dribble unguarded until Johnson picked him up. Mahaney again hedged on the LMU pick-and-roll set, but there seemed to be confusion between Mahaney and Johnson over whether Mahaney would switch onto Shelton or not. Mahaney didn’t, choosing to stick with Ahrens, who had burned the Gaels a few seconds earlier, and Johnson was slow to pick up Shelton, allowing the LMU star to cruise to his easiest basket of the game and a tie score at 63-63 with a little more than two seconds left.

Mahaney almost saved the Gaels’ unbeaten conference record by sending a 75-foot heave right at the LMU basket, but it came off the backboard a little too hard and rimmed out. OT it was.

Shelton strategy, part 2

Following a two-point step-back jumper from Mahaney to open the overtime, Saint Mary’s again hedged Shelton on the Lions’ possession, this time with Ducas. Just as had happened in regulation, Johnson seemed uncertain whether Ducas would switch on Shelton or not, he didn’t and Johnson was again unable to defend Shelton strongly, allowing him to make another lightly-contested lay-up to tie it at 65-all.

Certainly these guys had come to agreement on their switching strategy during the time-out before the overtime period started, but apparently they had not.

What followed was a series of Shelton drives off pick-and-roll sets, with the Gaels defending none of them effectively. The overtime period became a contest between Shelton and Johnson, with the Gaels going ahead on a Johnson drive and the Lions tying it on a drive by Shelton. Then the Gaels blinked.

If LMU was going to rely solely on Shelton during the overtime period — as they did — Saint Mary’s would seem to have an advantage by having Mahaney and Johnson ready to counter. Except Mahaney didn’t have the uncanny success driving the lane against LMU in overtime as he had in the second half of the Gaels’ win over Gonzaga last Saturday. He misfired on two drives early in the overtime, then took the ball into the paint with a little more than a minute left and the score tied 71-71.

He missed for the third straight time, Shelton drove Bowen for a basket and a free throw, and LMU had a 74-71 lead. Johnson gave the Gaels another mighty lift on the next possession, making a lay-up to cut the lead to 74-73, but Shelton again drove Bowen to make it 76-73, and it was all but over.

On to Portland

We’ll have to wait for his biography to know what Gael Coach Randy Bennett made of his proud team’s inability to defend the pick-and-roll against LMU, but the Gaels would have little time to lick their wounds. After the tough Thursday loss to LMU, the Gaels hopped on a plane to Portland for a Saturday afternoon encounter.

The first half of the Portland game seemed to reflect the confidence of an underdog surging with the Gaels’ loss and an opportunity to kick the Gaels when they were down on their home court. Portland was sharp offensively, and entered the second half trailing by only one point, 39-38. It would be nearly eight minutes before the Pilots scored again, and by that time Saint Mary’s had scored 16 points, so the score after Portland’s initial basket was 55-40.

Johnson continued his brilliance, Ducas shook off a lackluster performance against LMU and Mahaney seemed sheepish after his 8-21 shooting against the Lions and limited himself to only nine shots, making four (2-6 from distance) for a quiet 10 points. And no turnovers.

Johnson went 11-18 from the floor, made 8-9 free throws, grabbed six rebounds and handed out six assists. Ducas was 6-10 on three-pointers for 18 points and freshman Joshua Jefferson got his most extended play of the season at 15 minutes and chipped in with eight points and five rebounds.

The Gaels continue on the road Thursday against San Diego, then return to Moraga next Saturday, Feb. 18, to face BYU. They had better put the LMU loss completely behind them before facing BYU, who will be looking for late-year atonement for a disappointing season.

Logan Johnson, shown above shooting against Santa Clara earlier in the season, exploded for 65 points as the Gaels split two road games last week. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

500, 501…

by Michael Vernetti

The most common observation after Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett led the Gaels to wins number 500 — 68-59 over San Francisco on Thursday — and 501 — 78-70 in overtime against Gonzaga last night — was, “Let’s hope he sticks around for another 500.”

Sounds comforting, but after reviewing tape of both those grinders Bennett’s more likely comment may have been, “I should live so long.”

On both nights, Bennett’s charges faced talented, motivated teams determined that he would not reach any milestones against them. San Francisco was in the midst of a mini-revival under first-year Coach Chris Gerlufsen, having won three WCC games in a row since activating former redshirt Ndewedo Newbury, a 6’7″ forward from London.

Newbury made Gerlufsen look like a genius in his first game, scoring nine points and grabbing 11 rebounds as the Dons romped over Pacific by 78-57. Things did not go so well against the Gaels (two points, one rebound), but at least Gerlufsen was shaking things up.

Saint Mary’s was lurching along against San Francisco as the second half got underway, nursing a 44-31 lead with about 15 minutes left and tantalizing fans with the expectation of an imminent surge. Didn’t happen, and a possession at the 15:14 mark demonstrated why.

The great stall

Logan Johnson, ragged against both San Francisco and Gonzaga, missed a lay-up off one of his patented drives to the hoop. Mitchell Saxen was in perfect position for a tip-in, but he missed that, too. Forward Kyle Bowen grabbed the rebound after Saxen’s miss, but became befuddled under the basket and couldn’t convert the basket either. Ever aggressive, Bowen grabbed his own miss and tapped the ball out to the Gaels’ BYU hero Aidan Mahaney for a three-point attempt that would salvage the possession.

“Clank” went Mahaney’s attempt, so the score stood at 44-31 when San Francisco’s Marcus Williams, a 6’2″ sophomore guard who was the Dons’ prized acquisition off the transfer portal from Texas A&M, caught fire. Williams, who had barely bothered the Gaels until that point, drove Mahaney for a lay-up to make it 44-33.

A little later, Khalil Shabazz, the Dons’ mercurial leading scorer, drove the Gaels’ Augustus Marciulionis for a bucket and free throw. The score moved to 45-36. Saxen was stripped under the basket, the Dons’ Isaiah Hawthorne drove Gael freshman Joshua Jefferson and was fouled, converting both free throws — 47-38.

Williams then officially went off, nailing three three-point attempts in the next several minutes to give San Francisco a two-point lead at 53-51. Bennett was frustrated by the inability of Gael forward Alex Ducas to stay in the same area code as Williams, and made an inspired decision at the 4:28 mark. Instead of going to forward Luke Barrett as a defensive replacement for Ducas, Bennett called on Marciulionis, giving Saint Mary’s a three-guard offense with Gus, Johnson and Mahaney.

It worked, as Marciulionis effectively shut down Williams and sank crucial free throws down the stretch that allowed Saint Mary’s to claw their way to victory. But, as effective as Marciulionis was, he had a sidekick who arrived at just the right moment — Mahaney. Mahaney had been reflecting the Gaels’ ineffectiveness on offense until that point, but came alive when fouled with his team still behind by two points, 55-53.

The dagger

Mahaney made only one of two free throws, but shortly thereafter drove the lane and scored to put the Gaels back ahead by 56-55. Marciulionis then made the first of his clutch free throws to push the lead to three points, 58-55, setting the stage for Mahaney’s dagger. Unable get free from a clinging San Francisco defense all night, Mahaney had tried and missed on his only three-point attempt. Until there was only 1:35 left in the game and he found himself on the left elbow facing down the Dons’ 6’10” forward Josh Kunen.

Mahaney’s teammates cleared out the space surrounding the two players, as Mahaney dribbled calmly and assessed his chances. Kunen seemed paralyzed, afraid to press Mahaney for fear the clever freshman would go around him and score inside. When Mahaney made a slight movement suggesting he might begin his dribble, Kunen took a slight step backward and Mahaney had all the space he needed.

Mahaney launched his only successful three-point basket of the night, the Gaels went ahead by six points, 61-55, and the game was all but over at the 1:35 mark. It was mostly a free-throw contest after that point except for an exceptionally poor call by a referee against Mahaney. Shabazz challenged Mahaney with a dribble toward the paint, then slipped and fell to the ground, giving the ball up to the Gaels.

But not according to the referee, who had the play right in front of him and saw the same thing everyone in the building saw: falling victim to a slippery floor — the residue of humid conditions caused by the elements — Shabazz simply slipped. Mahaney come nowhere near fouling him, but he was called anyway and it was his fifth foul, disqualifying him for the final seconds.

Sinking 7-8 free throws in the waning seconds, the Gaels pushed on to the nine-point win, 68-59, allowing Gael players to break out T-shirts designed by former great Gael E.J. Rowland commemorating Bennett’s 500 victories. Bring on the Zags.

Gonzaga at a turning point

Gonzaga, the all-powerful force of the WCC and national polls for much of Bennett’s tenure, did not come into Moraga with its usual swagger. The Zags had suffered respectable losses to powerhouses Texas, Purdue and Baylor, but countered those with wins over Michigan State, Kentucky and Alabama. Still commanding a top-10 national ranking, Gonzaga nevertheless seemed weakened by the loss of superstar guard Andrew Newbhard and forward Chet Holmgren to the NBA.

Then came disaster at the hands of WCC rival Loyola Marymount, which did the impossible — beating Gonzaga on their own floor by 68-67. Thus, the mighty Zags came into Moraga last night trailing 9-0 Saint Mary’s by one game in the WCC standings and bearing a so-so national ranking of 14, slightly ahead of the Gaels’ 18th ranking. Saint Mary’s was favored by up to three points, but would the Zags suffer the same fate as last year, when they lost to the Gaels on the final day of the WCC season?

It sure didn’t seem that way in the early going, as the Zags resembled their offensive powerhouses of earlier seasons, racing out to leads of 19-8 and 20-9 before Saint Mary’s straightened itself out and began the long, slow climb to overcoming a double-digit deficit at the hands of a steamroller. The Gaels had pulled to a respectable eight-point deficit, 32-24, at halftime.

Showing the same defensive grit as it had against San Francisco, the Gaels could not switch on the offense, epitomized by the struggles of Mahaney, who carried over his early-game troubles against San Francisco. To wit: only a single bucket scored when Bennett sent him back onto the floor at the 7:30 mark with the Gaels still trailing by the halftime deficit of eight points, 49-41.

Johnson carrying the load

Although he was struggling offensively almost as much as Mahaney, the Gaels’ spiritual leader, Johnson, was trying to pick up the slack as the game inched toward a dismal climax for Saint Mary’s. Johnson willed himself to a score in the paint to reduce the deficit to six points, then an alarm clock seemed to go off in Mahaney’s head.

Penetrating the lane, Mahaney scored only his second basket of the game and was fouled, sinking the free throw to reduce the Gael deficit to six points at 51-45. Then Johnson showed the grit that has marked his tenure at Saint Mary’s, sinking a three-pointer after three not-close attempts has gone awry previously.

Suddenly, it was a two-point game, 51-49. Cue Mr. Mahaney, who scored on four straight lane penetrations with both his left and right hands, arching deadly hook shots higher and higher off the backcourt as furious Zag defenders struggled to slow him down. With periodic counters by Zag stars Drew Time and Julian Strawther, Mahaney’s last drive pulled Saint Mary’s even at 59-all.

The Zags edged ahead by 61-59 at the :19 second point, however, and it looked as if the heroics by Mahaney might go for naught. As he dribbled the ball on the Gaels’ end of the court, the entire Gonzaga team seemed alert to keep him from scoring. And they did, but surrounded in the paint and seemingly stymied, Mahaney revealed his uncanny court vision to spy Saxen under the basket, and bounced a pass into the eager center’s hands. Basket by Saxen, overtime for the Gaels!

Overtime heroics

Mahaney had scored 11 straight points and made the key assist of the night to bring the Gaels into a five-minute chance to turn the tide of the 22-23 WCC season. He wasn’t done yet. As the overtime got under way, Saint Mary’s took a 65-64 lead and then Mahaney switched strategy on the Zags, connecting on an off-the-backboard three-pointer to give them a 68-64 lead that seemed huge. It was Mahaney’s only three-point make of the night against seven misses.

Again taking advantage of a Zag defense ganging up on him to keep him from scoring, on the Gaels’ next possession Mahaney dropped a no-look dime on Saxen that caught the Zags by surprise. It didn’t surprise Saxen, however, as he dropped in the bucket that put Saint Mary’s up 70-64 with 2:32 left in overtime. Mahaney doesn’t grandstand over his offensive heroics, maintaining mainly a calm demeanor as he demolishes opponents, but he relished the two assists he completed that, first, sent the game into overtime and, second, give the Gaels a six-point lead.

When Gonzaga called a desperate time out to regroup for the final two-and-a-half minutes, Mahaney made a goggle gesture with his hands as he walked to the sidelines with his teammates. “I’ve got eyes as well as a great shooting touch,” his gesture seemed to say, and who would deny him.

A three-pointer by the mostly irrelevant Zag point guard Nolan Hickman — did I mention that the Zags desperately miss Nembhard? — provided the only excitement for the rest of overtime, cutting the Gael lead to four points, 71-67. But the Zags were forced to foul from that point on and, repeating their performance from the San Francisco game, Gaels Ducas and Marciulionis were deadly from the free-throw line and led the Gaels to an eight-point lead, 78-70.

Saint Mary’s had come from a shaky halftime total of 24 points to a second half-and-overtime total of 54 points to gain the victory that left them in sole possession of first place in the WCC at 10-0, and gave them a two-game lead over the Zags. If Saint Mary’s maintains that lead for the next five games, it will head into Spokane for a rematch with the Zags knowing it can lose and still win the WCC regular-season championship.

It’s enough to make Coach Bennett think about another 500 wins.

Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett, shown above in a worried moment of the San Francisco victory — with a looming Aidan Mahaney behind him — reached the 500-win milestone against the Dons, and extended it against Gonzaga. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Hail Mahaney!

by Michael Vernetti

ESPN announcer/analyst Sean Farnham had it all figured out. With just 10.2 seconds left, trailing BYU by one point, 56-55, Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett would want the ball in the hands of super-senior Logan Johnson, who had made two crucial, high-difficulty shots in the game’s waning minutes.

As an alternative, three-point specialist Alex Ducas would be available on the wing.

As happens often with the loquacious-if-not-insightful Farnham, he had it all wrong. Bennett, who virtually raised freshman guard Aidan Mahaney as a childhood friend of his two sons, Chase and Cade, knew how Mahaney responded to high-pressure situations. Forget that Mahaney was having an off night offensively — only seven points scored at that point — and defensively — watching as BYU guard Dallin Hall repeatedly burned him on drives to the hoop and three-pointers.

Having set up his team’s final possession during a timeout when Hall was at the free throw line following one of his many drives, Bennett didn’t use his final timeout when Hall sank one of two shots to put BYU up by that one point. The ball was inbounded to Mahaney, not Johnson, and Mahaney headed up court guarded by BYU’s Gideon George, a battle-tested senior forward standing 6’6″ to Mahaney’s 6’3″ and outweighing the spindly freshman by 30 pounds.

On a switch, an even more imposing BYU player, sophomore forward Fousseyni Traore, also 6’6″ but carrying 240 pounds of bulk, picked up Mahaney at the top of the key. Mahaney, who specializes in befuddling opposing big men, went to work on Fousseyni, who had been battling Saint Mary’s center Mitchell Saxen under the hoop all night long.

The shot

Mahaney drove hard to his right, then stopped abruptly as Fousseyni’s momentum carried him several steps further. Mahaney then pivoted and launched a 16-footer as Fousseyni scrambled to make up the distance between them. He couldn’t do it, as Mahaney’s shot arched perfectly toward and through the basket to put his team ahead 57-56 with just 0.4 seconds left on the clock. Game over.

It was the latest of many knives to the heart of BYU players and fans during their team’s 11-year membership in the WCC, ending with the current season: Matthew Dellavedova’s half-court heave in 2013 to give Saint Mary’s a 70-69 win in Provo, and Jordan Ford’s pull-up jumper with 1.4 seconds left in the 2020 WCC semifinal game to give Saint Mary’s a 51-50 win being other examples.

Was it the best? That will be discussed by pundits and fans for years to come, but it certainly matched all other tightly-contested games between the rival programs in drama. That Saint Mary’s found itself trailing BYU 55-53 on a three-point shot by BYU’s Spencer Johnson with a little more than two minutes left was the result of BYU’s refusal to crumble despite playing with one starter, Jaxson Robinson, and two rotation players, Noah Waterman and Atiki Ally Atiki, disallowed from competition because of undisclosed violations of team policies.

The Gaels led early — 19-8 with eight minutes left in the first half — and late — 51-43 with fewer than six minutes left in the game, but couldn’t put away the stubborn Cougars. Much of the credit went to the freshman Hall, who had a career game with 23 points despite missing the first shots of three two-point free-throw opportunities down the stretch.

Swallowing their own medicine

Hall and Traore exposed the Gaels’ usually formidable defense with a simple play taken from their own playbook: Hall would run Mahaney into a screen set by the wide-bodied Traore and beat Saxen on driving lay-ups. Or, when Mahaney dodged under the screen to save his body from another collision, Hall hit two open three-pointers.

The tough night didn’t get easier for Mahaney when Bennett switched Johnson onto Hall, giving Mahaney responsibility for Spencer Johnson, who had not troubled the Gaels since a three-pointer early in the contest. Johnson beat Mahaney for a three-pointer at the three-minute mark to put BYU ahead, 52-51, for the first time in 32 minutes.

When Mahaney gambled on a steal a few seconds later, Johnson found himself free for another three-pointer — and nailed it. The second one was particularly brutal for Gael fans, as it gave BYU a two-point lead, 55-53, with a little more than two minutes left, and capped a 12-2 run by the Cougars.

As he did after Johnson’s first three-pointer, the Gaels’ own Johnson bailed out his team with the second of two difficult floaters in the paint over Traore to set up the 55-55 tie. The Gaels’ Johnson, who led all Saint Mary’s scorers with 14 points, had Hall for one more possession, and he seemed to handle it perfectly.

As BYU ran its umpteenth pick and roll, Johnson wasn’t scraped off Hall as Mahaney had been, and both Johnson and Saxen picked up the driving Cougar as he neared the basket. The Gael defenders appeared to have acquitted themselves well, but a referee called a foul on Saxen, whose body slightly brushed against Hall as he threw up a desperation shot that came nowhere near the net.

That set up the scenario for Hall that he had lived through on two previous occasions: missing the first free throw, making the second one. It gives him something to practice going forward.

For Saint Mary’s, the BYU win was the fourth win in a five-game gauntlet they will face before a showdown with Gonzaga in Moraga next Saturday, Feb. 4. The Gaels play San Francisco at home on Thursday night, and must not lose concentration if they want to head into the Gonzaga game with their one-game lead in the WCC conference race intact at 9-0.

Aidan Mahaney, shown above making a tough shot against Loyola Marymount earlier this season, made an even more crucial one in the final seconds of the Gaels’ 57-56 win over BYU Saturday night. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

A win, then a WIN!

by Michael Vernetti

With two dominating wins against Pepperdine in Malibu, 73-44 (29 points) on Thursday, and Santa Clara, 77-58 (19 points) in Moraga yesterday, Saint Mary’s moved into sole possession of first place in the WCC following a shocking mid-week loss by Gonzaga to Loyola Marymount in Spokane. The Gaels swept to their eighth straight win by beating Santa Clara, and now look down from their 7-0 perch in the WCC on second-place Gonzaga at 6-1 and Santa Clara and LMU tied for third at 4-3.

Dropping quicker than the drink tab at a campus party, BYU has fallen four games behind Saint Mary’s (4-4) with consecutive losses to Santa Clara and San Francisco, and must regroup for a maximum effort against the Gaels next Saturday in Provo. As things look now, the WCC could end up with Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga battling it out for the conference title and Santa Clara and LMU fighting for third and fourth places. It is not inconceivable that they all could be vying for NCAA bids as well.

The Gaels absolutely, positively had to beat Pepperdine to start the week, as the talented-but-undisciplined Waves were on life support at 0-5 in league play. Would unconcern about their overall record and hope for a season-justifying upset propel Pepperdine into a maximum effort against Saint Mary’s? Hardly.

Mahaney off

Pepperdine benefited from an unprecedented so-so effort from the Gaels’ Aidan Mahaney, who was coming off a spectacular 21-point performance in his team’s shellacking of San Francisco, 78-61, in which Mahaney stifled the Dons’ superstar, Khalil Shabazz (1-7 on three-pointers), en route to sinking 5-7 three-pointers of his own.

After having played 34 minutes of tough offense and defense against San Francisco, Mahaney logged only 24 minutes against the Waves, scored only six points on 2-9 shooting and committed two first-half turnovers that seemed to test Coach Randy Bennett’s patience. After re-entering the game at the eight-minute mark of the half, Mahaney made an unforced bad pass that was intercepted by the Waves, and Bennett immediately replaced him on the floor with Augustus Marciulionis.

In what became a pattern for the week’s two games, Marciulionis took advantage of Mahaney’s misfortune by driving the lane and scoring to push the Gaels’ lead to 29-13. The Gaels’ carelessness with the ball continued, however, as first Logan Johnson, then Joshua Jefferson then Johnson again coughed up the ball, fueling a Pepperdine 9-0 run to end the half down by only 33-24.

That was it for drama in Malibu, however, as the Gaels regrouped under no-doubt loving words of encouragement from Bennett during the halftime break, and ran up a 40-point second half to cruise to a 29-point win. The most memorable moment of the game was Johnson’s connecting on one-of-three three-point attempts, his first successful three-pointer since making 1-3 against San Diego in the conference opener on Dec. 29.

The argument could be made that three-point baskets are superfluous to Johnson’s drive-the-basket approach to scoring, but that is not true. In going 0-9 from distance against Santa Clara, Portland and LMU and attempting not a single three-pointer against San Francisco, Johnson shuttered one of his most potent weapons. Every three-pointer he makes gives defenders something to worry about besides being taken to the rack, which makes it even more likely that they will, indeed, be taken to the rack.

Enter Santa Clara

Santa Clara entered the Gaels’ playground yesterday afternoon looking like a team on a mission — to revenge the Gaels’ 67-64 win over them on New Years Eve and inch closer to second place in the WCC by giving Saint Mary’s its first loss. At 16-5 overall to the Gaels’ 17-4 and 4-2 in conference play to the Gaels’ 6-0, the Broncos no doubt often told themselves how close they were to the Gaels. What a difference a game makes.

Under veteran Coach Herb Sendek, Santa Clara has assembled an impressive roster of not-so-gentle giants. Manning the post are 6’10”, 245-lb senior Jaden Bediako or 7’0″ freshman Christoph Tilly from Berlin (Germany, not New Hampshire); at strong forward is 6’10” Parker Braun; at small forward is 6’7″ grad student Keshawn Justice; at shooting guard is one of the best transfer portal pick-ups in the country, 6’5″ sharpshooter Brandin Podziemski formerly of the Illinois Fighting Illini; and at the point is the only not-huge member of its rotation, the 6’1″ Carlos Stewart, who makes up in speed and determination what he lacks in giantism.

They are not only big, but they can shoot, as Podziemski and Justice are genuine three-point threats, and Braun and Stewart are not far behind them. Turns out, size and three-point shooting are no match for a smooth-operating outfit like the Gaels, who are seemingly improving game by game since a disheartening loss to Colorado State on Dec. 18.

And the Gaels had Mahaney, who undoubtedly chafed under his lengthy benching against Pepperdine and was determined not to let that happen again. Mahaney made his presence felt toward the end of the first half after the Broncos had closed to within one point, 23-22, following two questionable three-point attempts by Johnson that missed badly.

On the possession following Santa Clara’s creeping to within one point, Mahaney immediately sank a three-pointer to erase any ideas of falling behind at the half. He repeated again on the next possession, pushing the Gaels’ lead to 29-22, and sank his third in a row a little later after the Broncos had scored twice themselves. Mahaney’s sharp-shooting lifted Saint Mary’s from a precarious one-point lead, 23-22, to a more comfortable 32-27, and set up the Gaels to close the half with a seven-point lead at 36-29.

Foot not off the pedal

One of the hallmarks of the Gaels’ success following the Colorado State loss is coming out strong after the halftime break. Gael fans used to wince at the beginning of second halves, fearing their team would stumble around for a few minutes before regaining its composure. Not so the renewed Gaels, as Santa Clara learned to its chagrin.

Mahaney kept up the pressure, driving Bediako to start the half, then giving Saint Mary’s its first double-digit lead with a corner three-pointer and a 45-34 advantage. Alex Ducas matched Mahaney with a corner three-pointer of his own, and the Gaels were up 48-34 in the opening minutes of the second half.

During the second half surge, Johnson forgot about regaining his three-point stroke and drove the Broncos’ inner defense with with two patented power moves. Ducas continued the onslaught with two more three-pointers, and before the second half was eight minutes old Saint Mary’ led by 54-36. So much for second-half letdowns.

They then unleashed a potent additional weapon.

Mahaney was not in Bennett’s doghouse, but after his three-pointer gave him 20 points for the night, he went to the bench in place of Marciulionis. Gael fans have noticed that Goose, or Gus, or whatever you want to call him, has slowly grown in confidence and scoring ability over the course of this season. It’s as if he has stopped worrying about regaining his starting position from Mahaney, and has accepted his role as a valuable fill-in for Mahaney or Johnson.

The Marciulionis show

He showcased the importance off that role with about nine-and-a-half minutes left against Santa Clara and his team up comfortably at 56-38. Using a tactic he has perfected with repeated use, Marciulionis drove hard into the paint from the right side. Reacting to his obvious intent to attack the basket, the Bronco defenders rotated to cut him off, but Gus was waiting for them. He rifiled a short bullet to the crashing Gael center Mitchell Saxen, who caught it and finished for a 20-point Gael lead, 58-38.

A little later, operating at the head of the key, Marciulionis blew past his defender and took on the imposing, 6’10” Braun, who was coming toward him with evil intent. Marciulionis arched a left-handed hook shot high off the backboard to thwart Braun’s reach, and it fell through the net for the score.

Marciulionis then repeated a hard charge into the paint, but this time passed out to the right corner where Johnson was waiting with little choice but to hoist a three-pointer. Forgetting his three-point drought that had ended against Pepperdine, plus his two errant three-point attempts from the first half, Johnson confidently lifted a high-arching beauty that drew, you guessed it, nothing but net.

Marciulionis was having fun now. He soon found himself at the head of the key again, this time with Bediako between him and the bucket. As he did against Braun earlier, Marciulionis bested Bediako easily for another score, then took his part in one of the prettiest sequences of this year’s Gael offense.

Watching the never-stagnant Gael offense go through its patterns, Marciulionis noticed Saxen moving up to the high pick-and-roll position with Johnson poised to Saxen’s right. Without a pause, Marciulionis passed to Saxen just as Johnson broke for the basket. Mimicking the Golden State Warriors, who utilize the same play with Draymond Green in Saxen’s role, Saxen handed off the ball to the streaking Johnson, who crashed through one of the Bronco bigs for yet another driving lay-up to put the Gaels up by 69-45.

It was all over but the shouting, as the Gaels eventually ran up a 28-point led, then turned things over to the second team and settled for a 19-point rout of the Broncos, whose day started so promisingly.

The Gaels continue their countdown to a showdown with Gonzaga in Moraga on Feb. 4 by traveling to Provo to face the reeling BYU Cougars next Saturday (Jan. 28). Despite BYU’s recent problems, this will be no picnic for the Gaels, who will be facing a desperate team backed by its rabid fans. The Gael defense has proved impervious to spirited attacks whether at home or on the road, and it will be tested mightily against BYU.

Logan Johnson, show above shooting against Santa Clara, scored 13 points, dished out four assists and registered a steal in the Gaels’ crucial 77-58 win over the Broncos. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

The guards have it

by Michael Vernetti

In both Saint Mary’s wins last week — 76-62 over Loyola Marymount in Moraga on Thursday and 78-61 over San Francisco in the City on Saturday, Gael guards Logan Johnson and Aidan Mahaney were dominant.

Dominant as in 44 points against LMU and 45 against San Francisco.

But lest fans become bored with consistent excellence, Johnson and Mahaney switched the script in each game. Johnson, the dogged defender who routinely draws the opponent’s most dangerous guard, had his hands full with LMU’s super-senior Cam Shelton. Shelton scored near his average with 18 points, but had to take 16 shots to get there, making six for a shooting percentage of 37 per cent.

Despite running down the lightning-quick Shelton for 31 minutes, Johnson scored 19 points himself with an efficient 7-12 shooting percentage, dished out a team-high five assists, grabbed six rebounds, and had a block and a steal for good measure. Not a bad night’s work.

Mahaney, the unflappable freshman, went through his full bag of offensive moves against LMU, scoring on three-pointers, mid-range jumpers and runners in the paint for 15 points at the half — Saint Mary’s up 35-21 — and 25 for the night, matching his career-opening total for the second time this year.

Mahaney’s defensive assignment looked daunting on paper — 6’6″ fifth-year guard Justin Ahrens who transferred to LMU after four years at Ohio State. In his last season at OSU, Ahrens went 54 of 127 on three-point attempts for a 42 per cent success rate from distance. Mahaney would be over-matched on defense, right?

Except Ahrens attempted only two shots on the night, none from distance, and finished with a tame four points against Mahaney’s 25. Hmmm, can Mahaney defend as well as score?

On to San Francisco

Gael coach Randy Bennett obviously thinks well of Mahaney’s defensive chops, as he indicated by matching Mahaney instead of Johnson on San Francisco’s leading scorer, the electric Khalil Shabazz, who was coming off a 25-point effort in the Dons’ loss to Portland on Thursday. Shabazz moved to the top of San Francisco’s all-time three-point shooting chart with the effort in Portland, and was averaging 15.2 PPG coming into the Saint Mary’s game.

Johnson’s assignment was no cupcake, as he drew Washington State transfer Tyrell Roberts, who has matched offensive stats with Shabazz all season, averaging 15 PPG and specializing in three-point proficiency. Roberts, who is only 5’11” and very quick, seemed to flummox Johnson early, hitting two quick three-pointers and beating Johnson off the dribble for a jumper in the paint as the Dons led the Gaels by 22-20 with seven minutes left in the half.

Let’s hope he enjoyed that moment in the sun. Not only did Saint Mary’s shift into high gear after Roberts’s jumper, going on a 17-3 tear behind three buckets by Mahaney to lead 39-25 at the half, but Roberts scored only one more basket in the game, ending with 10 points on 4-12 shooting. Johnson figured him out, while Roberts proved no match for Johnson’s physicality, as the Gaels’ super senior punished Roberts and San Francisco with 24 points on 10-15 shooting.

Johnson’s dominance — all of his baskets came off driving lay-ups — contributed to the Gaels’ 34-22 advantage in points in the paint.

What about Mahaney?

Unlike Johnson, Mahaney didn’t suffer even a hiccup in his defense of Shabazz, shutting down the Dons’ star from the opening tip. Shabazz, who shot 1-11 on the night, didn’t score a single point until he sank two free throws with 4:18 left in the game. He later sank a three-pointer in garbage time, shrinking the Gaels’ edge to 14 points at 65-51.

Stopping Shabazz didn’t tire Mahaney, who played 34 minutes in the game, as he scored early and often to finish with 21 points on 8-15 shooting. A snapshot of his production on offense and defense highlights his overall contribution. Near the end of the first half, with Saint Mary’s leading by just 24-22, Mahaney sank a corner three-pointer off an out-of-bounds play that Shabazz complained loudly about because, Shabazz said, the referee allowed the Gaels to start before he was ready. Really.

Mahaney then blocked a Shabazz jumper in the paint and hit a jumper of his own to push the Saint Mary’s lead to 29-22. Following a three-pointer by the Dons’ Isaiah Hawthorne, Mahaney answered with a three-pointer of his own, then sank a two-pointer to increase the lead to nine points, 34-25. Just another night’s work for the sensational freshman.

Let it not be said that the two wins last week — which left Saint Mary’s tied for first-place in the WCC with Gonzaga at 5-0 — came solely through the efforts of Johnson and Mahaney. Remember the rampage initiated by senior power forward Kyle Bowen when he feared his teammates weren’t playing with enough passion to propel them into the NCAA Tournament?

The Bowen effect

The rampage that saw him capture 28 rebounds in crucial wins over Santa Clara and San Diego, slow down a bit with only four boards against Portland and seem to Peter out with a seven-rebound game against LMU in which he scored zero points and fouled out? Bowen came back with a vengeance against San Francisco, keeping the Gaels alive during a slumping start to the game with four first-half three-pointers en route to 14 points, seven rebounds, four assists, a block and a steal.

To see how important Bowen’s three-point output was to the Gaels’s success, note that Alex Ducas, the team leader in three-point shooting, made only 1-5 from distance in a generally subpar game which saw him total only three points. Although the Gaels ended up with an impressive win over San Francisco, fans might not want to think too hard about how the result may have been different without Bowen’s surprising burst of three-point accuracy.

The Gaels head to Malibu on Thursday to take on the slumping but dangerous Pepperdine Waves, then return to Moraga for a return match with Santa Clara next Saturday. Santa Clara seemed to be on a mission in its 92-81 victory over a scrappy Pacific squad on Saturday, and will be itching to pay back Saint Mary’s for its 67-64 win at the Leavey Center on New Year’s Eve.

The Broncos were without sensational sophomore transfer guard Brandin Podziemski against Pacific and still racked up 92 points. Podziemski was scratched for unexplained reasons, but seemed fine on the sidelines in sweats. One can expect he will not lightly miss the rematch in Moraga next Saturday.

Aidan Mahaney, shown above scoring against LMU on Thursday, scored 46 points in two games last week. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Bowen keeps goin’

by Michael Vernetti

Tyler Robertson, a 6’6″ guard-forward from Melbourne, Australia, is Portland’s best player — leading scorer (14.1 PPG this year, 15.3 PPG last year) and top assist-maker (5.4 APG). He initiates their offense and keeps it flowing with excellent ball distribution skills. He was injured half-way through Portland’s 92-72 loss to Loyola-Marymount and also sat out their 71-58 loss to BYU.

He was back for Saturday’s game against Saint Mary’s, won by the Gaels by an outlandish 42 points, 85-43, and a reunion with two of his former Aussie pals, Kyle Bowen and Alex Ducas who play for the Gaels (new Gael Aussies Harry Wessels and Rory Hawke have come aboard after Robinson’s time in Oz.) He may wish he had rested his twisted ankle for another game.

To say that Bowen, Saint Mary’s senior defensive star, shut down Robertson is a gross understatement. Following up on his two previous WCC games against San Diego and Santa Clara, in which he dominated the boards for 28 rebounds, Bowen had his defensive chops ready for Robinson.

Bowen held Robertson without a score until halfway through the second half, when he scored on a put-back while Bowen sat on the bench, bringing Portland to within 30 points of the Gaels at 58-28. Robertson added two more free throws to bring his total for the evening to four.

Bowen hounded Robertson from the opening tip-off, stripping him twice on entry passes in the early going, and harassing him into six turnovers by halftime, when Portland had scored four field goals in falling behind by 41-14. That’s right, Saint Mary’s scored 41 points and Portland scored 14, six of them from the free-throw line.

Bowen on a roll

The Portland game was Bowen’s third dominating performance since the Gaels opened WCC play with a 27-point rout of San Diego and followed that up with a gritty three-point win over Santa Clara on the Broncos’ court. It was remarked here that Bowen seemed to take it upon himself to ensure that his teammates don’t suffer the same letdown that led them to four avoidable losses in the pre-conference season.

The shaggy-haired Aussie from Western Australia showed his versatility against Portland, conceding the rebounding edge to center Mitchell Saxen after the two double-digit efforts against San Diego and Santa Clara, and a similar 15-rebound effort against D-2 opponent Academy of Art last Tuesday. Bowen corralled only four rebounds against Portland against Saxen’s 14 boards and 15 points, as Saxen counted his fourth double-double of the season.

Bowen upped his offense against Portland, scoring nine points including a three-pointer, and adding a signature high-emotion moment off a miss under the basket. Misfiring on a bunny, Bowen battled the Portland bigs for the rebound, snatched it from them and put the ball back in the bucket to push the Gaels’ early lead to 14-2. He reacted in his usual calm, reflective manner, screaming and thrusting his chest into a teammates’.

Bowen, of course, didn’t defeat Portland single-handedly, as five Gaels scored in double figures, led by Saxen and Aidan Mahaney with 15 each, freshman big man Wessels with a (short) career-best 12 points, the emerging Augustus Marciulionis with 11 points and Ducas with 10 points in a breezy 21-minute appearance.

The Gaels shot a mediocre 10-29 (34.5 per cent) on three-pointers, but that reflected a comeback after an early drought led by Ducas, Bowen and Logan Johnson. Ducas bounced back to sink 2-6 from distance, Mahaney was the sole of consistency at 3-6, and Marciulionis gave the Gaels a big second-half boost by sinking three-three-pointers in the last seven minutes of the game. By gaining confidence in his distance shooting, Marciulionis is continuing to build his game into a source of power for the Gaels.

Defense shines again

Defense was the watchword against Portland, however, as the Gaels battled every possession fiercely, grabbing 11 steals and forcing the Pilots into 16 turnovers. On the efficiency side, Saint Mary’s suffered only seven turnovers against 13 assists, and shot a tidy 9-12 from the free-throw line. Irritated Gael fans do not need reminding that turnovers and shoddy free-throw shooting were the main culprits in several of their four losses.

Defense will undoubtedly continue to be the key as Saint Mary’s takes on Loyola Marymount at home next Thursday (Jan. 12) and San Francisco on the road next Saturday. Both teams have been the souls of inconsistency, as LMU sits at 2-2 in the WCC and San Francisco at 1-3. LMU raised eyebrows among WCC followers by beating Georgetown and Wake Forest in a pre-conference tournament in Jamaica, then opened WCC play with a 92-72 win over a weakened Portland squad playing with out Robertson and fellow high-flyer Moses Wood.

The Lions then lost to a supposedly rebuilding Pacific, beat BYU at home and lost to San Francisco Saturday in a game the Dons desperately needed. After notching impressive pre-conference victories itself over Wichita State, UNLV and Arizona State, San Francisco lost its first three WCC games to Santa Clara, San Diego and Gonzaga by one point, 77-76, in a game that it led all the way until it didn’t.

Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga sit atop the WCC at 3-0, followed by BYU and Pacific at 3-1, and LMU and San Francisco see beating the Gaels as the way to get back on track for the ’22-23 season. All they have to do is get by Bowen and the rest of the Gael defense.

Kyle Bowen, shown above from a game last year, has become a demon for the Gaels on the boards and in the trenches, and has been a major factor in their 3-0 WCC start. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

The Gaels today

by Michael Vernetti

This is the new normal for Saint Mary’s as evidenced by Saturday’s 67-64 win over Santa Clara in Broncoland:

— defense that ruthlessly stifles the opposition

— ferocious rebounding, especially on the offensive end

— dogged adherence to the offensive plan despite early problems

What’s new about that, you say? It’s a matter of degree, as if the sleepwalking effort against Colorado State stuck in the collective throats of the Gaels and they decided they didn’t like the taste of it. For three games since then — wins against Wyoming, San Diego and Santa Clara — Saint Mary’s has held opponents to an average of 58 PPG and out-rebounded them on the offensive end by a margin of 43-27.

Kyle Bowen has been the avatar of the Gael resurgence, upping his game from stalwart defender to super-rebounder and spiritual leader. His two-game total of 28 rebounds against San Diego and Santa Clara was the hallmark of those two wins. It is as if in his senior year Bowen is refusing to accept mediocrity, and has taken it upon himself to lead his teammates back to the NCAA Tournament.

Turning point

A huge play by Bowen at the 15-minute mark of the second half against Santa Clara epitomized what the shaggy-haired Aussie has become for the Gaels. After trailing most of the game, Saint Mary’s took the lead 37-36 on a lay-up by the brilliant Aidan Mahaney. They followed that up with one of only two pick-and-roll successes (by my count) in the game, a nifty dime from Logan Johnson to Mitchell Saxen that pushed the lead to 39-36.

On their next possession, they stumbled into a desperation three-point attempt by Johnson to avoid a shot-clock violation. As with nearly everything he tossed up yesterday (2-13), Johnson missed badly, but an alert Alex Ducas swatted the miss back to Bowen, who stormed the rim for a dramatic follow-up bucket that increased the Saint Mary’s lead to 41-36 — and he was fouled.

Bowen sank the and-one to give saint Mary’s a six-point lead, 42-36, which they quickly increased to 14 points, 55-41, with a little less than eight minutes left in the game. Bowen’s put-back was the emotional and actual turning point of the game. Santa Clara Coach Herb Sendek, looking glum during a post-game interview, lamented the second-chance points manufactured by Saint Mary’s, and it wouldn’t be a wild guess that he had the Bowen play in mind.

Offense follows defense

Except for an 85-point explosion against a defensively-challenged San Diego squad, Saint Mary’s has not shown indications that it has overcome a season-long malaise on offense. The beginning of the Santa Clara game looked like a contest between grade school teams — the score at the first media time out was 2-2!

But it seems as if Gael Coach Randy Bennett has convinced his charges not to let early lapses diminish their adherence to the game plan. Can’t get the ball into Saxen in the post? Keep churning and someone else will pop open. Can’t hit three-pointers? Same advice. The Gaels don’t seem to care that Saxen has up and down games (I know, I know, 20 points against San Diego, but it was San Diego) and that the pick-and-roll is an anomaly these days.

Mahaney, who led all scorers yesterday with 18 points on 8-16 shooting, doesn’t even look at Saxen as the big man begins the roll part of the P&R. He uses Saxen’s rolling to the hoop as a distraction for the defense to worry about and heads elsewhere to find weaknesses to exploit.

The overall offensive plan is attrition: Bennett seems convinced — and his team has bought in to the idea — that if the Gaels continue to pound the ball inside when they can, continue to keep the ball moving, continue to look for driving lanes for Johnson, Mahaney and the improving Augustus Marciulionis, they will take control of games sometime in the second half. Their opponents, weary from competing against the Gaels’ ruthless defense, inevitably tire as the game wears on and loosen up their guarding of Gael shooters.

The road ahead

The WCC season is only two games old and already has produced a bunch of surprises. Portland, showing signs of resurgence last year under Shantay Legans, was the darling of prognosticators tired of the Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s dominance of league play. To the prognosticators’ chagrin, the Pilots limped to two losses against Loyola Marymount and BYU in the first week of conference play after a pre-season highlighted by a win over Villanova and a one-point loss to Michigan State.

San Francisco, another alternative choice for Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s haters, joined Portland at the bottom of league standings after losing to Santa Clara and a revenge-seeking San Diego Torero squad that didn’t take well to a 27-point loss handed it by the Gaels on Thursday. It helped that San Diego had one of its two starters back who didn’t play against Saint Mary’s, guard Jase Townsend who went for 22 points against San Francisco.

LMU was a brief darling after upsetting Portland in the league-opener, but gave way to Pacific as the Tigers took them down in the second game. So, WCC standings look eerily familiar after the first week, with Saint Mary’s and BYU in front with 2-0 marks, Gonzaga in third only because it played just one game — beating Pepperdine handily — and Santa Clara, LMU, San Diego and Pacific tied at 1-1. The more things change…

The Gaels have a mid-week practice game against Academy of Art Institute — no, they aren’t expecting a draw — before returning to WCC play against Portland on Jan.7, followed by LMU on the 12th, both in Moraga. The grind continues.

Aidan Mahaney, shown above in an earlier game this season, continues to have a freshman season for the record books, leading the Gaels in scoring against Santa Clara with 18 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Good start

by Michael Vernetti

The San Diego Torreros who lost to Saint Mary’s by 27 points (85-58) Thursday in Moraga were not the team new coach Steve Lavin envisioned when he took over the Torreros in April.

Lavin, a well-respected former coach at UCLA and St. John’s, hit the ground running, rescuing prize guard Wayne McKinney III from the transfer portal, and landing Pac-12 standouts Jaiden DeLaire from Stanford and Eric Williams Jr. from Oregon. With that nucleus joining holdover Torreros Jase Townsend, Marcellus Earlington and Sigu Sisal Jawara, Lavin was set to compete in the constantly-improving West Coast Conference.

The Toreros started strong, winning four of five against so-so competition — Sonoma State and San Diego Christian included — before the wheels fell off with a disastrous trip to Las Vegas and losses to New Mexico State and Nicholls. Blowout losses to UNLV and Arizona State followed, and that was before San Diego lost DeLaire and Townsend to injuries. Without those two starters, Lavin’s lads limped into Moraga to face a well-rested and motivated Saint Mary’s squad, which has suffered its own ups and downs in an 11-4 season.

Mystery team

The Gaels have been a mystery throughout the non-conference portion of their season, disposing of well-respected opponents such as Oral Roberts, North Texas State and Vermont with ease, but stumbling over Washington of the Pac-12 and New Mexico of the Mountain West Conference.

After reassuring their fans that they were, indeed, a potential NCAA Tournament team by beating nemesis San Diego State on a neutral court and handling New Mexico State easily at home, the Gaels sleep-walked to a 62-60 loss to a good-but-not-great Colorado State squad in Moraga to rekindle the doubts. An up-and-down win over Wyoming (66-54) last Wednesday didn’t answer all questions about the Gaels, so last night’s opener of the West Coast Conference season was a crucial test.

And Saint Mary’s passed, holding a high-scoring but defensively challenged Torero squad to its lowest point total of the year and posting 85 points of its own — the highest total so far this season. So, is it Easy Street from here on in for the Gaels? Hardly.

On the plus side was a dominating effort from center Mitchell Saxen. the junior who has faced the challenge of replacing rock-solid Matthias Tass in the post with checkered success. Saxen went 8-11 from the field against a smallish San Diego front line, cashing in on a barrage of drop-off buckets supplied by his teammates, who tallied 16 assists on 32 made baskets.

Saxen, who had fallen below 50 per cent shooting from the free-throw line, managed to sink 4-7 of his free throw attempts, and added 10 rebounds for his third double-double of the year, along with three assists, two blocks and two steals. A solid night’s work, following a similar effort against Wyoming — 19 points and nine rebounds. The Gaels need a stellar effort from Saxen every night to make their in-and-out offense work .

Ducas is back

The game also featured the return of Alex Ducas, the sometimes magnificent wing man with the silky-smooth three-point shot, who managed to score not a single point against Wyoming. Ducas was one of the main recipients of the Toreros’ casual approach to defense, finding himself so alone on two of his three-pointers that he couldn’t find anyone to chat with. He finished with 13 points on 5-10 shooting, and seemingly could have had many more if Gael Coach Randy Bennett hadn’t emptied his bench.

The Gael guard threesome, Aidan Mahaney, Logan Johnson and Augustus Marciulionis was efficient, totaling 33 points on 13-28 shooting. Marciulionis started out as if he were going to have a scoring breakthrough, racking up eight points by halftime on aggressive drives to the rock and his now-patented stop-and-twist floater, but made just one free throw in the second half to end up with nine.

Johnson also had nine points, but he can be forgiven after his 28-points against Wyoming saved the Gaels’s bacon in that one. Mahaney played only seven minutes in the first half after picking up two quick fouls, but returned with a 10-point flourish in the second half to finish with 15. Mahaney made only one of two there-point attempts, penetrating to the rim on several occasions and hitting his unstoppable, 15-foot jumper seemingly as he wished.

Bowen is everywhere

Kyle Bowen, the Gaels’s defensive lockdown artist, made only one bucket against San Diego — a three-pointer at the game’s outset — but may have been the most dominating force on the floor. Bowen began the game by blocking Earlington’s first shot of the game, made two more blocks on the evening and grabbed 13 rebounds to go along with a steal. He even led a fast-break, finding Saxen out front after a long rebound and feeding the big man perfectly for a lay-up and score.

Bowen may have excited Gael fans by his 16-point outburst against New Mexico State two games ago, but that is not his strength. He has worked his way to respectable three-point shooting success, which he demonstrates occasionally, but does not try to be an offensive threat. He proves his worth by defending the opponents’ best front-line weapon and grabbing every rebound in his vicinity. If Ducas, Mahaney and Johnson are doing their jobs offensively, the Gaels don’t need double-digit scoring from Bowen to be successful

Reserves shine

Saint Mary’s has not ben universally successful inserting reserves during comfortable wins, as the second-teamers have shown themselves prone to turnovers and defensive lapses. Coach Bennett, who has only 10 players available, has doggedly stuck to his plans to get everyone involved, however, and did so against San Diego as the Gael lead ballooned to 30 points in the second half. And the reserves did well!

Most impressive was Joshua Jefferson, the chiseled 6’8″ freshman power forward from Henderson, NV. Jefferson has shone for moments — his two jump shots against Washington were rare examples of the Gaels handling Washington’s zone defense — but has seemed often on the brink of showing himself to be a star of the future. He had his best game of the season against San Diego, dishing off two sweet assists to Saxen and sinking two three-pointers in two attempts — his first long-range goals of the year.

Almost anyone would pale in comparison to Bowen’s defensive prowess, but Jefferson is working hard to become an acceptable replacement even in non-blowout situations. Bowen is a senior and Australian players don’t often stick around after four years even given Covid allowances, so Jefferson may be the heir apparent at power forward. His obvious offensive abilities compared to Bowen are intriguing, and if he continues to improve defensively he could prove to ba a worthy successor.

Saint Mary’s travels down 680-880 on New Year’s Eve (Saturday) to play the 13-3 Santa Clara Broncos, who opened their WCC season by handling a strong San Francisco team by 79-67. If any Bronco-haters among the Gael faithful think Herb Sendek’s Broncos are quavering over the prospect of facing the hot-and-cold Gaels, they haven’t been paying attention to the new WCC. This will be the test Saint Mary’s did not receive from San Diego.

Mitchell Saxen, shown above shooting a free throw against San Diego, led all scorers with 20 points and added 10 rebounds for his third double-double of the year. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.