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.