by Michael Vernetti
Saint Mary’s fans got a look at the future in the second half of their team’s 75-45 romp over a lethargic San Jose State team Saturday afternoon.
Given the vicissitudes of a 9-6 out-of-conference season, they probably liked what they saw.
Freshman center Matthias Tass made one of his three steals on the day, and headed up-court alongside freshman guard Alex Mudronja. Mudronja took over the dribble and made for the basket with two San Jose defenders in his path. Mudronja swung the ball out in his right hand as if he were going to pass it to Tass, faking out the defender closest to him. Instead of passing the ball, however, he kept control of it and laid a soft hook off the backboard for the score. Cue the wild crowd reaction.
The San Jose State game was a breakout of sorts for both the Gael freshmen, who came to Moraga with high expectations. Tass has played more minutes than Mudronja, and has shown flashes of excellence between spates of confusion and unnecessary fouling. Mudronja, a highly-touted graduate of Australia’s Centre of Excellence (formerly Australia Institute of Sports), has played only sporadically and seemed uncomfortable in those appearances.
Both had their longest stretches of playing time on Saturday, Tass for 19 minutes and Mudronja for nine. Gael Coach Randy Bennett seemed to be making a point, particularly regarding Mudronja, who may have been rehearsing for the team’s most unsettled position — off-guard alongside Jordan Ford.
Bennett may have soured on the Tommy Kuhse experiment, after seeing the sophomore walk-on decline in productivity over the past several games. He subbed in Tanner Krebs for Kuhse after only three-and-a-half minutes were gone in the first half, and then gave Mudronja a good look in the second half. He probably liked what he saw.
Tass in the spotlight
The more one watches Tass, the more one concludes that consistent playing time is the only thing that stands between him and stardom for the Gaels. Tass made only three of eight shots for seven points against San Jose State, but that is not the important fact. He looked comfortable in the paint against San Jose’s formidable 6’11” shot-blocker Oumar Barry, backing him down forcefully for a variety of nifty inside attempts. The margin of those misses is the kind of thing that is erased by experience.
Tass has extremely quick hands, evidenced by his three steals, and sees the floor exceptionally well. As he becomes more used to playing under pressure, his fouls will decrease and his scoring will increase. The Gaels are fortunate to have senior Jordan Hunter available for major minutes alongside Tass so the Estonian can grow into his role.
With Tass and Mudronja playing extended minutes and the third prominent Gael freshman, Dan Fotu, continuing in his starting role over Elijah Thomas, Saint Mary’s is utilizing more first-time players than any time in recent memory. Throw in the huge contribution from transfer Malik Fitts, and one can see why the Gaels have been up-and-down in the pre-conference season.
It wasn’t entirely a night for newcomers, as juniors Ford and Krebs put on individual shows to give the fans their money’s worth. Ford, the Gaels’ leading scorer on the season, made a steal and converted the ensuing lay-up between two San Jose defenders to get everyone excited early. He later drilled a three-pointer off a nasty step-back to keep the adrenaline flowing, and finished the night with 16 points in 30 minutes on the floor.
Krebs was uncanny from distance against the Spartans, tying his own career record with six made three-pointers in nine attempts. His 20 total points topped the Gaels, and seemed to constitute a punctuation mark for fans who have agonized over his erratic shooting from distance early in the season. Krebs was eager to shoot the deep ball, in contrast with other games when he has seemed reluctant and unsure of his shot.
West Coast Conference play begins next Thursday against rising San Francisco on the Dons’ home court, where they hastened the Gaels’ late-season collapse with a 73-70 win last Feb. 15. San Francisco suffered a 73-71 road loss to UC-Santa Barbara Saturday, but compiled a 12-2 out-of-conference record with wins over Gael-slayer Harvard, along with Cal and Stanford.
The Gaels meet BYU next Saturday in Moraga to cap the opening weekend of WCC play, after which the roles of Tass, Mudronja, Fotu and Fitts, along with the veterans, will undoubtedly become more clear.
Tanner Krebs welcomed back an old friend — his jump shot — against San Jose State, sinking 6-of-9 from distance en route to 20 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.