Better

by Michael Vernetti

If every Saint Mary’s player took Monday’s loss to Winthrop as seriously as center Matthias Tass, last night’s score against Long Beach State might have been in the range of 120-60 instead of the actual 81-63 drubbing.

Tass, a budding star in the post for the Gaels in his sophomore year, underwent a bewildering experience against Winthrop, attempting but a single shot in 26 minutes on the floor and missing that one. The 6’10” native of Tallinn, Estonia, was not alone in ignominy, as his teammates demonstrated a profound inability to involve him in the offense. Stats don’t register touches by individual players, but Tass couldn’t have had the ball thrown his way more than a half-dozen times.

Outsiders may never learn exactly what transpired during practices and team meetings between the loss to Winthrop and the romp against Long Beach State, but it would be a fair inference that Tass was determined to avoid another Winthrop-like experience. Long Beach players and coaches would undoubtedly concur.

From a soft baby hook less than 40 seconds into the game, through a series of dunks, lay-ups and spin moves, Tass was a man possessed against State. His stat line on the night stood in bright shining contrast to the one against Winthrop: 22 points on 8-13 shooting from the floor (62 per cent) and a perfect 6-6 from the free throw line.

Guarding him was a willowy, 6’11” freshman from Sacramento, Joshua Morgan, who came to the Beach as a rim protector and shot blocker. It is unlikely that Morgan has played against an engaged opponent like Tass in his brief college career, and he will probably be happy not to meet another one anytime soon.

Not forgetting Kuhse

Equalling Tass’s recovery from a forgettable Winthrop game was erstwhile starting point guard Tommy Kuhse, the walk-on from Mesa, AZ. Kuhse has undergone a painful, if temporary, suspension of glory since capping a storybook 2018-19 campaign with a star turn in the Gaels’ 60-47 upset of Gonzaga in last season’s WCC Championship game.

Injury reports are a scarcity around Gaeldom, and fans find out about fallen players by showing up at games and noticing one or another of them in street clothes — with or without casts, wraps or crutches — on the sidelines. Something happened to Kuhse in the lead-up to this season, and that he had been somehow injured was noticed only when he was kept out of the annual Blue-White scrimmage in October.

Although accompanying the team to the season opener against Wisconsin in Sioux Falls, SD, Kuhse was kept out of that game also. When the Gaels were introduced in their home opener against Winthrop, Kuhse had been again replaced in the starting lineup by Logan Johnson, a former St. Francis (Mountain View) star who spent his freshman year laboring for Nick Cronin at Cincinnati. Cronin took the open UCLA head coaching position, however, freeing Johnson to transfer to Saint Mary’s. His arrival was seen as a blessing, buttressing the Gaels’ back court with an athletic, defensive-minded warrior.

Like Tass, Kuhse struggled against Winthrop when he made his debut appearance. As did the rest of the Gael offense, Kuhse looked lost at times, committing three turnovers against zero assists, and taking one fewer shot than Tass — none — in 24 minutes on the floor. His bounce-back against State was astonishing.

Coming off the bench in place of Johnson at the 15:35 mark of the first half, Kuhse recorded his first assist of the season some six seconds later. He followed that up with another assist about three minutes later, helping the Gaels score six points — both baskets were three-pointers — in a blur. He was just getting started.

Kuhse got a shot at extended minutes when Jordan Ford, the team’s offensive leader through the Wisconsin and Winthrop games by averaging 24 PPG and playing every minute of both games, picked up his second foul with 11:19 gone. Gael Coach Randy Bennett has a seemingly inflexible rule that applies to both starters and subs — you rack up two fouls in the first half, you’re relegated to the bench until the second half.

Ford knows this only too well, and he immediately pleaded his case against benching when the referee’s whistle sounded. Bennett wavered, then stuck to his guns and benched Ford. Aussie Freshman Alex Ducas had entered the game a few minutes earlier in place of Tanner Krebs at the wing, so Bennett decided on an improvised lineup that put Krebs back at the wing and Ducas, who is accomplished at the 2 or 3-spot, at guard alongside Kuhse.

Kuhse took advantage of Ford’s absence, accounting for four assists and seven points in the remaining eight-or-so minutes of the half, helping the Gaels to a 41-31 halftime lead. He kept up the excellence in the second half, finishing the game with 20 points on 8-10 shooting, including a perfect 4-4 from three-point range. Oh, and he dished out eight assists against one turnover. Winthrop game, what Winthrop game?

About Long Beach

It is hard to assess the win over Long Beach in the context of the Gaels’ season-long progress. Dan Monson’s troops opened against UCLA at Pauley Pavilion by leading the game for 35 minutes before succumbing at the end by a score of 69-65. But they were trounced by Stanford 86-58 the night before facing Saint Mary’s. Monson’s primary offensive weapons, 6’5″ guards Michael Carter III and Chance Hunter, are new to his team, Hunter coming from Cerritos Community College and Carter transferring from Washington, where he enrolled after a stellar prep career in Seattle.

The duo accounted for 39 points against UCLA, but only 21 against Saint Mary’s, although Carter had a significant height advantage over the 6’1″-ish Kuhse. Along with lightning-quick guard Colin Slater, who led the Beach with 14 points against the Gaels, Carter and Hunter give Monson enough offensive ammunition to compete for the Big West title. Unfortunately, they also have to play defense.

To say there were exploitable gaps in the Beach defense is an understatement of the first rank. Beach players guarded their opposite numbers as if in fear of contracting a communicable disease, and the Gaels were only too eager to slice them up with drives and kick-outs to willing — and successful — shooters. The Saint Mary’s assist-to-turnover advantage of 18 to 12 wasn’t exactly earth-shattering, but compared to the abysmal seven to 15 ratio against Winthrop, it was extremely welcome. So was the 60 per cent (12-20) shooting percentage on three-pointers, which rendered the Beach’s decision to play zone defense as ineffectual as its man-to-man.

Ford may have benefitted from a virtual night off against State, although he still logged 27 minutes. He was the only Gael whom the Beach seemed concerned about stopping, and he responded by taking only six shots, making four, including his only two three-point attempts.

The Gaels’ co-offensive leader, Malik Fitts, didn’t suffer any foul-related benching, but he seemed more concerned with passing to everyone on the Gaels’ side of the court rather than shooting. As a result, he, too, took only six shots, making two for six points. He did account for four assists, however.

The Gaels’ home stand continues Sunday afternoon against a Cal Poly team that will complete with Long Beach State for Big West honors. Bennett’s assessment of the Beach win, “we’re getting better each game,” looms as his team’s challenge against Cal Poly and upcoming opponents Fresno State, Lehigh and so on and so on. The Winthrop loss was a painful wake-up call for a team that entered 2019-20 with high hopes. Getting better each game is the only possible antidote to that nightmare.

Saint Mary’s center Matthias Tass, shown above dunking over Long Beach State center Joshua Morgan, bounced back from a poor performance against Winthrop with a dominating game against Long Beach. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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