by Michael Vernetti
Dazzling stats usually come out of important wins such as Saint Mary’s 68-58 victory Wednesday over a tough Fresno State squad at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, home to the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.
And yet, while the Gaels shot well (51 per cent) and defended well, holding FSU to 37 per cent shooting in the crucial second half, they were out-rebounded 32-28 and made only 33 per cent of their three-point attempts (6-18). So, no statistical bonanza at first glance.
Ah, but one stat does jump out: nine steals for the Gaels. Nine, as in one less than 10, as in more than twice as many steals as the Bulldogs had assists (four). It was a difference-maker in a game where Fresno State avoided a 20-point loss by sinking three-point shots at opportune moments.
Tommy Kuhse, solidifying his position at point guard, led the theft parade with four, and his efforts illustrated how well-timed defensive stops can fuel the Gael offense. A key Kuhse steal came at the 11-minute mark of the first half, when he high-jacked a pick-and-roll attempt by the Bulldogs, leading to a run-out by Jordan Ford. Ford dropped off a pass to the trailing Tanner Krebs, who finished the breakaway with a bucket, giving the Gaels 17-10 lead.
On the Gaels’ next possession, Malik Fitts sank a three-pointer to boost the SMC lead to 20-10 with 10 minutes left in the half.
A little later, Kuhse ignited a mini-run run by swiping the ball from Bulldog reserve guard Mustafa Lawrence, leading to a Ford floater in the paint. Kuhse then scored his first bucket of the night to put the Gaels up 26-17 with a little more than five minutes left in the half.
Kuhse’s most satisfying theft came shortly after the beginning of the second half, when he picked the pocket of Fresno State’s so-far-sensational freshman guard, Jarred Hyder. Hyder had scorched the Gaels for 15 first-half points, including three-of-three attempts from long range. Kuhse’s steal was turned into a thundering slam dunk by Krebs, giving the Gaels a 40-30 lead and seemingly blowing the contest wide open.
That impression was solidified on the nest possession when Fitts slapped the ball away from Hyder and Kuhse, who had swept up the loose ball, tossed an alley-top pass to the streaking Fitts for another stuff and a 12-point lead. The back-to-back assaults on the heretofore unflappable Heyder may have showed his momentum somewhat, as he didn’t score his first bucket of the second half until almost eight minutes had passed.
Saved by the three-pointer
Although the Gaels pushed the lead to 13 points (50-37) on a lay-up by Dan Fotu off a Ford drive-and-dish, FSU refused to fold. The Bulldogs got clutch three-pointers from Lawrence, former Roseville high school phenom Noah Blackwell, freshman Anthony Holland and former UNLV standout Nate Grimes to keep themselves in the game.
Heyder, kept under control for most of the second half, showed his mettle by sticking a three-pointer at the 1:02 mark to cut the SMC lead to 66-58. Kuhse, who engaged in a tit-for-tat battle with Heyder all night, had the final laugh, however, finding Matthias Tass in the paint for a lay-up to push the lead back to 10 points and salt away the satisfying win. Fresno State looks capable of causing major heartburn for Mountain West Conference foes as the 2019-20 season rolls on.
Kuhse seems to have settled the point guard question confronting the Gaels in the early stages of the season with a solid performance against FSU. In addition to the four steals, he dished out six assists — his third straight game with at least six — and scored nine points on 4-7 shooting. His timely scoring and excellent floor leadership were a strong complement to Ford’s brilliant 24-point offensive display on 8-15 shooting.
Transfer Logan Johnson, who started in Kuhse’s place for the first four Saint Mary’s games, played only three minutes against FSU. Indeed, Coach Randy Bennett’s unusual pattern of liberal substitutions in the early going came to a halt against the Bulldogs, as only eight players saw meaningful minutes. Freshman Kyle Bowen and sophomore Fotu seem settled for now as subs for Fitts and Tass, respectively, while freshman Alex Ducas logged seven minutes in relief of Krebs. Transfer center Aaron Menzies and recovering point guard Kristers Zoriks, who have played in the previous Gael contests, didn’t get off the bench.
That’s the situation as the Gaels prepare to welcome the Lehigh (PA) Mountain Hawks into McKeon Pavilion on Saturday (Nov. 23). The Gaels’ greatest pre-conference challenge, against Utah State on Nov. 29, looms in the near future, so stay tuned. Bennett may choose to shake things up further depending on how the Gaels compete against Lehigh.
Tommy Kuhse, pictured above in action from last season, has been slowed in the initial games of this season, but was brilliant in his first start against Fresno State: nine points, six assists and four steals. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.