by Michael Vernetti
Three nights, three different scoring leaders, but fortunately not three different results. Two wins and one loss against stiff competition was the result of the Gaels’ first competition in ’20-21, good for a fifth-place finish in the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic in Sioux Falls, SD.
On a night (Wednesday) when very little went right against the quick and deadly Memphis Tigers, Matthias Tass, the Gaels’ surgically-restored post player, scored 15 points in 31 minutes, going 6-11 from the floor and 3-5 from the free throw line. Tass, who underwent surgery for a torn ACL just last January (or February, these things are tough to discover about the close-mouthed Gaels), also grabbed six rebounds and handed out three assists from his position in the post.
The latter statistic might be the most remarkable thing about Tass’s more than respectable return to action, as his Gael teammates shot an overall 34% from the floor, including a dismal 5.6% from three-point range (1-18). One a decent shooting night, Tass might have had six or seven assists.
Drawing Memphis in the opening game of the tournament presented a formidable assignment for the Gaels, as the Tigers are loaded and seemingly indifferent to the fact that two of their starters from last season, center James Wiseman (Golden State Warriors) and forward Precious Achiuwa (Miami Heat), were taken in the first round of the NBA Draft held just a week before the tournament.
Memphis, led by former NBA star Penny Hardaway, replaced Wiseman with one of the most highly sought high school stars in the country, 6’10” Moussa Cisse, added Virginia Tech’s leading scorer from last season, Landers Nolley, via the transfer portal, and returned four talented sophomores. One of those, Boogie Ellis, carved up the Gaels for 24 points, including 6-7 from three-point range.
The Gaels had no answer for that firepower, and wilted at the first application of defensive pressure after bolting to an 8-0 start. No one could hit, the turnovers flowed (13, against 10 assists) and shot after shot clanked off the rim — usually the front rim, as most of the misses came up short, a sure sign of first-game jitters. Not to single out one malefactor among the many, but the failure of Alex Ducas to hit any of four wide-open three-point attempts in the early going was particularly painful for the Gaels as they attempted to throttle a Memphis comeback that started in the middle of the first half.
Ducas, a sharpshooter who is counted on to provide much of the scoring for Saint Mary’s this season, finished the night 3-10 from the floor, including that goose egg from distance. He would redeem himself after the Memphis face plant, but his inaccuracy loomed large in the Gaels’ 73-56 loss to the Tigers.
Enter Mr. Kuhse
Night two loomed as a huge test for the Gaels, as they faced the possibility of going 0-2 and starting the season on a major downer. Their opponent, Northern Iowa University, could not equal the overall quickness of Memphis, but has been picked as the favorite to win the Missouri Valley Conference title, and features returning Player of the Year and NBA prospect, A.J Green.
Far from hanging their heads after the Memphis loss, the Gaels came out energized and determined to show that they could shoot better than a gang of schoolyard kids. The trouble was, Northern Iowa had something to prove also, as they had played eventual tournament champion West Virginia tough in an opening-night 79-71 loss.
After a back and forth first half, UNI took a 39-31 lead into the locker room, but the Gaels had shown signs of life not evident against Memphis. Forward Dan Fotu banged home a three-pointer to open the Gaels’ scoring, and fifth-year senior Tommy Kuhse did something he couldn’t accomplish in the opening game — sinking a three-pointer of his own at the eight-minute mark to pull Saint Mary’s within one point, 25-24.
Despite a more concentrated effort against UNI, the Panthers stretched their lead to 16 points early in the second half. The Gaels’ attitude was different than it was against Memphis, however, and with Kuhse leading the way, Saint Mary’s started clawing back, aided by another three-pointer by Kuhse at the 13:46 mark that brought the Gaels within nine points at 49-40.
The beleaguered Ducas, faring no better against UNI than he did against Memphis, canned his first three-point attempt of the season at the 9:47 mark to bring the Gaels within eight points (53-45). Kuhse made his third three-pointer of the night a few minutes later to cut the UNI margin to 53-51.
The game see-sawed until the 2:17 mark, when Kuhse took over in as bold a leadership stretch the Gaels have seen since the days of Matthew Dellavedova. First Kuhse dribbled into the paint and scored a twisting bank shot reminiscent of his clutch bucket against Gonzaga in the 2019 WCC final. Gaels within two at 62-60.
Less than a minute later, Kuhse repeated the twisting, turning scoop shot in the paint to tie up the game at 62-62. After UNI scored to go ahead 64-62, Tass scored inside to tie up the game again, and set the stage for Kuhse’s ultimate heroics.
Again penetrating the lane with seconds left on the clock, Kuhse seemed stymied. He appeared to elevate for a desperation heave, but kept his pivot foot (toe, actually) in place and juked the UNI defender off his feet. Kuhse then dropped in his third lay-up in less than two minutes to give the Gaels the lead, 66-64, with less than two seconds left. It proved to be the winner, giving Kuhse 19 points on the night and celebrity status among ESPN watchers throughout the U.S.
The Gaels’ second win of the tournament, an almost-romp of 72-59 against South Dakota State, could be subtitled “Revenge of Alex Ducas.”
Obviously chagrined by his 1-10 three-point performance in the first two games, Ducas seemed determined to make the Jackrabbits pay for it. He came out firing, sinking his first three-pointer at the 17:48 mark, and following up with two more at the 13:48 and 11:47 marks. Ducas finished with a career-high 24 points, but didn’t settle for three-pointers only.
In addition to going 4-9 from deep, he made 9-17 shots overall, including drives, pull-up jumpers and, in one case, a drive reminiscent of Jordan Ford, whom he resembles not a bit in body shape. Finding himself one-on-one against the Jackrabbit’s center, Ducas did what Ford did innumerable times during his brilliant four-year career: he eyed the lumbering center, dribbled a few times, then blew past him for a twisting reverse lay-up.
Ducas has a skills portfolio more extensive than the usual small forward. He can sink long shots, but also relishes driving the paint to finish near the rim or popping a mid-range jump shot. He is also a fierce rebounder — he totaled 23 for the tournament — and a good passer. His performance was perhaps the most promising of the Gaels who will determine how far this team goes, although impressive performances were also turned in by freshmen Mitchell Saxen, backing up Tass admirably, and Jabe Mullins, who took over for the injured Logan Johnson at the off-guard spot following Johnson’s ankle injury against UNI.
Emerging from the fog of Covid, playing in empty auditoriums and undergoing constant testing, the ’20-21 Gaels have endured their first tough test of the year. If they continue improving as milch as they did between Wednesday and Friday of a gloomy December in South Dakota, they could make the year memorable for something besides a nasty virus.
Tommy Kuhse, the Gaels, most experienced player, picked up his teammates and willed them to victory in the second game of the Bad Boy Mowers tournament. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.
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