Progress

by Michael Vernetti

They stumbled out of the gate against an explosive Memphis team, losing 73-56 before they even got to explore the charms of Sioux Falls, SD; battled back from the brink to edge Missouri Valley Conference power Northern Iowa 66-64; and gained separation against South Dakota State, pre-season picks to win the Summit League, for a 72-59 win in which every player in uniform got on the floor.

Then, on Tuesday night, the Saint Mary’s Gaels returned to Moraga for their first home game of the 2020-21 season and demonstrated the offensive explosiveness, defensive grit and roster depth that their most loyal fans felt they possessed: a 73-50 romp over the Nicholls State Colonels from Thibodaux, LA.

Nicholls, as it prefers to be known, had done a deep dive into Bay Area hoops before finishing a five-game visit against the Gaels. They opened Santa Clara’s Bronco Classic strong, topping UC Davis — picked to finish third in the Big West Conference — 101-93, followed that up with a win over lowly Idaho State, then fell to Santa Clara 73-57 and to Cal by a 60-49 margin.

Perhaps exhausted, perhaps missing some Creole cooking, the Colonels never got untracked against the Gaels. Behind the sizzling three-point shooting of Alex Ducas, Saint Mary’s leapt to an early 18-6 lead, expanded that to 39-25 at the half and moved ahead by 30 points, 61-31, with eleven minutes left. At that point, Gael Coach Randy Bennett began clearing the bench for the second game in a row.

Ducas remains hot

Ducas, who is leading all Gael players in scoring (15.8 PPG) and rebounding (7.8 RPG), has been on a tear since opening with a 1-10 three-point performance in the first two games. Since then, he has sunk 9-16 three-pointers to bring his overall average from distance to 38% and, Gael fans hope, still rising.

The impact of Ducas and other hot-shooting Gaels was manifested in a closing stretch of the first half, with the Gaels ahead comfortably, but not overwhelmingly, at 36-23. Ducas canned his third three-pointer at the 2:14 mark, then Kyle Bowen, the sophomore from Australia who backs up Dan Fotu at strong forward, hit his second three-pointer of the game and season, reserve guard Quinn Clinton followed with his second trey and Ducas struck again from distance at the 36-second mark.

Scoring 12 points in under two minutes, the Gaels rolled into the halftime break with momentum and confidence.

Saint Mary’s continues a three-game homestead Thursday night against Texas Southern of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, where it was picked to finish first ahead of rivals Prairie View A&M, Jackson State and Alcorn State, among others. Texas Southern raised some eyebrows in the West by opening with a narrow 56-52 loss to Kyle Smith’s Washington State Cougars in Pullman, followed by a 20-point loss to Oklahoma State (85-65) and a 76-74 win over Wyoming on Monday. Put them closer to the Northern Iowa level than to Nicholls.

What about these Gaels?

What have we learned about the Gaels before the fifth game of this Covid-impacted season?

Perhaps most comforting to Gael fans is the return of an assist-heavy, rapid-passing offense. Last season, the Gael offense became bogged down at two points in the rotation — when Jordan Ford had the ball in his hands and when Malik Fitts received a pass. Because the offense was seriously hampered without Matthias Tass anchoring the post with scoring, rebounding and, perhaps most importantly, passing, Saint Mary’s relied almost exclusively on Ford and Fitts to carry the offensive load.

Ford was given free rein to dribble until he found a crack in the defense, which he did with excellent results, although it kept the ball from moving. Fitts, with his jab-stepping, three-point ambivalence, likewise gummed up the works. Thus, the Gaels were potent when Ford and Fitts were cooking, but defensible when others had to make baskets.

The return of Tass from ACL surgery has returned fluidity to the Gael offense, and front court steel to its defense. Tass has not pressed on offense, and has compiled a respectable 9.3 PPG despite taking only 28 shots in four games. Against Nicholls, for instance, Tass took only three shots, making one and totaling four points. He also pulled down six rebounds, handed out two assists, made two steals and blocked a shot — all in 23 minutes.

As play-by-play man Alex Jensen struggled to keep up with the ricocheting passes by the Gael offense, Tass accounted for perhaps the prettiest assist of the Nicholls game. As a pass came to him in the paint, he didn’t try to corral it and force a shot, but simply tapped it to a closing Bowen for an easy lay-up. Tass is second on the team in assists with seven, trailing point guard Tommy Kuhse, who tied a career record with 10 assists against Nicholls and has 26 for the year against eight turnovers.

Supporting cast stepping up

Perhaps as important as the offensive flow has been the contributions from numerous Gael subs, several of them new to the team this year. Jabe Mullins, the all-everything combo guard from Snoqualmie, WA east of Seattle, has stepped into the starting off-guard spot in place of Logan Johnson, who sprained his ankle against Northern Iowa. Mullins contributed 10 points against UNI, followed that up with 15 points against South Dakota State and settled for five points against Nicholls because, well, everyone else was scoring.

More importantly than his scoring, Mullins has carried himself like an experienced veteran instead of a raw freshman, settling down the Gael lineup when it could have come unravelled with Johnson’s injury. His height, 6’5″, and long arms make him a threatening presence on defense, and he has performed well in the phase of the game that Bennett prizes even more than gaudy offensive stats.

Just as impressive as Mullins has been Mitchell Saxen, the chiseled 6’10” center/forward also from the Seattle area. Saxen and Mullins played for different high schools, but were both considered prime prospects in Washington State, with Mullins receiving Player of the Year plaudits from the AP.

Saxen has not scorched the nets in his first four starts, taking only 12 shots (making six), but has pulled down 16 rebounds in limited minutes, and has shown a nose for the ball (four steals) and a deft passing ability out of the post. While Gael fans might have thought Utah transfer Matt Van Komen, all 7’4″ of him, would be Tass’s primary back-up, Saxen has been the story in the early going.

Other less-heralded Gael subs have made their marks along with Mullins and Saxen. Clinton, who played only sparingly as a freshman and sat out last season with an ankle injury, has showed himself to be an additional three-point threat. Playing in all four games, Clinton has made three of seven shots — all three-pointers — for a 43% average.

Also making himself known is Tass’s buddy from Estonia, guard/wing Leemet Bockler. Standing an imposing 6’6″ and weighing in at 215 lbs, Bockler does not go unnoticed on the floor. He has been used, like Clinton, almost exclusively as a three-point threat in backing up Ducas, and has sunk 3-9 from distance so far. Clinton and Bockler have proved themselves valuable pieces of an expanding offensive mosaic.

You might have to search to find these Gaels in the early weeks of the season — the Nicholls game was carried by Stadium TV — but it is worth the effort. They are playing unselfishly on offense, have kept their last three opponents near or under 60 points (64, 59 and 50) and have the capacity to get better as the season progresses. Stay tuned.

A team photo, shown above, is fitting for these Gaels because every player has contributed so far. Alex Ducas and Matthias Tass may be emerging stars, but the rest of the squad has also shown promise. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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