Bench bail-out

by Michael Vernetti

If you asked 100 Gael fans at the start of the 2020-21 season who they would pick as surprise stars in this Covid-infused year, I doubt any of them would have answered Leemet Bockler or Quinn Clinton.

Meet the Estonian Fireman and the New Zealand Flash!

Bockler, the 6’6″, 215-lb wing who grew up playing hoops with Gael center Matthias Tass in Tallinn, Estonia, was the stealthiest of many stealth recruits Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett has landed during his 20 years in Moraga. Although Bockler’s decision to come to Saint Mary’s was known to the coaching staff way back in the fall of 2019, they managed to keep him under wraps until they announced the entire four-man recruiting class in mid-2020 (others being Jabe Mullins, Judah Brown and Mitchell Saxen).

Bockler went into pro basketball instead of college upon graduating from high school, joining Tal Tech/Kalev in the PAF Latvian Estonian League. He became the highest scoring 18-year-old in the league, averaging 13.5 PPG and shooting 40% from three-point range. He was comfortable at the free throw line as well, making 44 of 46 attempts.

Unknown to the American hoops scene, but not unknown to his buddy, Tass, and to the Gael coaching staff. After Thursday night’s 82-70 Saint Mary’s win over Texas Southern University, his cover may be blown.

Bockler entered the game with about 14 minutes left in the first half, replacing Alex Ducas who had opened the game by missing his first three three-point attempts and turning over the ball against the wily Texas Southern guard, Michael Weathers. Bockler promptly sank a three-pointer, only the second Gael score of the game, and brought his team to a 15-5 deficit.

He was just getting warmed up.

Bennett gave Ducas a chance to redeem himself, but the streak-shooting Aussie clanked another two attempts from distance, and the call again went to Bockler with about two-and-a-half minutes left in the half.

The explosion

Bockler proceeded to make four three-point shots in the ensuing two minutes, taking the Gaels from a 30-27 deficit to a 39-35 halftime lead. In some six minutes of play, Bockler had scored 15 points and erased from his teammates’ minds the memory of a sluggish start that gave heart to the gritty Texas Southern Tigers from Houston.

Bockler cooled off somewhat in the second half, adding one more three-pointer and a sensational drive and reverse lay-up for a game total of 20 points in 15 minutes of playing time. But Bennett had another bench surprise up his sleeve.

Clinton is one of the most unsung of Gael players who has been on the roster for more than a year. He came to Moraga in 2018 with fellow New Zealander Dan Fotu, after a sensational high school career that cumulated in winning Male Junior Player of the Year honors. He participated in 2017 FIBA under-19 World Championship in Cairo, Egypt, averaging 12.1 PPG, and was named Most Valuable Player in 2016 FIBA under-18 Oceania Championship, leading his junior national team, the All-Blacks, to a 5-0 record and a Gold Medal.

Although Clinton appeared in 22 games in his freshman year, he did not make much of an impression on Gael fans. That situation was heightened by having to sit out his sophomore season with a foot injury, although intrepid fans might have noticed Clinton during warm-ups when his injury allowed him to suit up toward the end of the year. He could be seen taking shot-after-shot from the short corner, as if he had determined that if he ever got a chance to play regularly he wouldn’t blow the opportunity.

That opportunity came with less than 15 minutes left in the second half, when Texas Southern was trailing by only five points, 47-42. Clinton had sunk one three-pointer and a two-pointer in the first half, along with an assist on one of Bockler’s three-pointers. He showed his playmaking ability once again by feeding Tommy Kuhse on a back-cut that Kuhse converted to push the Gael lead to 49-42.

The Clinton dagger

On the Gaels’ next possession, Clinton hit his second three-pointer of the night, pushing the lead to 10 points, then sank another three-pointer a few minutes later to extend the lead to 13 at 68-55. Feeling the hot hand, Clinton made another three-pointer a minute or so later, pushing the lead to 71-57. His game total: 15 points (on 5-9 shooting), three assists and four rebounds. On any other night not marked by Bockler’s spectacular play, Clinton would have been the talk of the town.

There are plenty of other topics to talk about, however. Although only five games into the season, the Gaels have experienced three roster evolutions. First, starting off-guard Logan Johnson went down in the second game with an ankle injury, replaced by freshman Mullins. Mullins showed great promise as a playmaker, defender and shooter, scoring 15 points in a win over South Dakota State.

Mullins made a number of careless passes in the early going, however, allowing Clinton to emerge as Bennett’s main option at the off-guard, and the Kiwi started edging out Mullins in minutes played during the Nicholls State game. Against Texas Southern, Clinton was on the floor for 30 minutes compared to Mullins’s nine.

The same scenario has played out concerning the Ducas/Bockler tandem at wing. Ducas has emerged as an undeniable team leader, averaging more than 15 PPG and seven RPG entering the Texas southern contest. His abysmal night shooting (1-7, including 0-5 on three-pointers) against Texas Southern, however, opened the door for Bockler, who wasn’t shy about taking advantage.

Every Gael fan knows Bennett enjoys altering his starting five about as much as he enjoys root canal, so no one expects Bockler and Clinton to start Tuesday (Dec. 8) against UTEP in Moraga over Ducas and Mullins. But the bench players have served notice to the starters: screw up and we’ll be breathing down your necks.

That’s a situation Bennett can live with.

Leemet Bockler, shown above making one his six three-pointers against Texas Southern, has been a pleasant surprise for the Gaels in the early season. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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