by Michael Vernetti
Quinn Clinton was up — again.
Up, as in a tidy 3-4 from the floor in 18 minutes of play, including two late-second-half three pointers that pushed Saint Mary’s ahead of the dangerous Texas-El Paso Miners by 13 (58-45) at one point and by 14 (63-49) at another. His eight points — he also made his first drive of the season — were crucial in the Gaels’ 73-61 win over UTEP Tuesday night in Moraga.
Since cracking the ice in the Gaels’ third game against South Dakota State with a modest 1-4 on three-point attempts, Clinton has gone 6-11 from distance to give Saint Mary’s a reliable scorer off the bench. The preternaturally-composed Clinton — he resembles those handsome lads in 1920s-era Arrow Shirt ads — provides a steadying hand as these Gaels find themselves in 2020-21.
Conversely, Jabe Mullins, who has started ahead of Clinton since Logan Johnson suffered an ankle injury in the second game of the season, was down against the Miners. Mullins, the lanky red-headed freshman from Snowqualmie, WA, had a night to forget, turning over the ball twice on a lazy pass and a dribbling miscue and scoring just two points on 1-2 shooting in 22 minutes of play.
Mullins’s trajectory over the last few games has been the opposite of Clinton’s, although he did register a steal against UTEP, and his one basket was a beauty, a reverse lay-up off his steal to give the Gaels an early 25-12 lead. This is not to say that Mullins is on the brink of being replaced by Clinton in the starting lineup, as Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett is aware that ups and downs are going to be a part of a Covid-interrupted season that features six new players on the Gaels’ bench.
Bennett prizes Mullins for his length — he’s 6’5″ and has long arms — which makes him a forbidding defensive presence, and for his passing game. Despite a proclivity for lazy passes which opposing players have gobbled up, Mullins is excellent with the ball in his hands, and has shown some scoring punch as well. He just needs to adjust to the heightened quickness and long arms of D-1 competitors.
Bockler comes down to earth
Another up and down drama at a key spot in the Gaels’ rotation — the wing — is playing out between sophomore Alex Ducas and freshman Leemet Bockler. As Ducas struggled against Texas Southern last Thursday, going 0-5 on three-point attempts, Bockler was sensational, sinking 6-7 three-pointers en route to a 20-point game.
UTEP must have seen a tape of that game, however, as they were glued to all Gael shooters throughout the night. Compared with 34 treys attempted against Texas Southern, Saint Mary’s got off just 11 against UTEP, making five. Bockler got off nothing, except perhaps a resolution to tighten up his handle, as he was blanked from the field and coughed up two turnovers in a brief five minutes of action.
Countering a down night for Bockler was Ducas, who showed he is not going to be pigeon-holed as a three-point specialist. Noting the Miners’ tight defense on the perimeter, Ducas attacked the basket on two early possessions, drawing fouls on both drives and sinking three of four resulting free throws. Ducas also got loose for two three-pointers, and ended the night with 11 points.
Kuhse über alles
Amidst these ups and downs, senior guard Tommy Kuhse has been a rock of steadiness. With a career-high 24 points against UTEP, Kuhse has taken over the scoring lead from Ducas at 13.7 PPG (Ducas is at 12.7 PPG and Matthias Tass at 10.8 PPG), and has dished out 44 assists against 12 turnovers. He also has 10 steals and three blocks so far.
Kuhse usually doesn’t look to score, enjoying the role of distributor and offense-igniter, as in his 13-assist, three-steal night against Texas Southern. As Bennett has noted, Kuhse seems to sense when his scoring will be necessary, as it was against UTEP. The Gaels’ early offense was all Kuhse and Tass, who has been a paragon of steadiness himself.
Tass scored the Gaels’ first two buckets, and he and Kuhse combined for all points in an early 8-6 lead, including a fast break lay-up by Tass. Time and again, Kuhse stared down UTEP’s top scorer, former San Francisco Don Souley Boum, and took the taller (6’3″ to 6″1″) and longer Boum to the rack.
Boum was no slouch himself, as the former Oakland Tech star scored 21 points on 7-16 shooting. Boum and former Fresno State forward Bryson Williams are the heart of UTEP’s hopes to climb the crowded — 14 teams — and talented — Western Kentucky is among its competitors — Conference USA. A third piece of the Miners’ puzzle, Oklahoma transfer Jamal Bieniemy, was on the court against the Gaels, but overcoming a Covid-related setback, Bieniemy was only 1-10 in 31 minutes.
Assessing the Gaels
Already on the downward path of their out-of-conference schedule, with just five games left before opening WCC play on January 2 against Pepperdine in Moraga, the Gaels are probably pleased with their progress. Just the fact that they have completed six games so far ranks as an accomplishment — plus a touch of luck — in this Year of the Plague. Nicholls State, the Gaels’ fourth opponent, recently shut down its season after several team members tested positive for the virus.
Tass has shown that he has fully recovered from the torn ACL that sidelined him from about this point on last season, emphasized by his 28 minutes and 14 points against UTEP. The Gaels’ outstanding recruiting class has brought them strong back-ups in Mitchell Saxen in the post, Mullins at the off-guard and Bockler at the wing, while returnees Dan Fotu, Kyle Bowen and Clinton have been outstanding.
Saint Mary’s hoped to have a quality road game this Saturday against Utah State in Logan, but the Utes cancelled. The Gaels have substituted a Friday game against San Jose State to stay active, but have only San Diego State Dec. 22 on a neutral court in San Luis Obispo in the way of resume-building contests.
The WCC is stronger throughout this year, and the Gaels will be hard-pressed in games against BYU, San Francisco, Pepperdine and Santa Clara along with the fearsome Gonzaga Bulldogs, who may well be ranked no. 1 in the country when the Gaels face them for the first time on Jan. 16 in Moraga.
Ups and downs have been part of their story so far, and Gael fans are hopeful that the ups keep coming as the season progresses.
Quinn Clinton, shown above scoring for the first time this season on a drive to the hoop, has been an excellent three-point scorer off the bench for the Gaels. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.