by Michael Vernetti
Everything you needed to know about Saint Mary’s 96-61 rout of San Jose State Friday night in Moraga was revealed with about eight minutes left in the first half: all Gael starters were on the bench after having exploded to a 36-17 lead.
It didn’t get any better for the hapless Spartans, who were facing their first D-I competition following three Covid-related game cancellations and an unimpressive 87-79 win over D-II Fresno Pacific two nights ago. Saint Mary’s finished the first half shooting 69% from the floor, including 50% from three-point range, en route to a 30-point bulge, 57-27. In the second half the Gaels increased their winning margin to 35 points, although San Jose State did increase its shooting percentage from 29% to 40%.
The Spartans, who managed just seven wins against 24 losses a year ago, don’t look to be headed for improvement in the tough Mountain West Conference. With a bushel basket full of weaknesses, they are particularly vulnerable in the back line, which Gael starters Matthias Tass and Dan Fotu shredded for 28 points on 12-16 shooting.
Tass barely broke a sweat after a fast start that saw him make four straight shots in the paint over freshman Spartan 7-footer Hugo Clarkin by the 12-minute mark. Fotu mixed a variety of drives and post moves — along with one three-pointer in three tries — to post his first double-double as a Gael — 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Subs keep up the pace
With freshman Mitchell Saxen subbing for Tass — Saxen logged 14 minutes to Tass’s 19 — and sophomore Kyle Bowen filling in for Fotu, the Gaels barely missed a beat. Saxen had six points on 3-3 shooting and pulled down six rebounds, while Bowen danced through the paint for nine points on 4-7 shooting, and grabbed four boards as well.
Even Utah transfer Matt Van Komen, who has seen sparse playing time after being slowed by mid-summer ankle surgery, logged nine minutes of productive action: six points, four rebounds and three blocked shots. Van Komen gave Gael fans their first look at how disruptive a 7’4″ center can be, as he altered several San Jose shots with his extra-long reach. When Van Komen bends at the waist and extends his arm to assume a defensive position, he already has his opponent about 10 feet from the basket.
Johnson bounces back
Another pleasant surprise for Gael fans was the return of Logan Johnson after suffering an ankle injury in the Nov. 26 game against Northern Iowa. Johnson gave iron man Tommy Kuhse a respite from his 36 minutes-a-game average, running the point for 18 minutes and showing no signs of lingering pain from his injury.
Johnson, who is the most athletic of the Gael regulars, repeatedly beat his man off the dribble and got to the rack for 15 points on 4-7 shooting. He brought down the house — composed of cut-outs and piped-in applause — with one 360-degree spin in the paint that left him alone for a soft lay-in.
More important than Johnson’s stats is what his presence means for Gael depth. Although he began the season as the starting two-guard alongside Kuhse, his extended minutes at the point may mean Gael Coach Randy Bennett is considering using Johnson to give Kuhse some regular rest. Freshman Jabe Mullins and redshirt sophomore Quinn Clinton have emerged as solid contenders for playing time as two-guards, so Bennett can experiment with the best way to involve Johnson. Whichever way the coach goes, Johnson’s presence makes the Gaels a deeper, more dangerous team.
As satisfying as it was, the rout of San Jose State will be the last easy contest for Saint Mary’s until, perhaps, Sacramento State on Dec. 30. In between come tough games against Eastern Washington, who has played three Pac-12 teams close, Colorado State and San Diego State, a true nightmare, even though the game is on a neutral court in San Luis Obispo.
Laughers only make you feel good for a short time, but the Gaels may look back on this one as their last break in a tough road ahead.
Dan Fotu, shown above outfoxing San Jose center Hugo Clarkin, scored the first double-double of his career with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.