Gutting one out

by Michael Vernetti

It took a late-game defensive stand and a miracle night by Tommy Kuhse for Saint Mary’s to edge a tough, experienced Eastern Washington squad by 80-75 Tuesday night in Moraga.

It wasn’t as easy as that sounds.

The Eagles had clearly had enough of narrow losses to superior teams, after scaring the Pac-12’s Washington State (L71-68) and Arizona (L70-67) on the road, then losing more expectedly to Oregon (L69-52). A veteran team led by a veteran coach, Shantay Legans, EW came into Cardboard Cut-Out Court — er, University Credit Union Pavilion — with a solid game plan: swarm Gael Center Matthias Tass whenever he touched the ball and run the legs off Gael defenders with a supercharged motion offense.

Both strategies worked, sort of. EW held Tass to 10 points on 5-12 shooting, and forced the Gaels into uncomfortable defensive positions often enough to carve out a nine-point lead, 55-46, less than five minutes into the second half. The EW offense looks like a mad scramble, with each player running around the court, cutting, passing and taking shots when defenders get slightly out of position.

They have the perfect guard to run the show, redshirt senior Jacob Davison from Montebello, just outside Los Angeles. Davison has been at EW for four years after sitting out his freshman season, and has averaged a rock-steady 13+ PPG over 88 games ( he had 15 against the Gaels). He is joined at the core of Legans’ offense by Tanner Groves, a 6’9″ redshirt junior center, who has played 60 games, and another redshirt junior, 6’7″ Kim Aikens Jr., who has logged 62 games.

Get the picture? Legans not only lures these bright prospects to Cheney in lovely Eastern Washington, just 14 miles down the road from another institution known for hoops success, he also convinces them to redshirt their freshman seasons to better learn his complicated offense. Not for nothing was Legans named Coach of the Year in the Big Sky Conference in 2019-20, his third year at the helm after serving as an assistant for eight years. They value longevity in Cheney.

Aussie spices up the mix

Added to this solid foundation, Legans calls on sophomore forward Tyler Robertson from Melbourne, Australia, who played on the same Australian junior national team that participated in the FIBA World Cup in Greece three summers ago with Gael stalwarts Alex Ducas and Kyle Bowen. Ducas and Bowen were more highly regarded than Robertson, and he played as if that fact were etched into his psyche Tuesday night, sinking 5-7 three-pointers en route to 17 points, tied for team high with Graves.

This combination of swarming defense, speeded-up offense and deadly outside shooting flummoxed most of the Gaels, not including Mr. Kuhse. While his teammates served mostly as spectators — only one other player scored in double digits besides Tass (Bowen with 10) — Kuhse put of an offensive show reminiscent of Patty Mills (37 points against Oregon in his freshman season), taking an unheard-of 23 shots and making 14 of them for 34 points.

Kuhse also handed out six assists against zero turnovers, snagged a team-high seven rebounds and swiped the ball twice from Eagle guards who rarely give up turnovers. Kuhse also did a post-game TV interview, but he was not asked to sweep the gym floor.

Help when needed

To say Kuhse carried the Gaels is an understatement, but he did have some help in key moments. Bowen, for instance, who is evolving into an offensive threat, scored 10 first-half points, including two three-pointers that seemed most improbable in his freshman year. Bowen has now made 5-14 three-pointers, a respectable 36%, and fans are learning not to squirm when he launches one with his unconventional, lurching style.

And freshman center Mitchell Saxen took only one shot in his four minutes on the floor — Gael Coach Randy Bennett seemed to forget about him as Tass battled Groves throughout the night — but it was a doozy. Following a sequence when Saxen challenged Groves more forcefully than Tass had been doing — he actually blocked Groves’s shot but was called for a foul — Saxen took a pass in the low post. Surrounded as Tass had been, Saxen kept his cool, maneuvered Groves into a favorable position and then sank a soft left-handed hook shot to put the Gaels ahead for the first time in the second half, 65-64.

Bennett rewarded Saxen by putting Tass back into the game, but the Saxen effect showed itself when Tass blocked a Davison lay-up shortly thereafter, a stop that led to a corner three-pointer by Ducas that pushed the Gael lead to 68-66. The Gaels then forced a turnover by Groves by cutting off his path to the basket, converting that into a flagrant foul call on Kuhse, who sank both free throws to extend the lead to 70-66.

Tass blocked Davison once again, leading to another Kuhse drive and score that pushed the lead to 72-66 with five minutes left and gave the Gaels their first sense of controlling their fate. Another timely contribution came following an EW make that cut the margin to 72-68, when Logan Johnson sank a corner trey off an assist by Bowen. As was Saxen’s key bucket a few minutes earlier, the basket by Johnson was his only one of the game, but was far from his only contribution.

Johnson drove into the teeth of the Eagle defense three times, missing all three shots but drawing fouls each time. He sank 6-8 free throws down the stretch, extending the Gael lead at crucial moments. Johnson is fearless when he drives the lane to either score or draw fouls. As he continues his recovery from an ankle injury suffered in the second game of the season, Johnson is becoming more of an asset for the Gaels.

Final thrust

Gaining a measure of Aussie revenge, Bowen made another key play a minute or so later, blocking a three-point attempt by Robertson. That led to another bucket in the paint by Kuhse and what looked to be a comfortable lead, 77-70, with 3:17 left in the game. Somebody forget to tell EW they were supposed to fold, however, and Aiken converted a three-point play with a lay-up and free throw to bring his team with four points at 77-73. That was narrowed further when Groves sank two free throws, and the Gaels headed into the final 1:37 leading only by 77-75.

Cue Mr. Kuhse

Kuhse left no doubt that he was taking things into his own hands following the Groves free throws. He controlled the dribble for nearly 30 seconds, weaving in and out of the paint and around the perimeter until he settled on his final thrust at the right elbow. Cutting across the paint, Kuhse pulled out his most dramatic of a host of circus shots, switching the ball to his left hand for a delicate three-footer that pushed the Gael lead to four points (79-75) with a minute left.

Bowen recorded another block on a Davison jumper in the paint, Johnson sank one of two free throws for the final margin and Saint Mary’s had survived to live another day. On a night when the EW offense seemed to discombobulate them, the Gaels came up with blocks and turnovers in the game’s closing minutes to avert an upset and move their record to 7-1.

Colorado State, coming to Moraga Saturday afternoon, will not be easier than was EW, and San Diego State next Tuesday in San Luis Obispo, will be a magnitude of difficulty greater. A final out-of-conference game with Sacramento State on Dec. 30 will close out the year and set the stage for the beginning of WCC play on Jan. 2 against Pepperdine in Moraga.

The Gaels are hoping for a happy new year and, perhaps, a farewell to the most serious effects of Covid-19. Time will tell.

Tommy Kuhse, shown above making a floater in the paint against Eastern Washington, had a heroic evening, scoring 34 points, grabbing seven rebounds and handing out six assists. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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