For the defense

by Michael Vernetti

Colorado State began Saturday’s contest versus Saint Mary’s by dumping the ball into its skilled guard-forward David Roddy, who was immediately cut off by the Gaels’ Dan Fotu and travelled.

Little did Roddy know, but that was the highlight of the game for him and his teammates. A few minutes later, Fotu blocked another inside attempt by Roddy, rebounded the miss and began a Gael counter that ended with Matthias Tass flushing the ball for 7-0 lead.

In short order, the Gaels’ Alex Ducas stole an errant Colorado pass, drove the length of the court and was fouled attempting a lay-up. Never mind a referees’ decision that Ducas actually wasn’t fouled, the steal was notable as it was the first of 13 for Saint Mary’s in the game.

Tass’s back-up, freshman Mitchell Saxen, tied up Colorado’s star guard, Isaiah Stevens, on a subsequent possession, then the Gaels’ Logan Johnson emphatically rejected lay-up attempt by Colorado’s John Tonje, which led to a three-point bucket by the Gaels’ Quinn Clinton and a 19-6 lead with fewer than nine minutes left in the first half.

You might say the die was cast, as Colorado State managed just 12 field goals for the entire game, and limped to a 53-33 loss that had its usually buoyant third-year coach, Niko Medved, sounding like someone who had been mugged outside his home when interviewed by a Colorado newspaper.

“This is what they do. They are an extremely physical team. They are going to be physical on drives, they’re going to wall you up at the rim, they’re going to bust through screens,” Medved moaned.

Sounds like material for a recruiting pitch for the Gaels: “We’re physical on drives. We wall you up at the rim. We bust through screens. Come play with us.”

Colorado State unprepared

The Rams’ poor performance was partly a result of he craziness of this Covid-infected season. Their first three games were “postponed” — make that cancelled — and they finally got in a game against D-II Colorado State-Pueblo (W89-77), followed by a 91-52 romp over Northern Arizona before heading to Moraga.

Waiting for them was Randy Bennett’s squad that has managed to complete — and usually win — nine games despite the pandemic. It was no contest despite the fact that Colorado is considered a talented offensive side and a respectable member of the strong Mountain West Conference. Coming off a 20-12 record in 2019-20 and sniffing an NCAA bid this year, the Rams were picked fifth in the Mountain West behind good-to-excellent competitors San Diego State, Boise State, Utah State and UNLV.

Three of their projected stars, however, were stymied by the Gaels’ defense. Roddy averaged 11.4 PPG as a true freshman last year, coming off a high school career that saw him named Minnesota’s Male Athlete of the Year for his prowess in basketball and football. On the basketball side, Roddy averaged 29.7 PPG and 16 RPG for the Breck School in Minneapolis. He managed six points against the Gaels on 2-6 shooting.

Stevens, who led the Rams with 23 points against Northern Arizona, also tallied just six against the Gaels, and the Rams’ third expected high-scorer, guard Kendle Moore, totaled just five points. That’s how you manage only 33 points in a game.

Gaels stumble on offense

It was a good thing Bennett’s boys laced up their sneakers on defense since they struggled offensively, shooting a miserable 7-31 on three-point attempts, less than 23%. Point guard Tommy Kuhse, coming off an otherworldly 34-point explosion last Tuesday against Eastern Washington, led the Gaels with 14 points on 5-14 shooting. Only one other Gael managed to score in double digits, as Fotu had one of his strongest games with 10 points on 4-5 shooting, including two of three from three-point distance. Fotu also pulled down a team-high seven rebounds, had that block on Roddy and garnered two steals in 23 minutes of play.

Ducas, who had managed only 15 points in his previous two games against Eastern Washington and San Jose State, started as if he were out to redeem himself against Colorado. He launched the scoring with a drive across the lane, finishing with a soft hook shot, and followed with a three-pointer to put the Gaels on top quickly by a 5-0 margin. He then drove down the middle of the lane for a lay-up and seven of the Gaels’ first nine points.

In a scramble near the end line on the Gaels’ end of the court, however, Ducas sustained an injury that sent him first to the locker room, and eventually, according to Fotu in a post-game interview, to a nearby hospital. The murkiness and limited camera angles afforded by the streaming video of the Colorado State game made it impossible to determine just how Ducas was injured, much less how serious it might be.

With San Diego State next on the Gaels’ schedule — Tuesday, Dec. 22 in San Luis Obispo — the thought of losing Ducas is troubling. As poorly as Colorado played on offense, they did stifle the Saint Mary’s offense, specifically by closing off the lane to Kuhse’s drives, which have netted him the majority of his points this season.

Gaels’ outside scoring in question

Without Ducas in the lineup against San Diego — if that is the result of his injury — the Gaels will be limited in their ability to loosen up things inside by scoring from distance. Ducas’s back-up in the early going, freshman Leemet Bockler, was spotted wearing an ankle boot on the bench during the Colorado game, eliminating another outside threat. Clinton remains the Gaels’ only consistent outside threat, and he missed five straight three-pointers against Colorado before closing out the scoring with his second trey against seven attempts.

San Diego State was jolted on Saturday by a 72-62 defeat at the hands of BYU on the Aztecs’ home court, leaving them at 5-1 heading into the showdown with the Gaels. The Aztecs have beaten UCLA and Arizona State of the Pac-12, along with Saint Katherine (?), UC Irvine and Pepperdine — although the latter was close (65-60) and the Waves led for most of the game. So, they’re 2-0 against the Pac-12 and 1-1 against he WCC, so what does that mean for the Gaels’ chances?

The biggest negative for SDSU this season is the loss of sensational guard Malachi Flynn, who was gobbled up early in the recent NBA draft by the Toronto Raptors. The Aztecs ran their offense through Flynn for the past two years and he came through, as the Gaels witnessed when Flynn led an upset over Saint Mary’s when he was a freshman at Washington State. Flynn was unstoppable against the Gaels on that day and on several others throughout his career.

Without Flynn, the go-to guy for San Diego against BYU was forward Matt Mitchell, a 6’6″, 235-lb senior who scored 35 of SDSU’s 62 points. The Gaels are well-positioned to defend Mitchell with their combo at the power forward position, Fotu and Kyle Bowen, but the game against a seasoned, highly-skilled player the likes of Mitchell will represent a stern test for them.

The San Diego game will be broadcast over a legitimate national outlet, CBS Sports, at 6 p.m. Tuesday, so at least fans will be able to witness the contest clearly. Here’s hoping they like what they see.

Dan Fotu, shown above scoring against Colorado State, had one of his most productive games against the Rams, with 10 points, seven rebounds and two steals. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

1 thought on “For the defense

  1. Strange second half. Between the lack of press coverage these days and the fact that no injury information ever comes out of the program, we are left to guess about the injuries, which to me were the story of the night. The school’s write-up doesn’t even mention them. In at least the short term, a surplus of quality players has turned into a shortage.

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