by Michael Vernetti
As poorly as they played in spots — 5-22 on three-pointers — as much as they missed newly-injured Alex Ducas — see above — and as much as they tried to make San Diego State’s Nathan Mensah the second coming of Bill Russell — 18 points, 13 rebounds, six blocked shots — Saint Mary’s had a chance to make a game of it against the Aztecs last Tuesday.
Instead, they lost by 25 points, 74-49.
Gael fans have probably spent a good part of their Christmas holidays wondering what happened: is it last season all over again, when an injury to Matthias Tass on Dec. 21 derailed a 12-2 season that seemed to be gaining momentum; is it a case of too much missing offense with the departure of Jordan Ford, Malik Fitts and Tanner Krebs; or is it just too early for Coach Randy Bennett to have fully formed his post-Ford and Fitts team?
A close look at what happened against San Diego State reveals it was more a case of poor defense by the Gael guards, a sudden loss of ability to switch on high ball screens and a continuing inability to generate offense from beyond the three-point stripe that doomed Saint Mary’s. Bennett showed last season that he could craft a successful team out of the wreckage of his post offense after Tass was sidelined (26-8 overall, well-contested loss to Gonzaga in the WCC championship game and near-unanimous agreement by bracketologists that the Gaels were a lock for a decent seed in the NCAA Tournament), so it doesn’t seem impossible that he will return these Gaels to the eight-wins-in-a-row budding juggernaut they were before Tuesday night.
But first, some needed repairs.
Forget Terrell Gomez?
We know Saint Mary’s players didn’t sleep through the entire scouting report on the Aztecs since they took Matt Mitchell, San Diego’s high-scoring senior forward, almost completely out of the game. Coming off a 35-point outburst against BYU in his previous outing — a 72-62 loss — Mitchell saw a steady diet of Dan Fotu and Kyle Bowen en route to a meek, 10-point effort consisting of one made field goal. He got to the foul line 10 times, making seven, but Fotu and Bowen expended just six of their allotted fouls against him, and Bennett would probably concede that roughing up Mitchell paid big dividends.
Terrell Gomez should have received some special attention, although the 5’8″ senior from Los Angeles doesn’t start for SDSU. He did spend three sensational seasons at Cal State-Northridge before transferring to San Diego, however, averaging 19.8 PPG in his last season and ranking first in the Big West Conference in three-point field goal percentage. A guy to be watched, one would think.
Gomez started inflicting damage about halfway through the first half, when the Aztecs had cruised to a 21-10 lead but things were not out of control. Quinn Clinton, the Gaels sophomore guard from New Zealand, went under a screen instead of fighting through it and Gomez sank his first three-pointer to push the lead to 24-10. Gomez then stripped Logan Johnson as he brought the ball up-court and scored on a driving lay-up. He completed his less-than-two-minute destructive burst of seven straight points with a long two-pointer over a leisurely-guarding Johnson to push the score to a seemingly-insurmountable 28-10 margin with about nine minutes left the half.
The Gaels would fight back to come within 14 points in the second half, but the damage had been done early by Gomez and starters Jordan Schakel and Trey Pulliam. Schakel is a known quantity as a senior and San Diego’s designated three-point specialist. Nevertheless, Schakel hit his only two three-pointers of the game in the early going, once over Johnson, who was playing his too loose as he was against Gomez later, and then over Clinton, who picked up Schakel on a scramble after one of Bowen’s numerous missed shots.
Pulliam burned the Gaels’ point guard Tommy Kuhse on a straight drive to the bucket and a back-door cut, both baskets coming in the game’s first 10 minutes, setting up Gomez’s first dagger three-pointer. Thus, the Gaels dug themselves into their first hole largely through poor defense by their guards.
As poorly as the Gaels played to earn a 40-20 halftime deficit, they actually showed some signs of life just before the half. Clinton, who had looked like he might be a reliable outside scorer in several early games, continued a trend against the Aztecs that he revealed in the Gaels’ previous game against Colorado State: one early make, several misses — five in a row against CSU, four against San Diego State — and then a final make. When he sank a corner three-pointer in the closing minutes of the first half, it pulled Saint Mary’s to within 39-17, then Johnson made a clean steal and the Gaels had a chance to gain some momentum.
They blew that when freshman Judah Brown, subbing for Jabe Mullins at Ducas’s small forward spot, drew a charging call when pushing through the paint on the Gaels’ next possession. Brown redeemed himself on the ensuing possession, however, and showed that he might be a better choice than Mullins — a true guard — to man the wing position until Ducas returns from an ankle injury suffered against Colorado State.
Brown juked his way past Schakel, who looks to be a better shooter than defender, then made a Euro-step against San Diego State’s reserve center, Joshua Tomaic, and found himself free under the basket for an easy lay-up. It wasn’t much, but Saint Mary’s was searching for any ray of hope at that point.
The second half began with Kuhse’s first bucket of the game, a tough, driving runner to cut the margin to 18 points, 40-22. Fotu then defended Mitchell at the other end, leading to a Mullins runner that accounted for the Gaels’ first back-to-back buckets of the game and a 16-point deficit.
Mensah scored on a tough left-hander in the paint, but the Gaels answered with another back-to-back scoring sequence. Battling the tight defense of Mensah, Tass converted one of his patented right-hand hooks underneath, then Johnson made the play that could have sent the Gaels on a concerted comeback run.
Seeing an opening from the top of the key, Johnson roared toward the bucket and made a tomahawk dunk over Mensah to bring the Gaels within 14 points, 42-28, with almost 17 minutes left. Plenty of time to change the course of what had looked like a hopeless cause.
Unfortunately, Johnson let himself get carried away by the excitement of his big play, and shouted into Mensah’s face what looked like, “You can’t stop me!” To a nearby referee that constituted taunting, Johnson was called for a technical foul and Schakel sank both free throws. Plus, San Diego State was given possession of the ball following the free throws. Talk about a momentum-killer.
To exacerbate the damage done by Johnson’s temper tantrum, Tass mis-played a high ball screen situation with Mensah and one of the Aztec guards on that post-free throw possession. Instead of hedging on the screen and then getting back quickly on Mensah, Tass let Mensah slip past him to receive a lob and convert it to push the score back to 46-28.
The Gaels didn’t collapse immediately after that deflating sequence, as Kuhse sank a corner three-pointer off an inbounds play to cut the deficit to 15 points, then scored on another tough drive in the paint to make it 49-33. Clinton made a nifty steal off the Aztecs’ in-bounds play, and found Bowen alone in the corner for a chance at a three-pointer that would have cut the margin to 13 points at 49-36. As he did on all four of his three-point attempts, however, Bowen misfired.
The Gaels were still not done, however, despite Gomez’s second three-pointer that pushed the margin back almost to the half-time deficit, 52-33. Kuhse made still another tough shot in the paint, then Johnson did what had eluded the Gaels throughout the game — sank a corner three-pointer that gave them life again at 54-40. Fourteen points down with more than 10 minutes left, Saint Mary’s was still in it, right?
Tass gets the wobbles
At this key point, the Gaels showed the effects of Mensah’s shot-blocking that had haunted them throughout the game. With Mensah on the bench, Tass slipped behind his sub, Tomaic, and received a pass from Kuhse with a clear path to the basket. With Gael fans undoubtedly shouting at their screens, “Dunk it Matthias!” Tass instead passed out to the corner to no avail. A Kuhse turnover leading to another three-pointer by — you guessed it — Gomez — sealed the deal, and the Gaels soon found themselves behind 59-40, just about where they were at the end of the first half. It was all over but the shouting, except there was no shouting in the fanless Cal Poly gym.
As Bennett sifts through the wreckage of his offense before the Gaels’ final out-of-conference game next Wednesday against Sacramento State in Moraga, he must struggle with several uncomfortable realities. The team’s three-point offense is deeply compromised by the injury to Ducas, as well as a more serious foot injury to Ducas’ back-up, freshman Leemet Bockler. That one-two punch moved Mullins to the small forward position, and he did play solid defense against the Aztecs. He made only 2-7 shots, however, including going 1-5 on three-point attempts.
Bowen was even worse from distance, harking back to his early-season inability to connect from distance. Critics will cite Kuhse’s inability to score off drives in the first-half against San Diego State, and claim a strong effort to keep him out of the paint presages death to the Gaels’ offense. There are two arguments to counter that: Kuhse rallied for four buckets in the second half, including a crucial three-pointer, and got the ball out to the corners enough times to keep the Gaels in the game — if those corner shooters had converted often enough.
And Johnson showed that San Diego State was not impregnable against the drive, making 4-7 field goals and getting to the free throw line 10 times, making six. He and Kuhse scored 24 points together, not far off the approximately 26 PPG the combination of Ford and Kuhse accounted for last year.
Kuhse and Johnson will continue to do damage against Gael opponents for the rest of the season. Whether Ducas returns in time to help out with three-point offense or Clinton becomes more reliable, however, are big question marks. Bennett is faced with another major question about whether he is better off playing Fotu more at the power forward position or Bowen. Fotu is better offensively than Bowen, and can make the occasional three-pointer that greases the offense, while Bowen is arguably the better defender and rebounder.
These are the questions that are troubling the Gael brain trust as Saint Mary’s gets ready for Sacramento State and the WCC season.
Logan Johnson, shown above scoring against Colorado State on Dec. 19, led Saint Mary’s in scoring against San Diego State with 15 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.