by Michael Vernetti
With 12 seconds left in a nail-biter against Santa Clara on Saturday, and his Gaels behind 65-64, Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett called time out to devise a game-saving play.
Would he go with veteran Tommy Kuhse, who was having a terrible day against the Broncos — 4-17 from the floor and a killer turnover a minute earlier — or put the ball in the hands of a sizzling Logan Johnson, who had scored 26 points on 9-14 shooting and was almost a cinch to score or get fouled on a last-minute drive?
For those of you who have followed Bennett and the Gaels for 20 years, it probably wasn’t much of a mystery which way the ultra-loyal coach would go. Removing Johnson from the equation by having him inbounds the ball to Kuhse, Bennett rolled the dice with his tried and true captain.
The result, for those of you who watched the contest on the CBS Sports Network, was not pretty. Kuhse dribbled around, trying to force a mis-match with one of the Santa Clara bigs, but failed, and was stuck with the Broncos’ 6’7″ forward Keshawn Justice guarding him. As happened three times previously in the game, Kuhse had his shot stuffed, Santa Clara sank a last-second free throw and Saint Mary’s lost in its WCC opener, 66-64.
It was a bitter ending for the valiant Kuhse, who has carried Saint Mary’ and its often-anemic offense on his back throughout this season. After having his first three shots in the paint blocked either by the player guarding him or a secondary defender, Kuhse seemed to tighten up for the rest of the game. On at least six occasions, Kuhse left lay-ups, floaters and jump shots short, and scored on only three attempts from the eight-minute mark of the first half until the final buzzer.
On the other hand, Johnson, the third-year transfer from Cincinnati, was simply sensational, scoring on a series of drives, spin moves and dunks that left the Broncos flummoxed. His most brilliant play came after still another weak Kuhse attempt in the paint, when Johnson swept in from the perimeter and stuffed the Kuhse miss for a 43-41 Gael lead with less than 14 minutes left in the game. It should have been the kind of emotional lift that allows a team to gain separation from a dogged foe, but this year’s Gael team — minus injured sharpshooters Alex Ducas and Leemet Bockler — just can’t pull the trigger on the dagger three-pointers they have relied on in the past.
Indeed, following Johnson’s rousing dunk, Kuhse missed a three-pointer that would have given the Gaels a four-point lead, and the Broncos’ top scorer, Josip Vrankic, slipped by the tight defense of Kyle Bowen for a lay-up that switched the momentum back to Santa Clara.
In the final analysis, it wasn’t a last-minute coaching decision that cost Saint Mary’s the game, it was an inability to score often enough to keep the Broncos back on their heels. Santa Clara is anything but an offensive juggernaut, leaning on two inside players, the 6’9″ Croatian-Canadian Vrankic and Guglielmo Caruso, a 6’11” Italian, who account for around 22 PPG. But it was a player coming off a 1-7, two-point performance against Colorado State (L70-57) who killed the Gaels.
Justice was an over-match for Saint Mary’s freshman Jabe Mullins, who had a decent game against Sacramento State on Dec. 30 to make Gael fans think he might become a reasonable stand-in for the injured Ducas. One three-minute segment in the first half, however, underlined Justice’s effect on the game and Bennett’s ongoing headache over who to play in Ducas’s stead
Justice started with a three-pointer over Mullins, which was answered by Quinn Clinton’s second three-pointer of the first half — and, unfortunately, his last of the game — then sank a jumper in the paint and was fouled by Mullins. Sinking the free throw gave Justice two successive three-point plays, equalling Clinton’s full-game output.
Mullins exited at that point, leaving Justice to be guarded by the 6’2″ Clinton, who promptly fouled him for two more free throws. Justice finished his three-minute rampage with another three-pointer at the 7:23 mark that gave Santa Clara its biggest lead of the game at 22-15. Justice, of course, twisted the knife in the Gaels’ back by his opportunistic lay-up at the end of the first half and his game-winning three-pointer over Johnson with 18 seconds left that gave Santa Clara a 65-64 lead.
Who is the Gaels small forward?
Bennett must be seriously reconsidering his logical-seeming decision to insert Mullins in Ducas’s place. At 6’5″ and possessing long arms that allow him to stifle smaller guards, Mullins adroitly stopped into the two-guard spot when Johnson was injured early in the season. At small forward, however, he seems unable to figure out his role on offense. Used to playing with the ball in his hands throughout a standout high school career in Washington state, Mullins seems lost at small forward.
He attempted only one shot in 22 minutes against the Broncos, a missed three-pointer, and did little else to advance the cause. Although Bennett has a player on his bench who seems a better fit at small forward, 6’5″ freshman Judah Brown, the Gael coach has used Brown only sparingly so far. Inserting Brown would allow Bennett to return Mullins to the guard rotation, where he seems more comfortable, and use Clinton as a sub at the two or three-man position.
If that is not enough of a stretch for Bennett, what about a truly radical idea — using power forward Dan Fotu at three-spot, with Brown as his back-up? Bennett seems inclined to use Bowen over Fotu at the four anyway — Bowen logged 31 minutes against Santa Clara to eight for Fotu — so why not give Fotu a shot at the Gaels’ weakest position?
Grasping at straws? Maybe, but it is hard to see any advantage in standing pat with the lineup that flopped against Santa Clara. BYU and Gonzaga are coming to Moraga next Thursday and Saturday, and the Gaels are looking into an 0-3 start to the WCC season unless something is changed for the better.
Logan Johnson, shown above making one of his many acrobatic shots against Santa Clara, led Saint Mary’s with 26 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.