Gaels 2, SWAC 0

by Michael Vernetti

The prevailing sentiment of Gael fans leaving Moraga after Friday’s 67-58 victory over Texas Southern was probably something like, “Damn, we looked awful against these guys. I guess my optimism over beating Prairie View on Tuesday was misplaced.”

Wrong on both counts.

That Saint Mary’s struggled mightily against Texas Southern, pre-season pick as Southwestern Athletic Conference champion and possessor of a first-round NCAA win (over Mount St. Mary’s of Indiana) last season, was a function of two factors. One, they’re good, and two, they had a chance to plot the Gaels’ downfall by analyzing Saint Mary’s opening-season 87-68 win over Prairie View on Tuesday (the flu bug kept me in bed for most of the week and prevented a column on that game — but I watched it on the WCC Network).

Prairie View and Texas Southern are like Saint Mary’s and BYU in the WCC — arch-rivals and bitter competitors for post-season berths. Texas Southern knows Prairie View, and could glean a few helpful hints from their blowout at the hands of the Gaels. The first thing was forget scouting reports that discounted Alex Ducas, Kyle Bowen and Jabe Mullins as three-point threats.

Ducas was out of action last season from early December to late February, and was awful when he returned for the last few games, although he seemed to return to form for a few minutes in the Gaels’ NIT loss to Western Kentucky. Bowen was horrible from the three-point line last year, making just 15 of 62 attempts — 24 per cent. Defenses soon learned to slack off and dare him to shoot. And Mullins struggled to figure out his place in the Gaels’ rotation as a freshman.

Putting the clamps on

Prairie View was undoubtedly surprised that Ducas, Bowen and Mullins combined for nine three-pointers, led by Ducas’ six. Although Ducas started off as if he were going to continue hot from distance against Texas Southern, sinking his first effort in the early going, that was it for him. He missed his next four attempts, the last two so badly they didn’t even draw iron, as Texas Southern succeeded in depriving Ducas of good looks.

Ducas was probably foremost in Gael Coach Randy Bennett’s mind when he commented after the game, “Our shot selection in the first half was terrible.” As in 10-31 (32 per cent) terrible.

The veteran coach resolved that problem in the second half, demanding that his charges pound the ball inside to center Matthias Tass and power forward Dan Fotu. It wasn’t easy, but the Gaels eventually overcome a three-point halftime deficit and bolted ahead by 16 points (63-47) with 3:36 minutes left (for comparison purposes, that lead roughly equals the 17-point margin by which 13th-ranked Oregon beat Texas Southern on Tuesday).

The Gael offense was essentially a series of cuts into the lane with Tass triggering the attack by either hitting a cutter, Logan Johnson in particular, or muscling up against Texas Southern forward Joirdon Karl Nicholas. Tass ended the night with 12 points on 5-8 shooting, and, more importantly, four assists, which led the Gaels.

Fotu to the fore

Complementing Tass on the inside, and supplementing him on the outside, was Fotu, the senior from New Zealand who has assumed the Gaels’ scoring leadership after two games with 33 points. Fotu had 19 points to lead the Gaels against Texas Southern, and has combined toughness in the paint with efficiency from three-point range, making 3-5 from long-distance over two games. He also made Texas Southern pay for roughing him up in the paint, sinking 8-9 free throw attempts. And he led the Gaels in rebounding with nine, to lead a comeback from a 19-17 rebound deficit to a 36-32 advantage by game’s end.

Trailing Fotu only slightly with 15 points was Johnson, who has assumed spiritual leadership of the Gaels even though veteran guard Tommy Kuhse controls the offense from his point guard position. Johnson is fearless in attacking the basket, and feeds off particularly gnarly encounters with various defenders. His outbursts after stirring assaults on the basket would probably not be tolerated in the taunt-conscious NFL, but are loved by his teammates and fans.

That threesome, Fotu, Johnson and Tass, constituted a strong offensive thrust against Texas Southern, followed slightly by the much-improved Bowen, who almost matched his opening-night near double-double (12 points, nine rebounds) with nine points and seven rebounds.

Anyone who doubts that Bowen has markedly improved his three-point shooting need only arrive in Moraga early enough to watch the Gaels in pre-game shooting drills. Those drills are excessive, giving each player dozens of shots from every spot on the floor. Even against established sharpshooters such as Ducas, Bowen emerges as the most consistent three-point shooter on the team. He has become a legitimate three-point threat, which dramatically alters the playing field in the Gaels’ favor as the season unwinds.

Looking ahead

The Gaels continue their march to the relocated Maui Invitational Tournament in Las Vegas Nov. 22-24 with a pair of home games next week against Southern Utah and Bellarmine. Southern Utah’s pre-season resume was similar to that of Prairie View/Texas Southern, as it was picked to repeat as Big Sky Conference champion, and its best player, Tevian Jones, was projected as conference Player of the Year.

Some of the luster was dimmed by Southern Utah’s loss last night to D-1 newcomer Dixie State by 83-76, but the Thunderbirds nevertheless placed three players on the pre-season all-conference list, John Knight III and Maizen Fausett along with Jones. Thus, the Gaels face a highly-rated competitor from a lesser conference, one that will have added incentive to upset Bennett’s boys on their home court.

That the Gaels are quite a distance from the eventual team they hope to become has been highlighted in the first two games by glancing at two players who are nursing injuries, center Mitchell Saxen and wing Leemet Bockler. Saxen, dealing with a chronic bad back, was in civvies for the second time against Texas Southern, and Bockler, although active in pre-game warm-ups and having seen some action against Prairie View, also is coming along slowly after surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot.

The assimilation of Augustas Marciulionis into the Gael attack also continued fitfully against Texas Southern. Although trailing Kuhse only slightly in minutes played, 19 to 25, Marciulionis had only a single free throw to go along with three assists, second behind Tass. He also let his temper get the better of him in several chippy encounters with Texas Southern players, culminating in a technical foul in the closing seconds of the game called for throwing the basketball at Southern guard John Jones.

Jones had fouled Marciulionis roughly on a breakaway, for which he was assessed an intentional foul, which would have given Marciulionis two free throws and the Gaels possession of the ball. Because of the outburst from Marciulionis, however, Jones was awarded two free throws, which he made, while Marciulionis sank only one of his free throws and the Gaels failed to capitalize on the extra possession.

Bennett is building his team into a contender for a lofty finish in the WCC, for which they will complete with number-one ranked Gonzaga and an ascendent — at least in their minds — BYU. With Saxen, Bockler and Marciulionis successfully integrated into the Gael lineup, Bennett can much more easily help the Gaels achieve their dreams.

Bennett can envision lineups that feature two nearly equal players at each position: Tass/Saxen in the post, Bowen/Fotu at power forward, Ducas/Bockler at the wing, Johnson/Jabe Mullins at the off-guard and Kuhse/Marciulionis at the point. That’s a vision worth pursuing, and making it come true is what these early games are all about.

Senior forward Dan Fotu, shown above scoring against Texas Southern last night, has emerged as a scoring and rebounding leader for the Gaels after two games. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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