by Michael Vernetti
The 84 PPG Southern Utah Thunderbirds brought their run-and-gun offense to Moraga Monday night, and leapt to an 8-4 lead over Saint Mary’s.
Gael Coach Randy Bennett used a media time-out with 16:42 left in the half to remind his charges what they’re all about. Maybe he spelled it out on his ever-present whiteboard: D-E-F-E-N-S-E.
It worked. Southern Utah scored only eight more points in the REST OF THE HALF, the Gaels sputtering offense (29 per cent shooting) managed 29 points of its own, and Saint Mary’s was on its way to a 70-51 victory.
The Gaels’ freshman guard, Augustas Marciulionis, disrupted the Thunderbirds with three steals in the first half, and his teammates held the other guys to an even lower percentage than Saint Mary’s could manage, 28 per cent, and a 1-10 effort on three-point attempts. Remember when some Gael fans were expressing concern over Marciulionis’s defense after the Blue-White team scrimmage?
They can stop worrying, as “Goose” has found his way to Bennett’s heart with an amped-up defensive posture to go with his team-high five assists, and a feel for when to take important shots. As the Gaels clanked attempt after attempt in the first half, Marciulionis calmly sank two of their three first-half three-pointers to give them some breathing room.
Marciulionis was joined in the steal parade with Logan Johnson, who had three of his own, to give the Gaels a pair of back court thieves that should cause opposing guards to tread softly. The third member of the Gael back court rotation, Tommy Kuhse, failed to register an assist — previously his leadership domain — but settled for leading the team with 17 points on 7-15 shooting, including 3-5 from three-point range.
This trio has become the Gaels’ most solid unit, sharing court time, stats and highlight plays. Marciulionis totaled 26 minutes against Southern Utah to Kuhse’s 19 and Johnson’s 31, but they seem to have worked out a court-sharing system that is working smoothly. They scored a combined 38 points against Southern Utah, and that was with Marciulionis going scoreless in the second half. He concentrated on shredding Southern Utah’s defense, while Johnson attacked the rim with his customary gusto and Kuhse continued to show the effects of off-season concentration on his shooting form.
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Outside the back court, the Gaels’ most consistent star continued to be senior Dan Fotu, who has taken four years of switching positions and learning to keep his fouls under control to become an all-conference contender. Fotu went 6-10 against Southern Utah for 12 points, and pulled down a team-high seven rebounds in just 21 minutes.
Fotu is playing with a noticeable spring in his step this season, indicating that he knows he is capable of something special every night. Because back-up center Mitchell Saxen has not yet played because of a nagging back ailment, Fotu has had to spend some time in the post spelling starter Matthias Tass. No problem, as he has attacked the rim with strength and confidence, even as he has steadied his three-point approach to produce more consistent results.
Alex Ducas is another Gael who seems reborn after the Covid funk that derailed the Gaels last season. Ducas, a natural wing with a lightning-quick release on the three-ball, was just rounding into form that promised a run at team scoring leadership when he suffered a high ankle sprain against Colorado State in December. That was effectively it for him, as he didn’t return until the Gaels’ final games and struggled to regain his form.
Ducas seems to have dedicated the off-season to streamlining his body by paring bulk around the middle and strengthening his upper arms and shoulders. Whatever the formula, he resembles Fotu in his enthusiasm for playing. As was the case last season, Ducas is struggling with consistency on his three-pointer in the early going, but he is not dragging his head about it. He, too, has increased the defensive intensity, and he seems determined to become an all-around offensive threat instead of just a long-distance bomber. After going 0-5 from three-point range in the first half against Southern Utah, Ducas scored three tough buckets underneath, and netted two three-pointers in the second half.
As well as the Gaels played defensively against Southern Utah, and as well as Kuhse, Johnson, Marciulionis and Fotu played offensively, there were several question marks after last night’s game. Kyle Bowen, who has added a deadly three-point stroke to accompany his stellar defense and rebounding this season, fired a goose egg. He took only three shots, all of them three-pointers, and missed all of them.
Not that Bowen was useless, as he tied Fotu with seven rebounds and handed out four assists to go along with three blocks and a steal. Bowen continues to anchor the Gaels’ back line, and we can probably chalk up his scoreless outing to an early-season hiccup. But what about Tass?
The 6’10” Estonian center was an enigma against Southern Utah, rekindling worries that he is feeling the pain from the torn ACL he suffered as a sophomore and re-injured in the Gaels’ NIT loss to Western Kentucky last March. Tass earned his teammates’ respect for the way in which he recovered from a second procedure on his knee and retained his starting position this season, but he was a shadow of himself Monday night: one shot (missed), three rebounds and two assists in 21 minutes.
With Bowen drawing a similar blank, the two pre-eminent Gael big men compiled a line no one hopes to see again — zero points from two starters. When Tass appears shaky, the focus intensifies on Saxen, who shone as a backup center in his freshman season but has not taken part in any action this year. Gael fans were heartened to see Saxen dressed and participating in warm-ups before the Southern Utah contest — and looking none the worse for wear throughout an hour’s worth of shooting drills and conditioning exercises.
But Saxen took up a position at the end of the Gaels’ bench when the game started and never drew a nod from Bennett as the game went on. With just one more warm-up before facing Notre Dame in the opening game of the Maui Invitational — Las Vegas version — next Monday, the Gaels are giving fans some early-season palpitations. Nothing would do more to rev up some Thanksgiving week enthusiasm for the Maui contests than to see Tass strong and Saxen available to back him up against Bellarmine in Moraga on Wednesday night.
Logan Johnson, shown above twisting into one of his patented breakneck drives against Southern Utah, totaled 13 points, six rebounds and three steals against the Thunderbirds. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.