It still counts

by Michael Vernetti

From some vantage points, Saint Mary’s prepared well for the rare challenge of playing the Bellarmine Knights of Louisville, LA.

The Gaels were never slow in getting back against the relentless onslaught that is the Knights’ offense. Pedestrian terms such as “motion offense” or “run and gun” do not capture the essence of a team that plays with its collective hair on fire. I’ve never been to a Knights’ practice, but Im pretty sure these guys run to the restroom, run to grab a towel and run wind sprints really hard.

They don’t have walk-ons at Bellarmine, they have run-ons.

I didn’t know what to expect from Bellarmine after reading stories about how they eschew dribbling in lieu of passing. Really? I envisioned a series of ingenious passes from out of bounds to advance the ball to the half-court, but actually they do dribble in conventional terms. It’s just that they whip the ball round via dozens of passes on each possession; guards go down low, bigs shoot three-pointers. They are seemingly everywhere at once.

In the face of this, the Gaels were not rattled, and not once did Bellarmine score an easy bucket because of a lagging defender. Saint Mary’s turned Bellarmine over 15 times, including seven steals. They out-rebounded the Knights by one, which usually hampers a team that likes to push the pace, and committed only six turnovers of their own — again seemingly depriving their opponents of oxygen.

And yet, Saint Mary’s found itself trailing Bellarmine 55-54 with about five minutes left in the game, having surrendered an 11-point second half lead. Yes, they righted themselves down the stretch to win by nine, 73-64, but questions abound.

Sometimes you’ve gotta make a bucket

Such as, how does a team that considers itself an in-and-out threat — score down low, then pass outside to willing shooters who add three-pointers to the mix — survive by shooting 5-25 on three-pointers? Barely, it turns out. It wasn’t until Alex Ducas sank a corner three-pointer with 2:19 left to give Saint Mary’s a 65-59 lead that Coach Randy Bennett could once again consider his team a three-point threat.

Ducas had handled the ignominy of shooting 1-6 on three-pointers until that point with aplomb, staying positive, never dropping his head. But he revealed the frustration he has felt over continuing poor shooting since opening strong against Prairie View when he went to the bench for a time out following his huge bucket.

Before taking his seat, Ducas pounded the (fortunately) padded seat with his fist, as if to say, “See, stupid, it’s easy to make the ball go though the hoop. Why not do it more often.”

He wasn’t alone in shooting hell. Logan Johnson went 0-3 from distance, Kyle Bowen, a pleasant early-season addition to the ranks of distance bombers, went 0-2, Dan Fotu 0-3, and Jabe Mullins, who has seemed determined to play his way onto the court by sinking three-pointers, missed his first four before finally sinking one.

Besides Ducas with his lowly 2-7, only tried and true warrior Tommy Kuhse made more than one three-pointer, sinking a respectable 2-4 en route to a 15-point, six-assist night. As if hearing — and responding — to fan whispers about his certain replacement by freshman Augustas Marciulionis, Kuhse has put together back-to-back games of 17 and 15 points against Southern Utah and Bellarmine. Marciulionis wasn’t a factor against Bellarmine, with no points and no assists in 11 minutes of action.

Tass has a perfect night

Another Gael veteran hearing whispers might have been senior post man Matthias Tass, who lumbered through a pedestrian effort against Southern Utah with zero points and three rebounds in 21 minutes. Tass was his usual unruffled self against Bellarmine, continually looking over the court from his position in the low blocks, moving on the basket only after satisfying himself that there weren’t any better options.

When he did move, he did so effectively, sinking 8-8 field goal attempts and converting 9-11 free throws to score a career-high 25 points. The latter stat was particularly relevant given the inability of the usually reliable Johnson to make his free throws, missing eight of 12 attempts. Overall, the Gaels shot well from the free throw line, making 20-31. A few more makes from Johnson and that percentage would have been higher.

It would be comforting for Saint Mary’s to brush off the close call against Bellarmine as just one of those things — the fourth game in a row on the home court, the last stop before heading into national attention against Notre Dame in the Maui Invitational, Vegas-style, next Monday.

But Gael fans must have their doubts about how well this team has come along in the early going. Although Bellarmine raised a lot of eyebrows last year in the first year of transition to D-1 status by battling Liberty for the ASUN Conference title down to the last game (Liberty won), and accepting a bid to the CBI post-season tournament (where they lost to Pepperdine), they have not exactly been killing it so far this season. They were slaughtered on the road by Purdue, 96-67, then cut the margin of defeat to 19 (78-59) against Murray State, The Team That Used to Have Isaiah Canaan.

Again, the Gaels did not succumb to Bellarmine’s challenging style, they simply failed to convert a reasonable percentage of their shots from three-point distance. The sight of Leemet Bockler wearing a boot on the foot (or ankle) he injured against Southern Utah was not comforting, as the reality of a struggling Ducas reinforces the need for Saint Mary’s to improve its three-point shooting.

Bockler was already targeted by Coach Bennett for return to full action only by January. The latest setback puts that plan in jeopardy, and makes fans wonder where the Gaels are to turn for reliable outside shooting as they head to Las Vegas. Quinn Clinton, who has been a forgotten man this year with the addition of Marciulionis, provided a boost to the Gael offense last season, but has barely gotten on the floor so far in 2021. Would Bennett consider turning to Clinton and his smooth three-point stroke if Ducas continues to struggle?

The answer probably lies with the improvement or continued slump, of Bowen, Mullins and Fotu. Sometimes you gotta make a bucket, and Gael fans can be excused for wondering if that is going to happen as the season rolls on.

Tommy Kuhse, shown above in a game against USF in a previous season, has put together back-to-back double-digit games for the Gaels. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

2 thoughts on “It still counts

  1. Bowen is a defensive/rebounding gem and a horrible liability on offense. Ducas will be okay, he is going through a slump where nothing goes in, but is still around the basket. Tass/ Fotu have been good in all games but will be undersized against any major program. As a group they play good individual and team defense, though it took them awhile to adjust to #13 on Bellarmine, who single-handedly lead their comeback. Probably a 20 win season, third in WCC (unless BYU falters) and an NiT bid. I fear they don’t have enough to play the bigger programs consistently – hoping not to go 0-3 at Maui Invitational, but unless they dial up some outside shooting – a real possibility.

    Hard to keep Kushe off the floor. He single-handedly is responsible for Gaels not losing to Bellarmine – between his late game defense (and effective denial) of #13 and his buckets and assists in last 3-4 minutes.

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