by Michael Vernetti
Considering all the good things Saint Mary’s took away from this week’s Maui Invitational Tournament in Las Vegas, it is hard to believe they lost the championship game to Wisconsin Wednesday afternoon by a score of 61-55.
To wit: they defeated two teams from the nation’s leading conferences — Norte Dame of the Atlantic Coast Conference — and Oregon of the Pacific-12 Conference;
They dramatically improved their performance between game one — a 62-59 squeaker over Norte Dame — and game two — a 62-50 shellacking of Oregon.
They expanded their cast of major offensive contributors from two in the Notre Dame game, Dan Fotu and Tommy Kuhse, to four against Oregon, Fotu, Kuhse, Logan Johnson and Alex Ducas, and almost five against Wisconsin, with Kuhse and Matthias Tass checking in with eight points each to join Ducas (13), Johnson (12) and Fotu (11).
They welcomed sophomore center Mitchell Saxen to his first action of the season, and he provided a lift on defense and on the boards that bodes well for greater contributions down the road. Saxen had been kept out of action until the Oregon game because of nagging back problems that plagued him in his senior season in high school but didn’t materialize during a productive freshman season.
Ducas bounces back
That’s a lot of positive accomplishments for one three-day stretch against tough competition, and one could make the case that the emergence of Ducas as an offensive star was the biggest one. The junior from Western Australia had been slumping since a 22-point outburst in the season-opening game against Prairie View that featured six three-point baskets. He averaged only 6.7 PPG leading up to the Oregon game, when he scored 12 points on four three-pointers.
He followed that up with a team-high 13 points in the Wisconsin loss that included one of his biggest shots as a Gael. With the Badgers putting on a late-game rally that put them ahead of Saint Mary’s by four points at 54-50 with 1:47 left in the game, Ducas drilled a three-pointer that brought his team back within one point of the lead. It was the definition of clutch shooting.
Alas, after a free throw by Wisconsin, Kuhse was fouled with the score 55-53. Gael fans were already calculating their team’s strategy after Kuhse made both ends of the one-and-one opportunity. Instead, Kuhse, who was heroic throughout the tournament, making big shot after big shot, clanked the front end of the one-and-one and the Gaels wouldn’t get another opportunity to retake the lead.
The addition of Saxen to the Gael rotation stabilized the lineup that Gael Coach Randy Bennett seems ready to stick with for the foreseeable future. Saxen is almost certain to see significant minutes in relief of Tass as the 6’10” sophomore rounds into game condition following his lay-off. Gael fans are hopeful that Saxen might prove a more consistent scorer in the low blocks following Tass’s 3-10 shooting performance against Wisconsin.
Tass is an easy target for critical fans who bemoan his penchant for working into good position under the basket only to miss one-and-two-foot bunnies. Will Saxen sharpen Tass’s concentration? Can Saxen match Tass’s comfort in Bennett’s offense, passing to cutters or to open shooters? Gael fans are anxious to find out.
The prospect of more minutes for Saxen also impacts the role of Fotu going forward. The senior from Auckland, NZ was the Gaels leading light throughout the tournament, and seemed destined for heavy consideration as the tournament’s outstanding player until a minor fall-off in scoring against Wisconsin — 11 points after 22 against Notre Dame and 16 against Oregon.
But Fotu is no longer in the Gaels’ starting lineup, giving way to defensive/rebounding demon Kyle Bowen. During the Maui tournament, Fotu successfully came off the bench to substitute for Tass in the post instead of assuming his normal spot at strong forward, but played only 26, 27 and 22 minutes.
If Saxen also subs in for Tass, how is Bennett going to carve out significant time for Fotu, who is emerging as an all-conference performer? Time will tell.
Guard position also clearer
The Gaels’ excellent showing in Las Vegas also seems to have quieted some fan speculation over Kuhse’s hold on the starting point guard position. Kuhse, with 35 points in the tournament and seven assists against Oregon, was the undoubted team leader, relegating promising freshman Augustus Marciulionis to back-up duty. Unless fans envision starting a Marciulionis Fan Club, they will recognize this as a positive step.
Marciulionis, who will eventually become an excellent point guard, gives Saint Mary’s something they have not enjoyed in recent memory — a reliable sub for Kuhse. This will make Kuhse stronger as the season rolls on and he gets regular breathers, plus preserve his energy for post-season tournament duty. It’s a win-win.
Saint Mary’s returns to action next Monday night with a 7 p.m. home game against UC Riverside.
Alex Ducas, shown above from an earlier season, provided added punch to the Gaels’ lineup in the Maui tournament, making six three-pointers in the final two games. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.