by Michael Vernetti
The Gaels were in trouble, trailing UC Riverside 28-16 with little more than five minutes left in the first half. At that point, Saint Mary’s had committed more turnovers, four, than it had sunk three-point baskets, one.
Bring on the shooters, right? You know, tried and true bombers Alex Ducas, Dan Fotu or Tommy Kuhse. How about Kyle Bowen and Matthias Tass?
The unlikeliest of Gaels, Bowen and Tass, came to the rescue when their teammates were struggling against an energized UCR squad that had already taken down a Pac-12 opponent, Arizona State, and was smelling upset against Saint Mary’s. The Gaels had just completed a major tournament with wins against teams from the ACC and Pac-12 and might have been feeling cocky.
Bowen, the rugged defender but spotty shooter, had started the unexpected onslaught early on, sinking his first three-pointer with fewer than three minutes gone to give the Gaels a short-lived 5-3 lead. As UCR continued to sag off him, Bowen connected for another three-pointer at the most opportune time, when UCR had surged to that 12-point lead at the 5:36 mark. That eased the tension and moved the Gaels within nine points at 28-19.
Following a bucket in the paint from Kuhse which cut the score to 28-21, Tass took a cue from Bowen. Also left alone outside the three-point line, the Gael center launched his own bomb at the 3:54 mark — nothing but net!
Still not attracting any defenders, Tass doubled down with another three-pointer 40 seconds later to cut the UCR lead to 28-27. Channeling an NBA telecast featuring an announcer proclaiming that someone was having a “heat check” moment with superfluous long bombs, Tass went for a trifecta on the next possession — and missed.
Not to worry, as Bowen saved the best for last, sinking his third three-pointer with a little more than a minute left in the half, giving Saint Mary’s its first lead of the night, 30-28. Talk about a flair for the dramatic.
Turn out the lights
It would be an over-simplification to say that the Bowen and Tass three-point barrage broke the back of UCR, as it was mainly a stifling Gael defense that did the trick. But there is no gainsaying the fact that the 30-28 halftime bulge buoyed by their 15 unexpected points set up their teammates for a successful night.
UCR would score only 22 more points in the second half, while the Gaels would surge to 37 to run up a 67-50 victory that seemed anything but certain in the early going. Gael fans are hardly surprised by such a development, learning to trust their team’s defense much more than its spotty offense.
That unpredictable offense produced anomalous first-half results such as zero points for Ducas and Fotu, a result that Fotu pointedly reversed in the second half but which Ducas couldn’t shake. Courtside medical experts among the Gael fan base detected signs that Ducas might have been feeling poorly throughout the game, and Coach Randy Bennett did limit his minutes to 17 when he had been averaging almost twice that.
In Fotu’s case, it was figuring out that UCR was vulnerable down low that allowed the Kiwi star to rack up 14 second-half points against Riverside’s lumbering 7’1″ center, Cullen McRae, and jumping jack forward J.P. Moorman II. Tass, who had been shut down by Wisconsin’s talented front court duo of Tyler Wahl and Steven Crowl last Wednesday, also found easier pickings against McRae, finishing with a team-high 18 points on 8-14 shooting.
Additional bright points
Gael fans have become so used to steady production from Kuhse that they probably shrugged off his 11-point, six-rebound, two-assist line score. Kuhse did something to raise their awareness of his special abilities early in the second half, however. Making up his mind that it was time to get Fotu involved in the offense, Kuhse went on one of his seemingly unplanned excursions into the paint.
Except it wasn’t unplanned. Close observers would have noticed that Kuhse kept one of his eyes — he sometimes seems to have at least three — on Fotu as the point guard drifted to the left of the paint. As often happens to defenders who have scouted Kuhse’s acrobatic buckets in the paint, several UCR players dogged Kuhse’s tracks. When he had the attention of the defense, and when Fotu had moved into place near the bucket, Kuhse dropped a behind-the-back dime on Fotu that the Gael forward easily converted to one of the prettiest baskets in recent Gael history. All in a night’s work.
Kuhse’s excellence notwithstanding, Bennett continued the development of Augustas Marciulionis as the Gaels’ future point guard, playing the Lithuanian for 19 minutes. He accounted for three of the Gaels’ 15 assists in that time, and did something he hasn’t accomplished in several games — hit a three-point bucket.
There is nothing in Marciulionis’s form to suggest that he will be anything but successful from three-point range, but so far he has ben the consummate pass-first guard. Every baby step toward developing his offensive arsenal is important.
Also encouraging to Gael fans was the play of second-year wing man Leemet Bockler, who went down with a stress fracture in his foot last year and has been mending slowly. Bockler resembled a young colt during warm-ups, trading thunderous dunks with Judah Brown and cavorting about with seemingly no concern for his foot.
Thus, the crowd erupted when Bockler sank a corner three-pointer in the game’s final minute, a sign that he may be near earning consistent minutes. The memory of him coming off the bench in the early portion of last season and relieving Ducas with a deadly three-point stroke of his own still burns with many of them.
And, finally, sophomore center Mitchell Saxen posted his first point of the season by sinking a free-throw. Saxen, who provides stellar back-up to Tass in the post when healthy, looks ready to play major minutes as he continues recovery from a tight back. The more the merrier.
Matthias Tass, shown above sinking one of his two three-pointers against UC Riverside, led the Gaels in scoring with 18 points, grabbed six rebounds, handed out two assists and had a block and a steal. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.