by Michael Vernetti
Alex Ducas’s play mirrored the ragged effort of his Gael teammates Thursday night in Logan, UT.
Struggling all night with his three-point shot — 1-5 to go with an 0-2 effort the previous game — Ducas found himself with the ball in his hands and his team holding a precious 58-56 lead over the Utah State Aggies with 1:02 left in the game. It was a lead that he himself had created with a gritty drive to the hoop just a few seconds earlier.
Every one of the 9,000 or so screaming Aggie fans, plus their five stalwarts on the floor, knew the play at that moment was to feed Gael scoring leader Dan Fotu, who had mounted a personal 5-0 run to pull Saint Mary’s even at 56-56 just before Ducas’s drive. Fotu’s spin move and bucket, followed by a free throw, was the most inspiring play of a second half full of inspiration for the Gaels.
So what did Ducas do in that crucial moment with his team in the lead? He dribbled the ball off his foot, of course, taking a precarious end-line attack on the basket that allowed the Aggies to tie the game at 58-all behind two clutch free throws by star forward Brandon Horvath. After Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett called time out with 49.1 seconds left, the Gaels did the smart thing and tossed the ball in to Fotu to retake the lead.
And Fotu was picked clean by aggressive Aggie guard AJ Eytle-Rock, the last of an incredible 12 steals Utah State pulled off in the game, setting up a finish in which the basketball gods smiled on Ducas and the Gaels. Utah State tried for the win by going to their 22.6 PPG scoring machine, Justin Bean, but Bean was effectively defended by the Gaels’ Kyle Bowen.
As Bean hurtled his body after a rebound, he crashed into Ducas, sending the Aussie sprawling to the floor. Utah State fans screamed over the foul, but it was as obvious a foul as any called in the game. Ducas walked the length of the floor and stood at the free throw line with 0.9 seconds left and a shot at redemption.
And swished both ends of a one-and-one for a 60-58 lead that held up in spite of another desperation attempt by Utah State at the buzzer.
Tale of two halves
That Ducas would shrug off his turnover that almost cost the Gaels the game, then win it with a cold-blooded conversion of a free throw opportunity seemed appropriate considering how wildly uneven Saint Mary’s play was throughout the game. Let’s not dwell too long on the ugly first-half travails of our heroes struggling through their first true road game of the season.
Just consider this: the Gaels had 35 first-half possessions, and scored only seven field goals and two free throws for a paltry 16 points. They missed 19 shots, including all 12 of their three-point attempts, coughed up two steals and committed another five turnovers. Really.
It says something about the make-up of this team that it could shrug off that debacle and open the second half by sinking four three-pointers en route to clawing to a 32-29 lead. Other heroics followed: Augustas Marciulionis, struggling like his teammates to sink a three-pointer (o-4), broke free into the paint and threw down a thunderous dunk with 8:16 left in the game.
Matthias Tass, following up his 18-point, 8-14 effort against UC Riverside on Monday, bullied his way to two crucial buckets in the final seven minutes, one of them over Utah State’s 6’11”, 240-pound center, Szymon Zapala, that gave the Gaels a 51-48 lead with 5:35 left.
Jabe Mullins, fighting to dent the lineup in a meaningful way, swished a corner three-pointer immediately after coming off the bench in the second half. It all counted, it all was necessary to pull this one out. For the record, Saint Mary’s countered that horrid first-half effort with a 65 per cent field goal percentage in the second half, including 64 per cent (7-11) from three-point range. Talk about amnesia when you need it.
What did Bennett say?
Unless someone corners him in a dark room and injects him with truth serum, Bennett will probably never reveal what he said during a post-game exchange with Utah State Coach Ryan Odom. It’s fair to say that Bennett was frustrated over several aspects of the game, including two egregious clock failures, the second of which came after officials had generously restored the clock to 0.6 seconds left instead of 0.3 as initially indicated on the scoreboard.
Then the Utah State clock brain trust resorted to the most basic homer move in hoops history — they simply failed to start the clock when the Aggies inbounded the ball with that 0.6 left. That resulted in some unneeded drama until the referees resorted to logic instead of relying on the Utah State officials and called the game over. This was after a lob to Bean, defense of the lob by Bowen and Tass and the ball careening out of bounds. According to the clock crew, all that took up 0.1 second, but the refs were having nothing of it.
So, if Odom said something along the lines of, “Good game, coach, too bad it had to be decided by a questionable call,” one can understand Bennett going ballistic. After demonstrably disagreeing with whatever Odom said, Bennett trotted off the court by waving jauntily at the Aggie fans.
Don’t look for a Saint Mary’s-Utah State rematch in Logan anytime soon.
Alex Ducas, despite struggling from three-point distance, led the Gaels in scoring with 13 points, including the game-winning free throws. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.