by Michael Vernetti
Finally an 80-point game, the first since an opening-season 87-point outburst against Prairie View.
Finally a 20-point-or-more win, the first of the 2021-22 season.
Finally a potent three-point attack that did the things logic would dictate that it would — give the Gaels separation from an opponent and open up the paint for Center Matthias Tass to operate with reasonable freedom.
Those were the satisfying results of Saturday’s 80-59 win by Saint Mary’s over UC Santa Barbara, Big West Conference defending champion — and 2021 NCAA Tournament participant — and unanimous choice to repeat those honors in the current campaign.
Finally, the Gaels could shake the memory of a rocky road trip last week to Logan, UT and Ft. Collins, CO, during which they impressed few with a 60-58 squeaker win over Utah State and distressed many with a 74-58 thrashing at the hands of Colorado State.
They could once again count on occasional sharp-shooter Alex Ducas to sink three-point shots, 2-4 to go along with two other field goals and a perfect 2-2 from the free throw line for 11 points, an assist, a block and a steal. They could point to four players scoring in double figures, including Dan Fotu, who was the epitome of effeciency with 11 points and five rebounds in 18 minutes off the bench.
Tass, who has emerged as a model of stability amidst the Gaels’ early-season ups and downs, notched a four-game stretch of averaging 15 points an outing by scoring 22 points in 23 minutes of action against Santa Barbara and its all-conference center, Amadou Sow. With Tass, Ducas, Fotu and Augustus Marciulionis accounting for 55 points, the Gaels presented a solid front of offensive firepower to give fans a break from wondering where the next basket was going to come from.
Overall lineup solidifying
Along with a welcome display of offense, the Gaels seemed to be displaying a coherent lineup as the start of West Coast Conference play looms on January 1 against San Francisco. Coach Randy Bennett is growing ever more ready to drop Marciulionis in the lineup to replace either of his starters, Tommy Kuhse or Logan Johnson, if they struggle.
That pair started well against Santa Barbara, notching five assists in the first eight minutes that allowed the Gaels to shake off an annoying habit of falling behind opponents early. But Johnson committed his second turnover a little while later, and Bennett didn’t hesitate to sub in Marciulionis. A sample of the versatility afforded by rotating the three guards came with just a little more than a minute left in the first half when Kuhse assisted Marciulionis on a corner three-pointer.
The Gaels continue to utilize Fotu off the bench, sometimes subbing for Tass and sometimes — when Tass is playing well as he did against Santa Barbara — for starting power forward Kyle Bowen. That was the case Saturday, even though Bowen had one of his strongest games in a Saint Mary’s uniform, scoring eight points, grabbing five rebounds and stealing the ball twice — among 10 Gael steals for the game.
Bowen nailed two of four three-point attempts, and brought Gael fans to their feet by driving the baseline and powering in a lay-up that may have been his first such offensive move in three years in Moraga.
Mitchell Saxen continued his rebound from early-season back troubles by scoring six points and grabbing four rebounds in just eight minutes in relief of Tass. And, in a sign that another of the Gael walking wounded is getting closer to logging major minutes, Leemet Bockler entered the game with a little more than six minutes remaining and stayed on the floor until the end.
Bockler wasn’t just an observer, as he nailed a corner three-pointer, added a finger roll in the paint and completed a nifty pick-and-roll with Saxen by tossing the sophomore center a close-in pass that Saxen converted with his left hand. Don’t hold your breath, Gael fans, but with Fotu, Marciulionis, Saxen, Bockler and Jabe Mullins notching consistent minutes in relief of the starters, Saint Mary’s might be toying with a 10-man rotation.
The Gaels will have four more opportunities to display their depth before the WCC opener, against Stanislaus State — a late addition to the schedule — next Tuesday in Moraga, against San Diego State Friday in Phoenix (the Jerry Colangelo Classic), against Missouri State Dec. 22 in Moraga and against Yale Dec. 28, also in Moraga.
Will the liberalized lineup survive Bennett’s famous conservative tendencies as these games unwind? As with most things this season, you’ll have to watch to learn that answer.
Matthias Tass, shown above scoring two of his 22 points against UC Santa Barbara, has averaged 15 PPG over the last four games, the longest stretch of such offensive power in his four-year career. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.