by Michael Vernetti
You’d think that a team coming off its most complete game of the season, an 80-59 throttling of a good UC Santa Barbara team, and seeking revenge for a 74-49 loss to San Diego State last Dec. 22, would be primed for a major effort in a rematch with San Diego State Friday night in Phoenix, AZ.
You’d be wrong.
In its most disheartening effort of an up-and-down season, Saint Mary’s reverted to Missing Offense Mode in clanking and tanking its way to a mere 53 points, 10 fewer than the other guys. True, they held this year’s version of the Aztecs — missing graduated stars Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel — to 63 points instead of 74, and managed to crack 50 points themselves, but the effect was the same: the Gaels whiffed against one of the top teams in the Mountain West Conference, just as they did in a 74-58 loss to Colorado State two weeks ago.
Picking through the ashes of last night’s game reveals a few gems: six assists against 14 turnovers, five made three-pointers in 20 attempts (25 per cent for non-math majors) and a 28-point second half. Although the Gaels have stumbled to some weak first-halves this season, they usually bounce back to post a decent score in the second. Not last night.
Breaking it down
As bad as the night ended for Saint Mary’s, it didn’t start out that way. After righting themselves from a slow start, the Gaels battled SDSU even until the halftime break, leaving the floor behind by a single point, 26-25, and having good reason to feel positive about their chances. They might as well have stayed in the locker room.
In an inexplicable five-minute stretch, Saint Mary’s deepened the deficit to 11 points, 44-33, by a combination of poor defense and poorer offense. Although Saint Mary’s defensive specialist, Kyle Bowen, had done a good job against Cal transfer Matt Bradley in the first half, Bradley got loose for an easy lay-up to start the second half.
That was small potatoes, however, compared to the damage caused by sometime starter Adam Seiko, a burly 6’3″ senior guard who has averaged only around 5 PPG in his career. Just as they did in last year’s game with reserve Terrell Gomez, the Gaels seemingly forgot about Seiko, and he sank back-to-back three-pointers following Gael Alex Ducas’s only three-pointer of the night, to push the Aztecs’ lead to 34-28.
Logan Johnson scored on a driving lay-up to get two points back for Saint Mary’s, but SDSU countered with a bucket in the paint by center Nathan Mensah and another lay-up by the Aztecs’ Trey Pulliam, another thorn in the Gaels’ side from last year. Pulliam’s bucket moved SDSU ahead by 38-31, and it set up a play that was emblematic of the Saint Mary’s offense all night long.
Gael center Matthias Tass, who battled Mensah evenly throughout the game, scored inside to cut the margin to 38-33, and the Gaels had a chance to stem the bleeding. Pulliam hit another three-pointer, however, to increase the deficit to 41-33 and set the stage for the telling blow. Receiving the ball inside once again, Tass coughed it up and Bradley was off to the races on a breakaway, sinking a lay-up and a free throw to push the lead to 44-33.
Tass’s turnover was one of eight — yes, he said eight — turnovers by Gael bigs, split evenly by Tass and Dan Fotu, who has gone from surprise star to forgotten man in a three-week stretch since the Maui Invitational Tournament where he was a member of the five-man all-conference team. The Aztecs never let Tass or Fotu get comfortable in the paint, combining Mensah’s shot-blocking ability — he blocked three — with Aquek Arop’s physicality to befuddle any consistent offense from the paint. Tass managed 12 points on 4-7 shooting, but Fotu scored only two free throws in 13 minutes.
The Gaels never fully recovered from that five-minute burst off defensive laxity and offensive passivity, although they did mount one last heroic effort. Still trailing by 11 points, 46-35, with 14:23 left in the game, the Gaels toughened up on defense and held SDSU to a single free throw until the 11:29 mark, shrinking the deficit to six points at 47-41. Bradley got two points back with another score inside, but then the Gaels got serious.
As he has so often in his six years in Moraga, point guard Tommy Kuhse brought his teammates back from the dead with one of his patented lay-ups to cut the deficit to six points, 49-43. Then Jabe Mullins, pushing to supplant Ducas as the Gaels’ primary outside threat, hit a three-pointer to cut the margin to three points. Cue freshman Augustas Marciulionis for the most stirring play of the game for Saint Mary’s.
“Goose,” as he is called, stripped an Aztec guard for one of his four steals on the night, and sped downcourt for a lay-up. Except there was an Aztec defender in the way, and Goose proceeded to 1) lose control of the ball, 2) double-clutch a clumsy jumper that 3) went in, of course. Suddenly the Gaels were right back where they were at the end of the first half, trailing by one point, 49-48, with more than seven minutes left.
Unfortunately, their offensive ineptitude took over once again, and they didn’t score again for more than four minutes, when another three-pointer from an unlikely source, Bowen, brought them to 57-51. Saint Mary’s scored only one more time, on a lay-up by Kuhse, for the rest of the game, and lost by 10 points, 63-53.
Unfortunately, in many ways Saint Mary’s is in the same position this year as they were at the time of the SDSU loss last year. Then, the problem was an ankle injury to Ducas, which sidelined him for most of the rest of the season. Without Ducas’ outside shooting, and with Bowen barely contributing on offense, the Gael attack withered.
With Ducas back and healthy, with super-sub Leemet Bockler nearly recovered from a stress fracture in his foot, the Gaels were seemingly set to recover their offensive power and put up some points to complement their consistently strong defense. On many occasions, notably against strong opponents like Colorado State and San Diego State, it hasn’t happened, however.
As it did last year, Saint Mary’s is struggling on offense as the West Coast Conference season looms, and no one can say with confidence that they will overcome those struggles. All we can do is watch and hope.
Gael point guard Tommy Kuhse, shown above in action from a previous season, was the Gaels’ top scorer against San Diego State with 13 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.