The ol’ rope-a-dope

by Michael Vernetti

Gael fans are often puzzled by the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of their team — look awful in the first half of games, then roar back in the second half to post wins. Take last night in Moraga against a tough Missouri State squad, for instance.

Unable to stop — or even slow down — high-scoring Missouri guard Isiaih Mosley, Saint Mary’s trailed at half by a count of 36-33. Mosley accounted for 19 of his team’s points, a nifty 53 per cent of the total, by sinking 3-3 three pointers and all five of his two-point attempts. He was 8-8 for the half, which contributed mightily to a team shooting average of 61.5 per cent.

Second half? Not so much for Mr. Mosley — 1-7 for two points, as his team’s shooting percentage shrank to 35 per cent and Saint Mary’s eased to a 20-point second half differential and a 75-58 win. What’s the secret? Intelligent half-time adjustments, rousing exhortations from Coach Randy Bennett, giant gulps of Gatorade?

How about the Muhammad Ali theory of rope-a-dope, a phrase the former heavyweight champ coined after defeating George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974 — a theory of allowing Foreman to pummel him in his rock-hard mid-section for large portions of the bout, which weakened Foreman and allowed Ali to triumph in the end.

The Saint Mary’s approach

Are the Gaels modern-day masters of the rope-a-dope? Maybe, but I think the performance against Missouri State — and the Gaels recent overall success, skipping that unpleasant affair in Phoenix against San Diego State — can be attributed to more conventional causes. The Gaels do seem to have a feel-’em-out approach to games against unfamiliar opponents, a willingness to take opponents’ best shots while figuring out ways to counteract as the game goes on.

Saint Mary’s is, of course, a very experienced squad that has stayed together through the highs of defeating then-number-one Gonzaga in the 2019 WCC Tournament championship to the lows of a 14-10 season under the clouds of Covid in 20-21. They simply don’t panic when an opponent takes a lead over them, even a seemingly commanding lead.

For all the ignominy of the 63-53 San Diego State loss, the Gaels fought back from an 11-point second half deficit to close within a single point, 49-48, with more than seven minutes left. They gave themselves a chance to win.

The Saint Mary’s approach is not uniformly applied. Against D-2 opponent Stanislaus State last week, the Gaels seemed guilty of underestimating their opponent and the extent of that opponent’s desire to upset a strong D-1 program. After a sloppy, poor-shooting, turnover-prone first half, Saint Mary’s managed to go into the locker room behind Stan State 28-27. After regrouping at halftime, the Gaels roared to a 49-11 second-half rout and a 76-39 win.

The Missouri State game was another story. Saint Mary’s did not play poorly against the visitors from Springfield, MO, shooting a respectable 46 per cent themselves and defending everyone not named Mosley pretty well. Indeed, they had taken a step to slow down Mr. Mosley even before the half, assigning Logan Johnson to defend him instead of Alex Ducas. Ducas wasn’t embarrassed by Mosley, and contested his shots competently, but clearly it wasn’t working. Sicking the terrier-like Johnson on the 6’5″ Mosley, even though it was a height mismatch of several inches, proved to be effective.

The rest of the story

But there was more to the takedown of Missouri State than defending its hot-shooting guard. The Gaels had noticed a softness in Missouri’s interior defense, and exploited it ruthlessly. Center Matthias Tass, continuing his string of impressive performances in the post, established an early edge on his counterpart, the 6’9″ senior forward Gaige Prim, who joined Mosley on the all-Missouri Valley Conference team last year.

But Tass was the finisher, and the Gaels’ trio of guards were the instigators of a masterful attack on the heart of Missouri’s defense. Coach Bennett made an almost unprecedented change before last night’s game, replacing longtime starting point guard Tommy Kuhse with rising freshman Augustas Marciulionis. This was an acknowledgment that his guard corps — usually a Saint Mary’s strength — had proved ineffective against San Diego State, managing a total of only two assists the entire game.

Marciulionis was okay in the early going against Missouri State, making a nifty floater in the paint and finding Tass for one of his 12 field goals (out of 15 attempts). But when Kuhse entered the game at the 14:24 mark in place of Johnson, he seemed to be a man on a mission. He was almost dismissive of Missouri’s sophomore guard Lu’Cye Patterson, going around him easily to probe the lane for a lay-up attempt or a pass to the eager Tass.

Kuhse had one of his finest games as a Gael, and that’s saying a lot given his six-year history in the program. He finished with 16 points and five assists in 25 minutes of play, eclipsing the starting Marciulionis, who logged 23 minutes. Marciulionis did make some hay late in the first half, stealing the ball from Mosley and drawing a foul at the other end of the court, which led to two free throws and the rest of his four points on the night.

Mr. Johnson’s contribution

As brilliant as Kuhse was, Gael fans could be excused for thinking they had seen that movie before. Not so with Johnson, who has proved as puzzling as any Gael in this pre-season. After moving into prominence last year by averaging more than 15 PPG in WCC play, Johnson has been a picture of inconsistency this year. He has not found his three-point stroke, was whistled repeatedly for charges in early games, and even lost the ability to sink free throws.

Against Missouri State he not only shut down Mosley in the second half, he found his scoring ability in the paint, torturing the guard assigned to him, another sophomore, Ja’Monta Black, as thoroughly as Kuhse handled Patterson. While Kuhse scored on a variety of drives, dinks and dunks, Johnson staked out a position in the post and seemingly willed in a number of difficult shots, to the tune of 13 points on 5-11 shooting. He even brought the crowd to its feet by sinking a corner three-pointer as the Gaels mounted their second-half charge.

The rebound of Kuhse and Johnson, assisted in no small measure by Tass’s dominance inside — 27 points, six rebounds and two assists — was the story of this game. As for that other wrinkle, starting Marciulionis over Kuhse, we’ll have to wait and see. There’s no question that having three accomplished guards, Marciulionis, Kuhse and Johnson, is a far better situation than relying on just two guards to play 37 minutes or more each game, a la Naar and Rohan.

Will Bennett continue to start the freshman over the veteran? We’ll find out next Tuesday when Yale visits Moraga, but that is a sidebar to the Gaels overall play. Since losing badly to Colorado State on Dec. 4, the Gaels have played well in three out of four games. They have scored 80 points against UCSB and 75 last night against Missouri State, to go with 76 against Stan State.

They’re in a good rhythm, and fans are content to ride the vibe no matter who the starting point guard is.

Matthias Tass, shown above backing down Missouri State forward Gaige Prim, led the Gaels with 27 points in the 75-58 win. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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