by Michael Vernetti
One can imagine the Gaels’ Logan Johnson thinking to himself before last night’s game against Yale: “This guy Swain is averaging more than 19 PPG, so he’ll probably put up some numbers. I’d better step up my offense to counteract his.”
Right and right. Azar Swain, Yale’s 6’1″ senior three-point phenom, did, indeed, make his numbers, 21 points, including 5-6 three-point attempts. Not for nothing has the former Massachusetts prep star become Yale’s all-time three-point shooter.
But Johnson was not swept away by Swain’s brilliant play. He scored 26 points himself, going 10-14 from the floor and adding a perfect night at the free throw line (3-3), a place that has not been comfortable to him at times this season. To add an exclamation point to a dominating performance, Johnson cashed in on 3-4 three-point attempts, another area where he has often struggled.
Johnson’s mastery over Swain, and other Yale defenders who attempted to stop him, was so complete that at one stretch in the second half the 6’1″ scrapper with the flamboyant hair and whisker array completed a 9-0 run all by himself. As a team, Yale lacked the physical speed and agility to stay with Johnson operating with his afterburners ignited.
This is not surprising given Yale’s history with the Covid-19 virus. The team’s entire 20-21 season was eliminated by an Ivy League decision to hunker down rather than stumble through, as the Gaels and their fellow WCC teams did. The loss to Saint Mary’s, in which they gave up a jaw-dropping 15 steals among 23 turnovers, was emblematic of a team re-acclimating itself to the speed of D-1 college hoops.
Nevertheless, Yale has had some good, even dominating, wins in compiling a 6-8 record, including 91-71 over U-Mass (John Calipari, where have you gone?), 82-54 over Siena and 82-73 over Lehigh. With Swain to lead them, they will probably compete for an Ivy League championship.
Saint Mary’s in control
But Tuesday night belonged to Saint Mary’s, which led wire-to-wire for one of the few times in this choppy pre-conference season. The Gaels had three other players besides Johnson in double figures — Alex Ducas with 12, Tommy Kuhse with 11 and Matthias Tass with 10 — and two others putting up nine points — Kyle Bowen and Mitchell Saxen.
All starters logged season lows in minutes — no one with more than 30! — as Coach Randy Bennett emptied his bench with more than eight minutes left in the game. For the second game in a row, freshman Augustas Marciulionis was ineffective at the point in place of super-veteran Kuhse, scoring zero points and accounting for as many turnovers as assists, three of each.
Marciulionis has looked uncomfortable leading the Gaels’ attack in those two games, while Kuhse has played the role of savvy veteran, coming off the bench to steady things and lend an offensive boost. Kuhse scored 16 points with five assists against Missouri State last Wednesday, and accounted for 11 points on 5-8 shooting, plus a team-high four assists, against Yale. The minutes split between Kuhse and Marciulionis was almost even, 23 for Goose and 21 for Kuhse.
With an imposing San Francisco squad looming in the WCC debut this Saturday, it would surprise no one if Bennett leaned on Kuhse to make the start instead of Marciulionis.
As for the rest
Tass did not replicate his dominating, 27-point performance against Missouri State, even though he had inexperienced 6’7″ junior Isaiah Kelly guarding him. As is his nature, Tass noticed Yale’s decision to double-team him from the start, and shifted to point-center mode, distributing to the Gael shooters, who did their job effectively.
Ducas had the second game in a row with multiple three-pointers (2-5), which is a good sign, and could have conceivably added to that total if he played more than 23 minutes. Kyle Bowen continued to show offensive chops, leading the Gaels in scoring in the early going with eight quick points, and did his damage inside instead of from the three-point line, where he attempted only one shot (miss).
Dan Fotu did not shake the offensive slump that has engulfed him lately, going 1-7 from the floor and 4-6 from the free throw line, but he was a mighty pain in Yale’s offense with four steals and three assists. Fotu so quickly off-loaded one of his steals to Kuhse that the Gael guard had something like a 35-foot lead on two defenders. Kuhse’s lay-up looked like pre-game practice where there are no defenders to interfere.
Also continuing to shine off the bench for Saint Mary’s was Saxen, the 6’10 sophomore post player, who has apparently overcome back troubles that hobbled him early this season. Saxen scored his nine points on 4-6 shooting, but more important than the point total was his aggressiveness. In sports parlance, he seems to be hunting baskets lately, including the second-chance variety.
Saxen’s ball-hawking ability was exemplified at the end of the first half, when Marciulionis lofted a floater as the clock wore down. Goose’s shot went awry, but Saxen tipped in the miss just before the horn sounded to give the Gaels a 46-25 lead heading into the locker room. His rebounding, he had four against Yale in just 13 minutes of play, is as much a factor of situational awareness and tenacity as physical prowess. He doesn’t outleap opponents, but out-positions and out-fights them for rebounds.
Alas, the injury bug has apparently again bitten the Gaels, as Leemet Bockler was in civvies and not in the bright new red uniforms the Gaels debuted against Yale. As usual, there was no word as to what ails Bockler, who has already been hobbled by a stress fracture in his foot occurring last season and a turned ankle from this one. Gael fans begin to wonder if Bockler will be able to contribute this season, or put off his return to the lineup in a meaningful way until next year.
Bockler aside, Saint Mary’s must consider its pre-conference performance — they went 12-3 with no “bad” losses — a success. They have incorporated Marciulionis into the rotation to deepen guard depth, seen Ducas recover his three-point stroke and watched Tass become a sometimes-dominating force in the paint. Johnson has demonstrated periods of brilliance, while Kuhse continues to capably steer the ship and score when necessary.
All Coach Bennett needs to bring him a good night’s sleep is Fotu’s return to early-season form. Bennett would be glad to see him display that return in Saturday’s crucial match-up with San Francisco.
Logan Johnson, shown above in the Gaels’ new red uniform, was unstoppable against Yale, scoring 26 points, handing out three assists and garnering four steals. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.