Gut punch

by Michael Vernetti

Saint Mary’s Saturday night 52-43 loss to BYU in Provo, in addition to setting back the advance of college basketball by a couple of years, proved one thing: the way to beat the Gaels is to match their defensive intensity early, then make hay when that defense withers a bit and the Saint Mary’s offense sinks to new levels of ineptitude.

This has been the pattern in three of the Gaels’ four losses — to Colorado State, San Diego State and BYU. I don’t count the early 61-55 loss to Wisconsin because that was in a tournament setting when neither team had the opportunity of scouting its opponent or formulating a specific game plan to beat them.

The other three losses were against teams that had plenty of opportunity — and incentive. Colorado State knew exactly what the Gael defense could do, having suffered a stunning 53-33 loss to Saint Mary’s last December in Moraga. They prepared themselves for a maximum defensive effort, and cooked up a strong response: hit the Gaels in the chops early, and take advantage of their offensive weaknesses. It worked, to the tune of a 78-54 rout of their own in this year’s rematch in Ft. Collins.

San Diego State had more than a week off doing finals break to prepare for the Gaels, and compiled a punch-in-the-mouth strategy of its own to fashion a 63-53 win. Ditto BYU, which faced a paralyzing Gael defense in the early going last night, fell behind 7-0 but didn’t panic. It was if the Cougars knew the Gaels can be had if opponents match their defense possession-by-possession and wait for them to blink offensively.

Killer stretch

That’s exactly what happened, and the game was decided in one stretch of the first half beginning at roughly the three-minute mark and lasting through the first four minutes or so of the second half. During that time, BYU made six straight buckets to close out the half with a 12-point lead, 28-16, and opened the second half with four more baskets without a miss to stretch the halftime lead to 15 points at 36-21. There were more than 15 minutes of basketball to play, but the game was essentially over at that point.

That stretch was a combination of opportunistic offense by BYU and incompetent offense/sagging defense by the Gaels. It began after Alex Ducas hit the first three-pointer of the game for Saint Mary’s to pull his team within a point at 15-14. In response, BYU’s excellent point guard, Alex Barcello, made his third bucket of the night to put his team up 17-14. Barcello would score only one more basket on the night, finishing with eight points against a 17+ PPG average coming into the game. He also whiffed on all five three-point attempts.

To counter, the Gaels found Matthias Tass loose in the paint for a dunk, and…Tass clanked it off the back of the rim. BYU’s Spencer Johnson rebounded a miss on the other end and put it back for BYU’s second straight goal. The Gaels’ Tommy Kuhse interrupted the run with a bucket of his own, but then BYU’s Seneca Knight scored over Ducas in the paint, and sank a free throw after Ducas was called for attacking Knight’s shoulder with his mouth. Ducas was not pleased with the foul, and was replaced in the lineup with Jabe Mullins.

Following a missed lay-up by Logan Johnson — one of seven misses out of 10 tries by Johnson — BYU’s Gideon George made his only bucket of the night over Kyle Bowen to push the lead to 24-16. Matching Tass’s miscue on an earlier possession, Kuhse missed the front end of a one-and-one, giving Knight another chance to score — and he did, extending the lead to 26-16.

Matching BYU’s surge with continued incompetence, Johnson fumbled his dribble and turned the ball over as the clock ticked down to end the first half — but not before a final dose of humiliation for the Gaels to take with them into the locker room. BYU’s Fousseyni Traore grabbed a rebound, and, surrounded by Bowen and Mullins, muscled in a putback at the buzzer for that 28-16 lead.

The Gaels ended the half shooting 27 per cent from the floor, going 1-9 on three-point attempts and committing 10 turnovers, including four steals. There’s a half of basketball to put in the ol’ time capsule.

More of the same

The script was much the same to open the second half, although the Gaels switched things up by actually scoring a little of their own. Augustas Marciulionis highlighted a mediocre performance with his first and only three-pointer of the night, and Ducas followed with his second three-pointer to prove the Gaels had a beating offensive heart. Unfortunately, BYU didn’t blink during this “eruption” by Saint Mary’s, sinking another four straight buckets before Marciulionis fouled BYU’s Te’Jon Lucas hard enough to cause him to miss a lay-up. Lucas converted both free throws, however, to extend the BYU lead to 38-24 before Ducas scored inside to cut the lead to 38-26. That was exactly the halftime margin, which means the Gaels had gained nothing from their most successful offensive burst of the game.

Shooting themselves in the foot

To emphasize their inability to sustain an offensive threat long enough to actually scare BYU, the Gaels made two boneheaded plays that took away any chance they had of pulling even. Following Ducas’s bucket that put the score at 38-26, Bowen took an unwise three-point attempt — part of an evening of going 0-4 from distance — and then Ducas betrayed some fatigue after scoring on a tough drive in the lane for a personal seven-point run and creating an actual decrease in BYU’s halftime lead to 10 points at 38-28.

On the Gaels’ next possession, Ducas was stripped of the ball by Knight as he attempted to drive again, and Knight scored on a run-out to put the lead back to 12. After Tass scored inside and BYU failed to score on its next possession, the Gaels seemed to perk up over the prospect off cutting the lead to under 10 points. Inspired by who-knows-what, Johnson rushed a three-point attempt that didn’t come near the basket and BYU was safe.

Still holding BYU in check defensively, Saint Mary’s continued its maddening turnover spree in the next several minutes to eliminate any chance of a rally. Mullins traveled on a routine dribble, Bowen had the ball stolen from him, Marciulionis threw away a pass and Tass was picked clean underneath the Gael basket. Four possessions in a 10-point game and not a single opportunity to cut the deficit. The game couldn’t end quickly enough for Saint Mary’s to get on a plane and forget all about this one before facing Pepperdine on the road next Thursday.

Matthias Tass, shown above in an earlier game against Missouri State, recorded the first double-double of his career against BYU, grabbing 15 rebounds to go with 13 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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