by Michael Vernetti
One is tempted to look at Saint Mary’s 77-62 win over Pepperdine Thursday night in Malibu as evidence the Gaels have rebounded from a terrible performance last Saturday in Provo when they were undressed by BYU to the tune of 52-43.
A 15-point win on the road against a Pepperdine team that, although struggling early in the season, always has talented athletes and is coached by a former Pac-12 star, Lorenzo Romar? We’ll take that any day, right?
Of course the Gaels will take it, considering the option would have been to open WCC play at 0-2 with four games ahead against Gonzaga and San Francisco, plus a rematch against BYU. But should Gael fans relax in the belief that “their Gaels” are ready to contend for a high finish in conference play and an NCAA bid in March?
I’m not so sure.
First of all, Pepperdine fell to 6-12 and 0-3 on the season with the loss, following a 117-83 thrashing by Gonzaga and a 77-62 loss to a Covid-altered San Diego. And they faced the Gaels without one of their biggest additions in the off-season, former Winchester High School (Los Angeles) star Keith Fisher III, who had been averaging nearly 9 PPG. Fisher was an unexplained scratch, and a rebuilding team can ill afford to lose its leader.
Romar still has top recruits Maxwell Lewis, a Compass Prep (AZ) graduate who took off his senior year to prepare for the NBA, then thought he’d better give college ball a chance — read that as “no palpable interest from the NBA” — and Houston Mallette, the Pacifica Christian teammate of Gael sophomore forward Judah Brown.
Combined with holdovers Jade Smith from Alameda, possessor one of the deadliest jumpers in the paint in D-1, and hulking Czech forward Jan Zidek, currently leading the Waves in scoring at nearly 13 PPG, and Romar has a respectable squad. So, what was troubling about the Gaels’ win?
Errors keep on coming
First of all, they didn’t look like a team that had been humbled by the BYU loss and made up its mind it was going to correct all the faults exposed by the Cougars. They ended the first half leading 39-30, after being up by as much as 14 (24-10) in the early going, and had committed eight turnovers against nine assists.
The end of the half was emblematic of the on again-off again play by the Gaels: Jabe Mullins, subbing for Alex Ducas, hit a three-pointer to put his team ahead 39-27, then the Gaels let their guard down in the final seconds of the half, allowing the Waves’ reserve guard Darryl Polk, Jr. loose for a three-pointer of his own. Momentum switch from Saint Mary’s to Pepperdine.
Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett took a circle-the-wagons approach to the second half, perhaps seeing in Polk’s bucket the portent of an oncoming disaster. There were virtually no substitutions, as Logan Johnson played all 40 minutes of the game, Matthias Tass 39 and Kyle Bowen 34. Bennett even reverted to his pre-revolution guard tandem of Johnson and Tommy Kuhse, benching freshman Augustas Marciulionis — who had supplanted Kuhse in the starting lineup — just a few minutes into the second half and going with his veteran the rest of the way.
It proved a wise decision, even though Marciulionis scored twice in the first half on a nifty drive down the lane and a floater. He also committed two of those eight first-half turnovers, however, and Bennett had clearly run out of patience with sloppy ball-handling. The Gaels committed only two turnovers in the second half, a charge by Tass and a ludicrous charge by Ducas that evaded the view of all TV cameras and professional observers.
Kuhse to the rescue
Following upon a first half that belonged to Johnson — he scored 16 points on three made three-pointers and several lane-penetrating drives — Kuhse led down the stretch. After Ducas drove Gael fans crazy by missing three three-pointers in a row, then making one, then missing another, Kuhse hit a gutsy three-pointer of his own with a little more than six minutes left. That solidified a Gael lead at 64-53 that had at one point shrunk to five points, 57-52.
A little later, following two missed bunnies by Tass, Kuhse was fouled on a drive and made one of two free throws to give the Gaels a 10-point lead at 67-57 with a little more than two minutes left. He followed that with another late-game three-pointer to allow Gael fans to breathe easier with a 13-point lead, 70-57.
Given a gift after a second flop call on Mallette, Ducas missed a free throw and the Waves rolled back within 10 points on a three-pointer by Zidek. As if to show Ducas how clutch basketball is played, Kuhse drew a foul on a drive down the lane, and sank both free throws for a 72-60 Gael lead. Johnson followed with two made free throws of his own, and Mullins made his second three-pointer of the game to ice things at 77-60, alleviating any angst from a last-minute Pepperdine bucket.
The schedule stays in the Gaels’ favor with a Saturday match-up against a weak Pacific team in Moraga, followed by a contest against a more formidable opponent, Santa Clara, on January 20, also at home. The Gaels had better have ironed out their ball-control and defensive lapses by then, because they then head out for two road games against Loyola Marymount and San Francisco.
Those WCC and NCAA hoops will be thoroughly tested by two teams who feel they have surpassed Saint Mary’s in the conference hierarchy.
Logan Johnson, shown above in action from earlier this season, led all Gael scorers with 20 points against Pepperdine. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.