by Michael Vernetti
In Saint Mary’s 77-62 win over Pepperdine a week ago in Malibu, the Gaels welcomed a three-point barrage from an unlikely duo: Logan Johnson and Kyle Bowen were a combined 5-8 from distance to mightily aid their team’s cause.
In last night’s 73-65 squeaker win over Santa Clara in Moraga — don’t let that final score fool you, it was 67-65 Saint Mary’s with 1:46 to go — Bowen and Johnson contributed zero points from three-point range — Bowen going 0-5 and Johnson 0-1. Together, they scored a total of eight points against the Broncos versus 26 against the Waves.
And, yet, the Gaels won their second WCC game in a row to move into third place in the conference behind Gonzaga and BYU. So, do Gael fans feel comforted to know that different players might pick them up at any time, or depressed to think that no one can be counted on for consistent excellence?
That’s a glass half-full or glass half-empty question, but a good question nevertheless. Of the two differing contributions, Johnson’s was certainly the most troubling. Not only did he prove unable to guard Santa Clara’s outstanding guard Jalen Williams, who scored 18 points on 8-14 shooting, but he never found a comfort level on offense after sinking his first two attempts in the game’s opening minutes. He was 0-6 the rest of the way in 24 minutes on the floor.
Coming after he scored 20 points or more in two of his last three games — forget BYU, that was a black hole for the entire team — the Santa Clara performance was an anomaly for Johnson, who has been inspirational to fans and teammates several times this season. One can imagine he will have much to brood about on the team flight to Los Angeles for Saturday’s match-up with Loyola Marymount.
As for Bowen
Gael fans have learned not to count on anything offensively from Bowen, despite the atypical success against Pepperdine. He was certainly not shy against Santa Clara, hoisting five shots from distance throughout the game, and missing all five. It has been noted that Bowen has worked to improve his three-point shooting from last season, and that he has had occasional success. But no one in the stands does anything but shudder when he launches his one-handed, rump-extended three-point shot. If only the Gaels had a more suitable offensive weapon to man the power forward spot.
Remember Dan Fotu, the 6’7″ senior from Auckland, NZ, who was sensational during the Gaels’ excellent performance in the Maui Invitational Tournament in November? Not only did Fotu make the five-man all-tournament team, he would have probably been voted the event’s outstanding player if Saint Mary’s had held on to defeat Wisconsin for the championship (L61-55).
That Fotu has all but disappeared from the Gaels’ offense in the weeks since the Maui-Las Vegas tournament. No one except Saint Mary’s players and coaches can devine the reasons some players log major minutes and some ride the pine, but suffice it to say that Gael Coach Randy Bennett prefers Bowen’s excellent defense and rebounding to Fotu’s offensive chops. The Santa Clara was an excellent prism into Bennett’s thoughts.
Differing from recent practice, Bennett subbed in Fotu for Bowen with about eight minutes gone in the first half, after Bowen had shown unusual laxity in corralling Santa Clara’s excellent forward, Josip Vrankic. Bowen went to the bench after fouling Vrankic, leading to two free throws and a 14-11 Santa Clara lead.
Fotu was immediately more active on offense, in contrast to Bowen’s dread of attempting anything offensively other than the oft-misfired three-point shot. Alas, Fotu missed his original attempts and went back to the bench minutes later. It was as if Bennett wanted to reassure himself that Bowen was the better choice after all.
Fotu seemed to redeem himself in the final minutes of the first half, as he hit a three-pointer with about three minutes left to give Saint Mary’s a 30-27 lead. He lost Vrankic along the base line on a succeeding Santa Clara possession, however, and only Vrankic’s stepping over the end line erased a nifty reverse lay-up that left Fotu with egg on his face.
Fotu got the call again with 12 minutes left in the second half, and again was more active attacking the basket than Bowen. He drew a foul on one drive, but missed both free throws, then dropped off a dime to Gael center Matthias Tass after drawing two defenders on another drive. Tass converted the pass for a lay-up and a 53-50 Saint Mary’s lead. After another miss on an aggressive drive to the hoop, Fotu again went back to the bench after fewer than three minutes of action.
The final stats showed Fotu with three points on 1-5 shooting in eight minutes of play. Bowen scored four points in 31 minutes, and had mixed success guarding Vrankic. My guess is that Gael fans would prefer Fotu’s activity and threat of scoring over Bowen’s almost complete lack of offensive chops. Fotu’s missed free throws, 1-5 shooting and one defensive lapse could reasonably be chalked up to game rustiness, while fans wonder if Bowen will ever score enough to loosen up opposing defenses.
The rest of the story
If Johnson and Bowen were the dark side of Gael performance against Santa Clara, Alex Ducas and Tommy Kuhse were the shining opposite. It would be inaccurate to describe Ducas’s game — 17 points on 4-7 shooting, including 3-4 on three-point attempts — as a breakout performance, as he showed bursts of excellence last year before going down early in the season with a high-ankle sprain that effectively ended his season.
But it was the first time this season that Ducas lived up to fan expectations that he would be a consistent 15-20 PPG scorer and hold his own defensively and on the boards. Moreover, he was active and confident while on the floor, contributing four rebounds and three steals in addition to his scoring. This was the Ducas that could serve as a much-needed offensive leader for the Gaels.
As for Kuhse, he has a record of success over five years that makes talk of a “breakout” sound silly. Yet, in scoring 17 points of his own and besting Ducas with six rebounds, Kuhse wrote another chapter in a long Gael story. His three three-pointers in the first half steadied the Gaels when they fell behind Santa Clara 18-11 in the early going, and his text-book pick-and-roll basket with Mitchell Saxen at the first-half buzzer was a highlight reel topper.
Yet, as he has so often, Kuhse saved the best for last. As an obviously laboring Tass missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw in the closing minutes with Santa Clara hanging within two points at 65-63, Kuhse lofted a floater over the Broncos’s 6’10” junior forward Parker Braun for a four-point advantage. Santa Clara’s Keshawn Justice answered with a driving lay-up over Ducas to cut the lead back to two, but Kuhse knew what his next move was going to be.
Directing traffic to get the matchups he wanted, Kuhse headed into the lane for a second time with the 6’6″ Williams guarding him. Shedding Williams with a screen, Kuhse challenged Braun again and scored another lay-up to give the Gaels a 69-65 cushion. To drive the dagger further into Braun and the Broncos, Kuhse took on Braun for a third time and scored his third straight lay-up to put the game out of reach at 71-65.
That, my friends, was a clutch performance for a player who has defined the term for Saint Mary’s over the past two seasons.
Tommy Kuhse, shown above in last night’s 73-65 win over Santa Clara, scored three clutch baskets down the stretch to seal the Gael victory. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.