Taking care of business

by Michael Vernetti

On a night when San Francisco took care of a major piece of business — defeating BYU by 73-59 in Provo — Saint Mary’s took care of its own business on a trip to Portland, downing the Pilots by a score of 75-54.

The win-win by the Gaels and Dons solidified the Gaels’ hold on second place in the WCC, 6-1 behind Gonzaga’s 7-0, and put San Francisco into a third place tie with Santa Clara at 5-3. More importantly, it dropped BYU all the way to sixth place at 5-4, with some daunting roadblocks facing the Cougars as they attempt to climb back into contention for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

To wit, a game against the Zags Saturday night in Provo, and a rematch with Saint Mary’s in Moraga on Feb. 19, a date the Gaels no doubt have circled in red on their calendars. BYU is facing the prospect of ending WCC play with six or more losses, which means they would probably have to sweep the WCC Tournament — or at least fight their way to a tournament championship probably against Gonzaga — to get into the NCAA field. Good luck.

But back to the Gaels. They were in Portland for the first time in three years, thanks to Covid-caused cancellations and new WCC scheduling procedures which eliminate the necessity to play conference bottom-feeders twice a year. That description fit Portland to a “T” in the last years of Kevin Porter’s disastrous run as head coach, keeping the Gaels from experiencing the joys of a Pacific Northwest jaunt to Spokane (Gonzaga) and Portland.

The Pilots are now led by Shantay Legans, who came from Eastern Washington with a winning record and his best player, Tyler Roberston. Gael fans may remember Robertson from last year’s too-close-for-comfort win over Eastern Washington in Moraga, 80-75, in which Robertson led all scorers with 17 points.

Two Gaels in particular, Alex Ducas and Kyle Bowen, remember Robertson from the time he played with them in the FIBA World Championships in Greece several summers ago. Robertson, a native of Melbourne, was a less heralded member of that Aussie contingent. He has improved since then.

Looking like trouble

Robertson, a rosy-cheeked, unemotional type, started off against the Gaels as if he were going to personally engineer a Portland upset, scoring 11 of Portland’s first 22 points as the Gaels led the game 28-22 with about four minutes left in the half. Saint Mary’s assigned its top defensive stopper, Bowen, Robertson’s erstwhile teammate, to guard Robertson, but with little early success. Note I said “early” success.

Bowen, as is his won’t when guarding some opposition hot-shot, takes his time settling in, learning to gauge the opponent’s quickness, shooting ability, toughness, etc. in real time. His appraisal of Robertson experienced a setback when Robertson plowed into Bowen on a breakaway with less than two minutes left in the half, sending Bowen crashing to the floor and his head ricocheting off the hardwood in a frightening manner.

While Bowen headed to the locker room for damage assessment, Robertson continued his attack on the Gaels with a late bucket to bring the Pilots within six points, 34-28, at the half. But Bowen was not seriously inconvenienced by his first-half tumble, and took the floor when the second half began. He was fired up.

Within the first four minutes of the second half, Bowen sank two three-pointers to steady the Gaels, whose lead had shrunk to three points at 39-36, and move them ahead by six, 42-36. Robertson had only a missed three-pointer in that time period, and, for all intents and purposes, his night as a Gael-beater was over. He took only two more shots in the half, missing both, and ended the night as he ended the first half, with 15 points and seven rebounds, a good night’s work, but not enough to foster an upset.

Bowen sank another three-pointer late in the second half, which, combined with a bunny in the first half, gave him 11 points in a little more than 24 minutes on the floor. Combined with his second half clamp-down on Robertson, Bowen more than earned his keep on the Portland trip. But so did his substitute.

Fotu gets a little run

One of the intriguing subplots of the Gael season has been the meteoric rise, then fall, of Dan Fotu as a contender with Bowen for playing time at power forward. After a sensational early-season performance, Fotu slowly lost minutes and favor while Bowen became the mostly full-time power forward. Given a shot at redemption when Bowen picked up his second foul with 14:40 left in the first half, Fotu didn’t let the opportunity pass.

He immediately sank a three-pointer, was defended well on a power move inside, then sank an opportunistic bunny for a quick five points. He then scored on another power drive, and followed up that bucket with a follow-up to a miss, giving the Gaels an early 24-11 lead. Nine points in a seven-minute burst, reminding Gael fans of the explosiveness Fotu possesses.

Fotu wasn’t the only Gael making hay while the sun shone. Mitchell Saxen, the sophomore center who has looked more and more as if he is ready to play major minutes behind the Gaels’ leading scorer, Matthias Tass, got an opportunity when Tass picked up his fourth foul with 15:20 left in the second half. It was a puzzling call, as Tass was whistled for setting what looked like a textbook screen on a Portland defender, but the ref detected something amiss, and Tass went to the bench.

Robertson challenged Saxen as soon as he came on the floor, but Saxen defended him strongly and may even have blocked his shot. Saxen was given credit for one blocked shot in the game, and it was hard to tell if it was from that first confrontation with Robertson or another successful defense later in the game.

Saxen scored on a strong drive against Portland’s under-sized post man, Chika Nduka, and on a sweet pick and roll with Tommy Kuhse as he Gaels extended their second-half lead to 57-39. Overall, Saxen manned the post extremely well for nearly 12 minutes until Tass returned with 3:39 left in the game.

Johnson over all

With all the emphasis on Bowen’s defense of Robertson and Saxen’s sub-in for Tass, a constant standout throughout the game was Gael guard Logan Johnson. The Gaels’ three-point offense was funky throughout the game, and they ended up shooting a respectable-but-hardly-scary 12-34 from deep — 35 per cent. Although Alex Ducas hit his first three-point attempt just minutes into the game, he would make only one more on the night and end up scoring only six points on 2-7 shooting.

Likewise, Kuhse, who has been the Gaels’ most consistent three-point scorer, also made only 2-6 from distance, and ended up with only eight points on the night on 2-8 shooting and a pair of free throws. Johnson filled in, scoring 17 points, with three assists and three steals, one of them a highlight reel effort.

Midway through the second half, Johnson jumped the passing lane, stole a Portland pass and motored up-court. He finished with a powerful dunk to bring the Gael bench to its feet and wake up a small crowd of Portland fans. Moments later, Johnson took the ball out of a Portland player’s hands and seemed to be off to the races again, but someone fouled him before he could get up a head of steam and avoided another highlight reel moment.

The Gaels have a rematch with Loyola Marymount Saturday in Moraga, a game which will challenge them not to play down to the level the LMU displayed in an 83-51 Saint Mary’s rout two weeks ago in Los Angeles. Then comes their most challenging stretch of the WCC season, with a make-up game against Santa Clara on the road on Tuesday, Feb. 8, a home game against rising San Diego two days later, then the first encounter with Gonzaga on Saturday, Feb. 12 in Spokane.

Saint Mary’s is in good shape to endure that gauntlet, but has only to look at BYU to see how fast a team can fall in the increasingly competitive WCC.

Logan Johnson, shown above from action earlier this year, led all Gael scorers against Portland with 17 points, three assists and three steals. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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