Gaels tighten D, get a W

by Michael Vernetti

A reasonable assessment of Saint Mary’s efforts so far this week would be that they recovered the offense they misplaced in Tuesday’s 77-72 road loss to Santa Clara with a commanding 86-57 win over San Diego on Thursday in Moraga.

Reasonable but inadequate.

What the Gaels recovered against San Diego was their identity — defense first, leading to offense. No one besides a sports psychologist can explain why Saint Mary’s allowed a quartet of Santa Clara guards — PJ Pipes, Jalen Williams, Carlos Stewart and Giordon Williams — to score 47 points against them.

47 points! More than half of their entire offensive output from basically two guys — Pipes and Williams, both of whom were well-known to the Gaels since a 73-65 SMC win over the Broncos on Jan. 20 in Moraga. Williams, a full-blown WCC star and potential NBA player, led Santa Clara in the loss with 18 points, and Pipes, a grad transfer from Wisconsin-Green Bay, chipped in with 16. Should have had targets on their jerseys.

Williams at least had to struggle for his 18 in the rematch, fighting off the tenacious defensive efforts of the Gaels’ Logan Johnson to go 7-10 with one three-pointer, and, by the way, 10 assists.

Pipes did his damage against a trio of Gael defenders — Tommy Kuhse, Jabe Mullins and Augustas Marciulionis — but had most success against an overmatched Kuhse. As he cruised to 10 first-half points, Pipes put an exclamation point on his performance with an alley-oop pass to Parker Braun that stemmed from getting past Kuhse in the paint, forcing Kyle Bowen to come off Braun and challenge Pipes. It turned into the easiest slam dunk that Braun will ever experience, and gave Santa Clara a four-point lead at 33-29 that they would hold on to for a 35-34 halftime lead.

Big three MIA

Things deteriorated in the second half, culminating in an 11-point Santa Clara lead at 54-43 with 13:33 left in the game. The Gaels’ top three scorers, Matthias Tass, Johnson and Alex Ducas, scored a combined 9-28 baskets for the game, with Tass scoring his second bucket with a little more than 11 minutes left. At that point, he had as many turnovers — two — as field goals.

Sophomore Mullins provided a brief spark when he entered the game with about 10 minutes left, immediately hitting a three-pointer, then following that up with a sliding steal to set up Kuhse for a lay-up which halted the Santa Clara momentum. Then Mullins nailed another three-pointer that brought the Gaels within four points at 60-56, and emphasized how winnable the game was if the other Gael shooters could match Mullins’ output.

Alas, they couldn’t, and Santa Clara held on for a win so important to them that their fans rushed the court after it was over. The Gaels rushed off the court for the bus back to Moraga, and, it would seem, nightmares of Williams and Pipes riddling their defense.

Cut to San Diego

So what accounted for the defensive turnaround against San Diego? Again, consult that sports psychologist to explain the beat down of a team that back in January battled Santa Clara to a 78-74 overtime loss on the Broncos’ home court. In other words, San Diego played Santa Clara tougher than did the Gaels in that encounter, although Santa Clara cruised to a 79-66 win in the rematch.

One reason was the play of two of those Gael guards who were embarrassed by the Bronco guards– Kuhse and Johnson. Kuhse, who despite his woes led Saint Mary’s in scoring with 16 points against Santa Clara, was hot early against San Diego, accounting for seven of the Gaels’ first nine points as they led 9-7. Then came a period of defensive genius by Johnson that seemed to knock San Diego off its axis and set the stage for an overwhelming victory.

With the game tied at 9-9, Johnson picked the pocket of San Diego guard Jase Townsend, but was unable to capitalize on the steal and missed a three-point attempt. Minutes later, Johnson swiped an errant pass from the Toreros’ Joey Calcaterra, one of a few recognizable San Diego players left after a two-year raid on the transfer portal that left the San Diego lineup looking like a guide to college hoops elsewhere — St. John’s, Rice, Pittsburgh and New Mexico.

This time, Ducas made the Toreros pay for the misplay, as he weaved through the paint and finished with a left-handed lay-up for a 17-9 Gael lead. Johnson then hit his first of two three-pointers on the night to give Saint Mary’ a 22-15 lead, and looked for another theft opportunity. It came at the 7:11 mark, as Johnson, his leonine mane billowing in the wind, swiped the ball from a hapless San Diego guard and sprinted for a rousing dunk and a 28-18 lead that quelled a brief San Diego comeback.

On the Toreros’ next possession, Johnson made his fourth steal of the half and cruised once again toward the basket, settling for a conventional lay-up this time, and giving Saint Mary’s a 30-18 lead signaling that the rout was on. One player seldom accounts for a team’s overall success, but Johnson’s four-steal performance certainly set the tone for what followed — a 56-39 Saint Mary’s advantage.

Maintaining the edge

It is hard for a college team to maintain a 30-point lead once it begins subbing in bench players for starters, but the Gaels didn’t falter with the likes of Leemet Bockler, Judah Brown, Mitchell Saxen, Luke Barrett and Mullins on the floor. Indeed, that makeshift lineup with only one guard on the floor — Mullins — held things together and gave several role players an opportunity ro shine.

No Gael sub has riveted Gael fans’ attention more than Bockler, the 6’6″ win from Estonia, who in a brief, eight-game span last year demonstrated shooting excellence and overall court presence that promised great things. Bockler went down with a recurring foot injury, however, suffered an ankle injury this year just as he was recovering from foot surgery, and has had a hard time getting on the floor.

Bockler looked good against San Diego, scoring five points and grabbing a rebound in his 12 minutes of play, and making good a recent pronouncement from Gael Coach Randy Bennett that he was on the verge of being whole. Also shining was Mullins, another recruit from the class of 20-21 who had a brief, shining moment in his freshman campaign and has struggled to recapture that magic.

Mullins regularly plays with the starters, usually in relief of Ducas, but occasionally logs time at guard, his high school position. He looked every bit the floor leader as he led the subs down the stretch against San Diego, scoring once on a spinning drive in the paint that had both the fans and the Gael bench erupting in rapture.

Also scoring points more than figuratively was Brown, another 20-21 recruit who has stoked fans’ hopes that he can recapture the stardom he displayed in high school. Brown, who scored 16 points in one half against Gonzaga last year, led the subs with eight points off two three-pointers and a rousing dunk on a baseline drive.

On to Spokane

The final score, 86-57, was just under the 30-point margin that existed when the subs took over, but keeping San Diego at bay was nevertheless a signature accomplishment by the bench. Now, it’s up to the starters to cap off the week with a date against no. 1 Gonzaga — that’s nationally not just in the WCC, where it is undefeated.

The most reliable touchstone by which to judge the Gaels’ chances in Spokane is a Jan. 20 match-up between the Zags and San Francisco, also in Spokane. In that game, San Francisco trailed by just three points at half, 36-33, before succumbing by 16, 78-62. The Zags’ fearsome front court duo of Drew Timme and freshman sensation Chet Holmgren had their way against San Francisco, scoring 23 and 22 points respectively.

The Gaels’ best hope for an upset rests on the ability of its best defender, 6’8″ forward Bowen, to discombobulate Holmgren, and for the center combo of Tass and Saxen to contain Timme, who is the most talented post player in the country. It may be a long shot, but the Gaels also have a rematch against the Zags in Moraga on the last day of the 21-22 season, Feb. 26.

Logan Johnson, shown above in last night’s game against San Diego, led the Gaels in scoring with 16 points, to go along with five steals and nine rebounds. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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