Finding a path

by Michael Vernetti

What can Saint Mary’s take away from its 74-58 loss to Gonzaga Saturday night in Spokane?

Relief that it wasn’t a blowout of the 2019 variety when the Zags went off for a 48-point win, 94-46? Let’s hope it was more than that.

I think the Gaels discovered a path to, if not victory, then at least a much more competitive rematch in Moraga on Feb. 26, the last game of the WCC season and the lead-in to the conference tournament in Las Vegas.

The path was revealed over the last 17 minutes of the second half, when the Gaels tenaciously dug themselves out from a 21-point deficit at 47-28. Over that period, Saint Mary’s outscored Gonzaga 30-27, which although encouraging wasn’t nearly enough to eliminate the total deficit. What did they do to hold the Zags even for such a long period of time?

For one, Alex Ducas came alive after a mysterious first half when he was MIA. Ducas scored all 12 of his points after the intermission, scoring from all over — from deep (2-4 three-pointers), from underneath the basket and in the paint with a pretty runner.

Secondly, they got tough with the Zags’ two powerhouses in the paint, Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren. After letting Timme dance through the paint and under the basket for 15 first-half points on 7-9 shooting, Gael center Matthias Tass tightened down enough to hold Timme to 10 points in the second half (4-7 is better than 7-9). The Gaels got an important stop when Ducas helped Tass out and grabbed the ball as Timme spun toward the basket.

Kyle Bowen, facing seven-foot Wunderkind Holmgren, likewise decided to rough it up a little with the skinny-but-talented Minnesotan. Bowen forced Holmgren into a turnover that the Gaels couldn’t convert for a bucket, then defended him again on a subsequent possession. That possession led to a Ducas three-pointer when the Gael forward turned Gonzaga’s playbook against them — scoring quickly off a defensive stop.

Giving Holmgren a little more adversity, Mitchell Saxen, Tass’s back-up, drew a foul on him and sank one free throw to cut the margin to 53-38 with a little more than 13 minutes left. Saxen scored his only bucket of the game a little later and was fouled, but couldn’t convert the and-one. But he brought the Gaels a little closer at 58-44.

Using his bigs

Now comes the unsolicited advice from the peanut gallery that every coach just loves. When Saint Mary’s faces Gonzaga in two weeks, why not look at Tass and Saxen as a two-man defensive front against Timme with 10 fouls to give between them? Saxen played only six minutes last night, leaving Tass on the floor for the remaining 34.

Leave Bowen, with minimal relief from Dan Fotu, to deal with Holmgren, but pester Timme with alternating 6’10” fresh legs — belonging to Tass and Saxen. I know blaming a player’s miscues on fatigue is subjective, but look at Tass’ game against the Zags. He was effective early, scoring six of the Gaels’s first 12 points as they carved out a 12-11 lead after eight minutes.

Down the stretch, however, Tass mixed six inside shots after getting good position. He also made two shots in that stretch, including a short jumper that brought the Gaels under the 10-point deficit mark at 65-56, and a nifty spin move that left Holmgren looking lost and brought his team a point closer at 66-58.

That was it, however, for Tass and the Gaels. Tass missed twice more in the paint and the Gaels stalled out at 58 points while the Zags outscored them by eight to increase the final margin to 74-58.

The path revealed

That period, however, when the Gaels dug in on Timme and Holmgren and loosened up the offense behind Ducas, showed a path to follow in Moraga. It will take more, of course, including a better performance from Logan Johnson, who was 1-6 in the first half and only slightly better in the second, 1-4, to finish with six points. Johnson has had success by sticking to his guns many times this season, following up early misses with big buckets in the clutch.

He was the epitome of futility against the Zags, however, time and again forcing tough shots in the paint that he couldn’t convert. He came alive briefly after making his only shot of the second half by getting his only steal of the game on the next possession. He turned that steal over to Tommy Kuhse, however, and Kuhse promptly forfeited the advantage by throwing the ball away. Opportunity lost.

But let’s not dump on Kuhse, who had five assists to more than compensate for that one brain-fart, and led all Gael scorers with 16 points. Kuhse was good enough to divert the efforts of ESPN announcers Sean Farnham and Dave Flemming to enshrine Timme, Holmgren and Andrew Nembhard into the college Hall of Fame.

One again, Kuhse came to the Gaels’ rescue off the bench behind starting point guard Augustas Marciulionis. Kuhse started slowly, but made his mark shortly after the beginning of the second half by sinking a three-pointer that prevented the game from getting away from the Gaels and keeping them within the halftime deficit of 13 points, 39-26.

When Holmgren scored underneath off a nifty Timme feed, Kuhse immediately answered with a lay-up to keep the deficit under 20 points at 49-30. A little later Nembhard answered Ducas’s first three-pointer with a jumper of his own to dim the Gael enthusiasm, but Kuhse answered Nembhard with another lay-up. If the game was tit-for-tat at that point, Kuhse was the one answering for his teammates.

What lies ahead

Although a win over Gonzaga would have lightened the Gaels’ load over the last two weeks of WCC competition, they are still in the catbird’s seat to snag a No. 2 seed in the WCC Tournament. That is crucial because the top two seeds are automatically slotted to the conference semifinals on Monday, March 7. That means no messy quarterfinals or other distractions as they fight for the right to face, let’s face it, Gonzaga for all the marbles in the form of an automatic NCAA Tournament bid.

Saint Mary’ sits in second place in the WCC at 8-3, behind the undefeated Zags. San Francisco, a resounding winner over Santa Clara at Santa Clara yesterday, sits at 8-4, and Santa Clara at 7-4. The Gaels can ward off San Francisco when facing them next Thursday in Moraga, and the Dons still have a rematch with Gonzaga at home on Feb. 24. My personal preference is for San Francisco to lose to the Gaels and beat the Dons, but I seldom get my hoops wishes.

Santa Clara has no direct opportunity to derail the Gaels or Dons, but has a rematch of its own against Gonzaga in Spokane on Feb. 19. I would not like to have to count on an upset of Gonzaga on their home floor to overtake San Francisco and Saint Mary’s for second place, but that is Santa Clara’s problem.

After undergoing a tough week against San Diego, Santa Clara and Gonzaga, the Gaels face an even tougher agenda next week when San Francisco comes to Moraga on Thursday and BYU on Saturday. Going 2-0 next week would make those WCC hopes almost certain. Let’s hope the Gaels follow the right path.

Tommy Kuhse, shown above in action from earlier this season, was the Gaels’ brightest star against Gonzaga, scoring 16 points and dishing out five assists. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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