by Michael Vernetti
Facing a tough opponent in a must-win game, no team wants to play without its best outside shooter, with its leading scorer missing nine of 12 shots and its secondary long-distance bombers going 1-7 on three-point attempts.
And yet, that’s what Saint Mary’s faced Thursday night against San Francisco in a game for second place in the WCC. Despite all the negative headwinds, however, the Gaels had one major factor in their favor.
They had Tommy Kuhse, and he made up for the shortcomings of his teammates with one of the most commanding games of his six-year career: 22 points, six assists, six rebounds and four steals in a 69-64 victory over the Dons, who fell behind Santa Clara into fourth place in the WCC at 8-5 with a showdown against mighty Gonzaga next Thursday in San Francisco.
Kuhse internalized the message Gael Coach Randy Bennett undoubtedly repeated over and over in preparation for the San Francisco game: don’t allow a repeat of the horrible start suffered by the Gaels in their first meeting with the Dons last month — falling behind by 21 points and needing a miracle comeback to pull out a 72-70 win.
Despite losing Alex Ducas and his potent three-point stroke in the first few minutes of the game — Ducas wrenched his back and didn’t return — Kuhse didn’t let San Francisco bolt ahead after two early three-point buckets by the Dons’ Gabe Stefanini gave them a 9-5 lead. Stefanini, the Columbia transfer who resembles the NBA’s Luka Doncic with his stocky 6’3″, 215-lb frame and deliberate style, was a thorn in the Gaels’ side all night long, finishing with 23 points.
After a back-and-forth period which saw the Gaels eke out a 17-15 lead behind a pair of corner three-pointers by Kyle Bowen and Jabe Mullins — filling in for Ducas — Kuhse located Mitchell Saxen inside, who converted for a 19-17 lead, then repeated the formula with another drop-off pass and conversion for Saxen and a 21-19 lead.
Then Kuhse conducted a lesson in guard penetration against the Dons’ excellent three-point shooter, Khalil Shabazz. Twice in a row, Kuhse utilized his well- developed stutter-step to get an angle on Shabazz and drive for lay-ups. At that point, Kuhse had scored six points, giving him 1001 for his Saint Mary’s career, and helped the Gaels to a 25-22 lead.
With a timely three-pointer by Dan Fotu and another corner three-pointer from Mullins, the Gaels looked to gain early control of the game by moving into a 31-22 lead with 6:07 left in the half. They seemed able to give San Francisco a taste of its own medicine with a significant halftime lead.
Then they conducted a clinic in how to give up a promising lead.
Matthias Tass, the Gaels’ leading scorer who had made one inside shot then missed several others, deviated from his script of blowing bunnies by failing to convert a dunk set up by Kuhse that would have gave his team an 11-point lead. Showing unusual versatility, Tass followed up the missed dunk by badly missing a three-point attempt that led to a run-out and three-point basket by Shabazz. What could have ben a 33-22 lead became a 31-25 lead, but the Gaels weren’t through being generous to San Francisco.
Gael guard Logan Johnson coughed up a turnover, then Mullins fouled Stefanini on a corner three-point attempt he had little chance of converting. Displaying a Don weakness which would plague them throughout the game, Stefanini missed two out of three free throw attempts, but cut the once-promising lead to five points at 31-26.
As if attempting to rally his teammates, Kuhse drove Stefanini for a 33-26 lead, but Bowen took a quick three-point attempt that rivaled Tass’s in inappropriateness. Kuhse covered up that lapse in judgment by finding Saxen again for a score inside and a 35-26 lead, but Shabazz made the Gaels pay with a driving floater, then followed up another ill-advised Bowen three-point attempt with a three-pointer of his own to cut the lead to 35-31.
Jamaree Bouyea is San Francisco’s best player, but he had a horrible night against the Gaels, finishing with just one made basket in nine attempts and a goose egg, 0-6, on three-point attempts. But he was a constant pest against Gael ball handlers, swatting several balls away from behind, including one from Augustas Marciulionis, in for a brief time in relief of Johnson, who picked up three early fouls. That steal accounted for Bouyea’s lone bucket of the night, but it was enough to wipe away all thoughts of an early commanding lead and pulled the Dons to within two points at 35-33.
Once again, Kuhse tried to absolve his teammates’ errors with a three-pointer in the closing moments of the half, giving the Gaels a respectable-but-hardly insurmountable lead of 38-33.
Enter Mr. Johnson
Logan Johnson, as mentioned, had a bumpy first half, picking up three fouls and scoring only once, but he was far from finished for the night. The Gaels continued their wobbly play after the break, allowing the Dons to move within three points at 40-37. Johnson then scored on a driving lay-up to put the lead back to five points, then trailed Kuhse on a run-out following a Bouyea miss.
What followed was a thing of beauty, as Kuhse led a trio of Don defenders into the paint, each of them anxious to be the one who would swat away Kuhse’s expected lay-up attempt. Except Kuhse recognized that Johnson was behind him, and passed back to his teammate for an uncontested lay-up and a 44-37 lead at the 15-minute mark of the second half.
This might have deflated the Dons, but they responded with a pair of three-pointers from Zane Meeks and Shabazz to get back within a single point. Then the Kuhse-Johnson duet played a return engagement.
Kuhse once again led several San Francisco defenders deep into the paint, then assumed the position of a post player, adroitly passing off to a driving Johnson for a bucket that gave the Gaels some breathing room at 46-43. The by-play between Kuhse and Johnson far exceeded the rocky execution between Bouyea and Shabazz, although Shabazz bailed out his back court mate with some deadly three-point shooting.
It took the Gaels another ten minutes of back-and-forth tussle before they established what again looked like a comfortable lead, 59-49, with a little more than four minutes left to play. Largely because of outstanding play by Shabazz and Stefanini, however, the Dons did not wilt, and some dubious fouling by the Gaels abetted the Don stars.
Kuhse, in one of his few miscues on the night, fouled Shabazz on an errant there-point attempt, and Shabazz sank all three free throws to pull San Francisco within six points, 61-55, with 1:24 left. That boo-boo, however, was overlooked because a few minutes before Kuhse had made the defensive play of the night on Stefanini, the burly Don guard who had his way with a number of Gael defenders, including Ducas before he went out, Mullins and even walk-on Luke Barrett .
Kuhse had the duty with a little more than two minutes left, and Stefanini appeared to gain an edge on the Gael veteran as he headed for the bucket. Kuhse slapped the ball out of Stefanini’s hands, however, and it bounced off his leg for a Gael possession. It became a free-throw shooting matter from there on in, and Kuhse, Johnson and Bowen sank 6-8 to ice the game. Johnson, after his slow start, ended up with 16 points and four steals to complement Kuhse’s output.
With the win over San Francisco, Saint Mary’s cemented its hold on second place in the WCC with just three losses (8-3). San Francisco and BYU each have five, and the Gaels can sink BYU with a win at home Saturday evening. Santa Clara, now at 8-4, will be hard-pressed to avoid a fifth loss next Saturday as they take on Gonzaga in Spokane.
The Gaels’ path is clear: beat BYU on Saturday, then win their second in a few weeks against San Diego on the road next Thursday. If they accomplish those two goals, they will be at least two games ahead of San Francisco, Santa Clara and BYU in the loss column before facing Gonzaga in the conference finale next Saturday in Moraga.
That gives them the luxury of withstanding a possible loss to Gonzaga, which would leave them at second place in the conference at 11-4 and give them a bye until the semifinals of the WCC Tournament that begins March 3 in Las Vegas. Of course, an upset of Gonzaga would make that trip to Las Vegas much sweeter.
Tommy Kuhse drives on San Francisco’s 6’10” center Yauhen Massalski in last night’s game in Moraga. Kuhse finished the game with 22 points and Massalski with 10. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.