The week that was

by Michael Vernetti

This week began with Valentine’s Day on Monday, but it was anything but hearts and flowers for the Saint Mary’s Gaels, who faced two crucial games against WCC foes San Francisco and BYU.

Both foes were considered by pundits to be logical heirs to the Gaels’ long-held position as chief challenger to Gonzaga for WCC supremacy, and BYU held an early-season win, 53-42, in Provo. To make a difficult situation worse, Saint Mary’s lost its best outside shooter, Alex Ducas, early in the San Francisco game, and it was unknown whether he would be available against BYU.

Ducas did return for the BYU game, scored nine crucial points, grabbed five rebounds and created two steals as the Gaels finished out the nerve-wracking week with a 69-64 win over the Cougars — the same score by which they defeated San Francisco on Thursday. Suffice it to say, the Gaels were glad to put the week behind them, which is where every WCC team not named Gonzaga sits after the Gaels’ clutch performance left them with a 10-3 record with two games to go.

San Francisco and Santa Clara are tied for third place at 8-5, and BYU is in fifth place at 7-6. Therefore, if Saint Mary’s takes care of business with a road win over San Diego next Thursday, neither San Francisco, Santa Clara nor BYU can challenge the Gaels for second place behind Gonzaga and a double-bye in the upcoming WCC Tournament. By maintaining a two-game lead over its challengers, Saint Mary’s can even afford to lose its season-ending game with Gonzaga on Feb. 26, although they will hardly concede that.

How it happened

The BYU game held several characteristics of that against San Francisco, primarily an early chance to put an opponent away, followed by a dogged second-half BYU comeback when the Gaels seemed to have finally done enough to win — as in a 16-point lead, 62-46, with 8:15 left. Things got hairy instead of fun, however, as BYU closed to 67-64 with 1:46 left.

The Gaels dissipated their lead with a combination of cold shooting, poor ball protection and some gritty shooting by BYU stalwarts Alex Barcello and Caleb Lohner. Cold shooting hit first, as Ducas suffered a complete reversal of fortune after sinking his first two jumpers of the half to go with a three-pointer in the first half. From the 16:22 mark on, Ducas missed six straight shots, any one of which could have derailed BYU’s comeback.

The Gaels also suffered several cases of ball-itis, as first Tommy Kuhse — who was even more heroic against BYU than he was against San Francisco — then Logan Johnson coughed up crucial turnovers. Kuhse started down the slippery slope by simply over-throwing a routine pass to Kyle Bowen with no pressure on him. That one didn’t cost the Gaels an immediate bucket, but it made the crowd nervous.

Almost immediately, Johnson did the same thing, air-mailing a cross-court pass into the lower reserved section of the crowd. A few minutes later, after BYU had creeped to within three points, Johnson threw away another errant pass into a crowded lane, and the Gaels missed a golden opportunity to ward off BYU’s comeback. Ducas also got into the action by fumbling away the ball in traffic when BYU was charging.

Lohner, who had been looked upon as one of BYU’s leading lights based on his stellar freshman season, has been stumbling somewhat as a sophomore, but the Gaels gave him a boost. Taking advantage of a cut under his right eye suffered by the Gaels’ intrepid defender Bowen, Lorner slipped by Bowen’s replacement, Dan Fotu, for an easy lay-up to give BYU a crucial bucket at 62-50.

Shortly thereafter, Fotu found himself guarding BYU’s huge post man, 6’6″ freshman Fousseyni Traore, on a switch, and Traore scored another easy lay-up over Bowen’s replacement. Proving he could score against the first team as well, Lohner hit a big three-pointer after Bowen returned to the floor, this one bringing his team within nine points, 66-57, then sank a put-back after a scramble under the net to make it 67-59.

Enter Mr. Barcello

Barcello is far and away BYU’s best player, and even though he is a slightly-built 6’1″ in an era of giant guards, is a potential NBA player. Because of his quickness, he is extremely hard to guard and hits three-point shots at a nearly 50 per cent clip. With all that going for him, he had the impediment of Johnson’s dogged defense facing him all night, and struggled to make 2-8 three-point attempts.

After Lorner’s put-back and a free throw by Johnson, Barcello hit two free throws to narrow the lead further, to 67-61. Then the Gaels’ poor shooting struck again. Gael post man Matthias Tass got free along the baseline and had what seemed to be a wide-open lay-up which would have put Saint Mary’s back up by eight points, but he managed to hit the bottom of the rim instead.

That opening was made to order for a clutch performer like Barcello, and he didn’t disappoint. With Kuhse guarding him instead of Johnson, Barcello curled around a screen and launched a three-pointer that brought BYU from 16 points down to trailing by only three. Some mutual ball mishandling brought the clock down to 43.7 seconds, and the game was still on the line when Tass redeemed his earlier botched lay-up.

Fouled on a rebound attempt, Tass calmly sank two free throws to make it a two-possession game, 69-64. Then some good old-fashioned smarts helped out the Gaels. After a BYU miss, Bowen, not the Gaels most nimble ball-handler and not its best free-throw shooter, found himself surrounded by frantic BYU defenders. He called time out with 11.4 seconds left. Brilliant.

The move seemed to take the wind out of BYU, and after a successful inbound pass by Saint Mary’s, the Cougars chose not to foul any more, letting the clock run out. The Gaels didn’t mind, having withstood as tough a two-game stand as they have faced in Coach Randy Bennett’s 21-year tenure. It was time to exhale, and contemplate the final week of conference play.

Logan Johnson, shown above pulling down one of six rebounds against BYU to go with 17 points, a steal and a block, hounded BYU’s star guard, Alex Barcello, throughout the night, holding Barcello to 2-8 on three-point attempts. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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