by Michael Vernetti
This one was different.
Unlike other Saint Mary’s wins over Gonzaga through the years — scarce as hens’ teeth — there was no singular outstanding performance or memorable turning point in the Gaels’ 67-57 win Saturday night in Moraga.
No Paul Marigney 40-point outburst from back in the day, no Mickey McConnell floater in the paint in Spokane, no Jordan Hunter monster game four years ago for the WCC championship. This was a methodical disassembly of one of the most prolific offensive juggernauts in recent college basketball history.
The Gaels harassed, defended and befuddled Zag nemeses such as Drew Timme from the outset, blocking shots, digging out turnovers and stealing passes to hold Gonzaga some 30 points under its usual per-game average. They outshot the Zags by 44 per cent to 37 per cent, out-rebounded them 37-33 and forced 14 Zag turnovers against four assists. Defensive domination.
The Zags’ vaunted front court combination of Timme and 7’1″ Chet Holmgren — endlessly characterized by pundits, announcers and sportswriters as the best tandem in the country — scored 12 points between them. The Gaels’ combo of Matthias Tass, Kyle Bowen and Mitchell Saxen totaled 26 points and pulled down 13 rebounds. Saxen, a sparingly-used sophomore from Washington, blocked three shots to Holmgren’s four, and outscored the Boy Wonder seven points to six — in 16 minutes compared to Holmgren’s 32.
The Gaels blasted out of the gate to an 8-0 lead in the first three minutes behind the incomparable Tommy Kuhse and the oft-embattled Tass. The Zags’ first pass of the game was intercepted by Bowen, and Kuhse calmly waltzed down the paint at the other end of the court and scored a lay-up to start things off. Logan Johnson, who had a defensive game for the history books, promptly snatched the ball out of Holmgren’s hands and led a textbook fast break with Alex Ducas that ended with a Ducas lay-up and a 4-0 lead.
Tass, serving notice that the paint was not going to be Zag territory, followed with two scores around a three-pointer by the Zags’ stellar point guard, Andrew Nembhard, for a 10-3 lead that expanded to 12-3 on another lay-up by Kuhse before the first media time-out. The die was cast, although Saint Mary’s endured several stress points throughout the game.
To keep Tass from sinking into foul trouble — he picked up a quick one on a ticky-tack push-off call in the first five minutes — Gael Coach Randy Bennett subbed in Saxen. It turned out to be an inspired move, as Saxen immediately flummoxed Holmgren with a spin move, reverse lay-up and foul for a 15-5 lead. A few minutes later, the defensively-challenged Timme left Saxen alone while jumping out on a pick-and-roll initiated by Kuhse. Seeing Saxen alone under the bucket, Kuhse rifled a pass to him that he converted for a 19-12 lead (the Zags were rallying).
Saxen then defended Timme on his patented spin move, and on a subsequent possession knocked away an entry pass intended for Timme. When he finished his 10-minute relief stint for Tass with a put-back off a missed three-point attempt, Saxen had scored seven points, blocked three shots, grabbed three rebounds and stolen the ball once. Quality minutes, indeed.
Another bench star
Almost simultaneously with Saxen’s impressive play off the bench, Jabe Mullins made a mark of his own after subbing in for Ducas. After a bad miss by the Zags’ Hunter Sallis, Mullins pulled a trick out of the Gonzaga playbook and leaked out toward the Saint Mary’s basket. Johnson spotted him and sent a perfect lead pass that Mullins caught and laid in for a 24-16 lead with 6:32 left in the half.
Mullins, the sophomore recruiting class star with Saxen who is paying bigger dividends as the season progresses, then made back-to-back defensive stops. First came a clean steal from Timme, who was coughing up more turnovers (four) than he was making baskets (zero at that point). Nothing eventuated from that theft, but Mullins was just getting warmed up.
On the Zags’ next possession, Mullins victimized Holmgren with a steal of a weak cross-court pass and took off for the basket, finishing with his left hand when challenged at the rim. That brought the Gaels to a 31-16 lead and caused Gonzaga Coach Mark Few to call time out. At this point, Gael fans knew their heroes would face a severe Zag challenge to whittle away that lead before halftime, and they braced for the worse.
It looked as if it were coming, as Holmgren scored off an alley-top following the time out, Kuhse coughed up the ball under pressure and Nembhard made the Gaels pay with a three-pointer that cut the lead to 31-20. The Gaels held the lead at 10 points as the clock wound down under two minutes and Mullins positioned himself in the short corner of the offensive end. He confidently swished a three-pointer to push the lead back to 13 points and set the stage for a final Gael dagger before halftime.
Johnson turned the tables on the other excellent Gonzaga guard, Rasir Bolton, whom he had been battling throughout the game, by losing Bolton in traffic on an out-of-bounds play. Open under the bucket, Johnson converted to give his team a 15-point lead, 36-21 at the break. It was about as perfect a half as any Randy Bennett team has ever played, and major credit went to Saxen and Mullins and their 14 points off the bench.
The rest of the story
The second half began as did the Zag pseudo-run toward the end of the half, with Nembhard taking advantage of another SMC turnover — this one by Johnson — to nail a three-pointer. Then began a mystifying run of bad shooting by Bowen, who whiffed on four straight three-point attempts over the next 11 minutes. The Gaels didn’t wilt under the pressure caused by Bowen’s misfiring, however, bolstered by big buckets from Ducas — he hit his first three-pointer of the game at the 15:56 mark to keep the Gaels ahead by 44-30 — and a two-play mini-highlight reel by Johnson that sent a fevered crowd into near hysteria.
Following Timme’s first basket of the night at the 14:46 mark that brought the Zags within 46-32 and might have served as a rallying point for his team, Johnson again victimized Bolton on an out-of-bounds play. This time Johnson dribbled by Bolton at the top of the key and steamed toward the bucket, defended by Timme. Obviously judging his opponent correctly, Johnson challenged Timme with a slam-dunk attempt…and Timme blinked. He didn’t even challenge he 6’1″ Johnson, backing off his 6’10” frame as if to say, “I don’t want to be on a Gael poster.”
To say Johnson’s courageous slam riled up the crowd might imply that it was sleeping at that point. In fact, the Gael student body was on hyper-activity mode from the get-go, so Johnson’s play merely poured gasoline on a roaring flame. Johnson wasn’t about to let the fire go out.
With the Gaels still holding a comfortable lead, 50-34, Kuhse was stripped on one of his forays into the paint, and it looked as if the Zags were off to the races. Sallis was out front with the ball, but Ducas gave ground near the bucket and kept Sallis in front of him. Ducas’ heady play allowed Johnson to make up enough ground to soar across the paint and swat away Sallis’ lay-up attempt, and then corral the ball before it went out of bounds.
What’s the point beyond hysteria? Check the crowd shots from that moment and you will have an answer.
Despite Johnson’s momentous plays, the Zags still were not finished, and Bowen was not through clanking three-point attempts. After missing his fourth in a row, during which time the Gael lead shrank to 50-40, Ducas bailed out his fellow Aussie. Ducas and Bowen came to Saint Mary’s from the same part of Australia, and, by all reports, are inseparable friends. So friendly, in fact, that the shiner Ducas has been sporting since the San Diego game last Thursday, was compliments of an errant Bowen elbow thrown inadvertently while the two watched a Gael baseball game.
Ducas clearly harbored no hard feelings, as he chose the moment of Bowen’s offensive nadir — that fourth missed three-pointer — to can a second huge three-pointer of his own that restored the Gael lead to 53-40 with 7:42 to go. That didn’t get the Gaels out of the woods, however, as the Zags’ Julian Strawther, a thorn in the Gaels’ side to rival Nembhard and Bolton, nailed a three-pointer to bring the game back within range at 57-50.
So how did Bowen react to this ebb and flow, prominently featuring his long-range shooting ineptitude? By sinking his next two three-point attempts and restoring the Gael lead to nine points, 63-54 with less than two minutes left. So compelling was this plot turn that Zag Coach Few chose an out-of-bounds play in front of the Zag bench to chat up Bowen about it. It would take a mind-reader to describe exactly what was being said, but Few was obviously amused enough by Bowen’s chutzpah to break out a smile in the face of defeat.
And a defeat it was, one that gave the Gaels’ undeniable momentum heading into the WCC Tournament next week in Las Vegas, an undefeated home record for the first time in school history and an undoubted improvement in their national ranking. Their reward for all these good deeds? Potentially a rematch with Gonzaga for the WCC Tournament championship on March 8. Stay tuned.
Logan Johnson, shown above harassing the Zags’ Andrew Nembhard, led a stout Gael defense, while scoring 10 points, leading all Gaels with eight rebounds and picking up two steals and a block. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.