by Michael Vernetti
The turning point of Saint Mary’s two-day stay in Las Vegas — the point that determined it a favorable result instead of a titanic triumph — came at the 9:13 mark of he second half in last night’s game against Gonzaga.
Following a steal by Alex Ducas and a foul on Dan Fotu on the ensuing run-out, the Gaels pulled within two points of Gonzaga, 52-50, with Fotu’s two made free throws. That sequence topped a steady erosion of Gonzaga’s 10-point halftime lead, 38-28. It put the Gaels in position to complete a two-game, 10-day sweep of the Zags that would have stunned the college basketball world and possibly endangered Gonzaga’s position as the overall no. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
Alas, it wasn’t to be.
Many observers felt that Saint Mary’s 67-57 win over the Zags Feb. 26 in Moraga required a perfect performance by the Gaels — a razor-thin margin between just another good try and the massive effort required for a monumental upset. The Gaels had that edge on Feb. 26, but the Zags got it back last night.
How perfect was the Zags’ response to the Gaels nipping threateningly at their position atop college basketball?
Following Fotu’s free throws, Gonzaga made five tough, contested shots in a row — including a step-back three-pointer by Rasir Bolton with Tommy Kuhse in his face — while Saint Mary’s countered with just a Matthias Tass tip-in and two free throws from Ducas. While the Zags were perfect, Saint Mary’s suffered an agonizing miss by Logan Johnson on a ferocious drive into the paint that just rolled off the rim, and another near-miss on an equally-determined drive by Fotu.
That burst of excellence by Gonzaga and heartbreak by the Gaels turned a tenuous, two-point lead over a determined challenger, to a seven-point lead, 61-54, that must have seemed massive to the gritty Gael defenders. With the Gaels wounded, Gonzaga continued to separate, with Bolton extending the margin to nine points with a runner in the paint and a free throw to counter a single free throw by Kuhse.
Still fighting, Saint Mary’s crawled back behind another tough drive by Johnson to cut the margin to 65-57. As if to punish Johnson for his effrontery, Andrew Nembhard, the Zags’ scoring leader, sank a cold-blooded three-pointer with Johnson sagging off just enough to make the shot possible. The ensuing 11-point lead, 68-57, at the 4:15 mark, almost mirrored the final margin of 13 points, 82-69, and marked the unofficial end of the Gaels’ challenge.
Gonzaga was perfect, the Gaels merely scrappy, and that was the difference.
Similar to Santa Clara game
Ironically, the Gaels facing a stretch of nearly flawless basketball resembled the situation on Monday night against Santa Clara. In that instance, however, Saint Mary’s was in seeming control of the game with a 65-51 lead and 9:06 left in the game. The lead nearly increased to an insurmountable 68-53 when Kuhse apparently sank a three-pointer after a rebound scramble, but a review showed that the ball was still in Kuhse’s hand as the shot clock expired.
Whether Santa Clara drew strength from that reprieve, or just summoned its own inner excellence, the Broncos made life miserable for the Gaels from that point on. Their weapons were ferocious offensive rebounding to keep key possessions alive and some remarkable shooting by Josip Vrankic and Keshawn Justice.
Vrankic, who has been a menace to the Gaels throughout a standout career at Santa Clara, led the charge by rebounding a teammates’ miss and going up for a put-back. The Gaels’ reserve center, Mitchell Saxen, blocked Vrankic’s initial put-back attempt, but Vrankic recovered the ball and scored on a second effort to bring the Broncos to 65-56 with 7:12 left in the game.
A series of unfortunate calls and ball-control miscues ensued, including a traveling call on Tass, followed by Tass throwing away the ball on a routine pass. On the ensuing run-out by Santa Clara, Johnson made one of the best defensive efforts of the tournament, standing his ground under the basket as Vrankic charged into the lane and neatly taking the ball out of Vrankic’s hands before he could shoot.
His reward for that stellar bit of defense? A foul call by one of the referees, sending Vrankic to the free-throw line for two makes that cut the lead to 67-60. Vrankic followed up the free throws by taking a rebound away from Tass on a missed shot by Santa Clara star Jalen Williams and putting it back in to narrow the lead to 67-62.
Ups and downs for Tass
Gael Coach Randy Bennett showed his continued support for Tass by calling a play for the 6’10” Estonian out of a timeout — and Tass delivered a clutch bucket to give his teammates some breathing room at 69-62. Tass then suffered the same problem that Johnson did a few minutes earlier when an eager referee detected something amiss with a screen Tass set. Rigorous examination of the game tape could detect nothing more than a textbook screen by Tass, but, nevertheless, the result was a turnover to the Broncos at exactly the wrong time.
Then Mr. Justice made his presence felt in a painful way for the Gaels, sinking a corner three-pointer that brought the Broncos to within four points at 69-65. Following some back-and-forth action that moved the score to 73-67, the combination of offensive rebounding and Justice struck again.
Jaden Bediako usually provides Santa Clara not much more than a big body inside to intimidate shooters, but he showed the same determination on a miss by the Broncos’ PJ Pipes that hurt Saint Mary’s down the stretch. Bediako outfought Gael defenders after Pipes misfired, secured the ball and fired it out to the waiting arms of Justice in the short corner.
That Justice sank the three-pointer and cut the margin to one point, 73-72, should not have surprised any Gael supporters at the Orleans Arena or watching on ESPN. There were 42 seconds left in the game and the Broncos were in business, especially after Kuhse had a jumper in the paint blocked by Williams.
Williams, the Broncos star guard who had been hyped by ESPN announcer Sean Farnham into a potential lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft, steamed down court after blocking Kuhse. No one in the sensate world doubted he was taking his team’s destiny in his hands, and few doubted his ability to connect on one of his specialty shots — a runner in the paint.
But they didn’t count on Johnson, the epitome of Gael grit who had harassed Williams into a below-par 15-point effort, especially considering that Williams racked up 11 points in the first half alone. Johnson hovered near Williams’ right hand, then leaped into the air as the Bronco star released whet many thought would be a game-winning shot — and blocked it cleanly.
The Gaels’ Kyle Bowen rebounded the miss and shoveled it quickly to Johnson, who was promptly fouled. With 3.6 seconds left on the clock, Johnson calmly sank two free throw to put the Gaels ahead 75-72 and massively complicate Santa Clara’s chances for a buzzer-beater. Indeed, Johnson met Williams along the sideline after Santa Clara inbounded the ball, and forced him into a difficult heave that clanked harmlessly off the rim to give the Gaels a chance to face Gonzaga in the championship game.
Perfection/near perfection were the prime subjects of this two-day sojourn into the desert that left the Gaels’ regular-season record at 25-7 and solidly within the Top 20 teams in the nation. Selection Sunday on March 13 will determine which of those teams or the 40 or so other participants in the NCAA Tournament Saint Mary’s will face as the Dance progresses.
Tommy Kuhse has become the face of Saint Mary’s in the final weeks of the 21-22 season, including the WCC Tournament in which he scored 42 points and led his teammates in every way possible. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.