Work to do

by Michael Vernetti

Saint May’s led Oral Roberts 49-27 at the half of last night’s 2022-23 opener for both teams in Moraga. I was happy.

Oral Roberts won the second half by 41-31, and Saint Mary’s held on for a 78-70 win. Instead of a convincing win over a quality opponent, the Gaels won by eight in a game various oddsmakers picked them to win by nine or 10. I was not happy walking out of the mostly sold-out pavilion once known as McKeon.

Among many statistical causes for heartburn was the 40 per cent shooting percentage for Oral Roberts on three-point attempts — 12 for 30. The Gaels were among the nation’s leaders in three-point denial during last year’s magical ride to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Allowing opponents to shoot 40 per cent from distance will not get them anywhere the top 10 this season.

Here’s another: nine. That was the total number of Saint Mary’s assists, a paltry sum compared to the routine 15-20-odd assists they racked up in most games last season, occasionally topping 30. The two Gael point guards, starter Augustus Marciulionis and super-sub Aidan Mahaney, accounted for just one of those nine — Marciulionis making none against two turnovers and Mahaney scratching out a single assist against one turnover.

What should a fan take away from Monday’s game? Joy in the win and in the mind-boggling debut of Mahaney, the Lafayette resident who set Campolinda High School on fire during a sensational high school career?

Relief that junior post man Mitchell Saxen exorcised any ghosts of Matthias Tass, the four-year starter in the post who left Moraga for the playing fields of pro ball in Estonia? That, too, as Saxen did everything possible to prove that he will continue the Gaels’ tradition of post superiority.

About that glass

Half-full or half-empty?

It must be said that Oral Roberts is a tough, veteran team with four players who can shoot the three-ball consistently: their star guard, Max Abmas, his running mate, Issac McBride, pony-tailed 6’5″ bull of a guard, Kareem Thompson, and the 7’5″ string bean Connor Vanover. Those four accounted for 11 of OR’s 12 made threes, and will undoubtedly top that number many times this season when faced with defenses less inspired than the Gaels.

For some of the Gaels did play inspired defense, especially the indefatigable Logan Johnson, who hounded the quick and dynamic Abmas throughout the game, holding him from his accustomed 20-plus PPG to a respectable 14.

And former walk-on now scholarship holder Luke Barrett, who was pressed into action when Gael star Alex Ducas left his feet once too many times guarding Thompson or Carlos Jurgens. Barrett logged 21 minutes in relief of Ducas (22 minutes), and absolutely refused to leave his feet when Thompson tried head fake after head fake, and was unyielding when Thompson tried to play bully-ball in the paint.

Taming the giant

Saxen also wins praise for not succumbing to the pressure of playing against Vanover, whom Gael fans may remember from a 2018 game in Moraga as a freshman at Cal. Last night, Vanover harassed the Gaels all game long, swatting away six shots and making three-of-six three-point attempts. But Saxen kept going at him, using a sweet jump hook to help rack up 16 points, grabbed eight rebounds and led the Gaels in assists with five. He also had three of the Gaels eight steals.

I couldn’t help thinking of a time in the regrettable 20-21 Covid season when the Gaels with Tass in the post crumbled under the shot-blocking prowess of another 7’5″ center, Matt Haarms of BYU, in a mortifying 65-51 loss in Provo. Vanover, who was listed as 7’3″ when he was at Cal, did not have the same devastating effect on the Gaels as Haarms did, and most of the credit goes to Saxen.

So, what’s to worry about if the Gaels withstood a tremendous comeback by Oral Roberts, seeing a once-solid 21-point lead shrink to four points, righted themselves and won? For one, who’s the Gael point guard, a question usually subjected to major scrutiny by pundits and the fan base? Marciulionis started, and seemed to carry over his commanding performance in the Blue-White scrimmage several weeks ago. He looked strong and confident, but Gael Coach Randy Bennett trusted him with the ball in his hands for exactly four minutes and 50 seconds.

It was at the 15:10 mark of the first half when Mahaney came off the bench and replaced Marciulionis, who had attempted one errant three-point shot and neither scored nor made an assist in his short stay. Less than a minute after entering the game, Mahaney sank his first three-point shot of the night, one of five (in 12 attempts) he would make on the way to a commanding 25-point performance reminiscent of Patty Mills’s 31 against Oregon in his freshman year (but not his first game).

There is no other word for Mahaney’s debut except sensational. Unless you choose unsettling, thinking of the confusion over who is going to lead this Gaels’ offense going forward. Mahaney is a lot of things, but he does not seem to be point guard in his heart — he is a scorer. Will Marciulionis be given another chance to run the point? We’ll find out Thursday night, when the Gaels face another strong mid-major team in the Vermont Catamounts.

Whither Ducas and Wessels?

Gael fans will also be wringing their hands over the role of Ducas as the season progresses. Is he deep in Bennett’s dog house or just lying on the front porch? Barrett was stellar on defense against OR, but scored just one bucket in four attempts. When the Gael offense went stagnant during OR’s second-half run, it seemed certain that Ducas would re-enter the game to loosen things up. But he didn’t.

And why was Wessels relegated to the bench after a promising two-minute debut in the first half, when he grabbed two rebounds and a steal? When Saxen was whistled for his fourth foul, Bennett rejiggered the lineup to play Kyle Bowen in the post instead of Wessels, who is the putative back-up to Saxen. What was that about? Was Wessels injured during his brief appearance? No telling, although he did not appear to be hurt.

The story continues Thursday night.

Aidan Mahaney, the freshman from Campolinda in Moraga, led all scorers with 25 points Monday night, including the attempt pictured above. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.


3 thoughts on “Work to do

  1. Welcome back Gaels360. Ducas apparently has a back problem and this limited his minutes. Hopefully this will not be an issue all season. This can be a very special season but it won’t happen if key players are injured. Don’t know if Marciulionis was pulled permanently in the second half because he let that guy drive the lane or because it became a tight game and Bennett trusted Mahaney more. I do think Mahaney is a point guard and capable of generating assists as is Marciulionis. LJ is not really a shooting guard or a point but instead a stalwart defender and someone who can drive the lane. He has to play but so do the other two. We’ll probably see this backcourt dilemma play out all season. Looking forward to saying hello Thursday night.


  2. Great read again, Michael. Against ORU, we had either shooters, or we had defenders. Bennett either has to figure out a way to bring everybody up to snuff on both shooting and defending, or he’s going to have to find the right combination of players who excel at one or the other to achieve victory.

    Ducas and Saxen both have histories of back problems. It worries me that we are already down to ten available scholarship players, and that’s including those two.


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