by Michael Vernetti
Coming off a tougher-than-expected 78-70 win over Oral Roberts University in its season-opener Monday night in Moraga, the Saint Mary’s Gaels were expecting another stiff challenge when the Vermont Catamounts rolled into town Thursday. Vermont, defending champion of the America East Conference, compiled a 28-6 season in 2020-21 that included a narrow 75-71 loss to powerhouse Arkansas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
To make things worse, Vermont had helped replenish its lineup after four starters graduated by adding former Bellarmine University star Dylan Penn as a graduate transfer. Yeah, that Dylan Penn, who scorched the Gaels for 27 points as Bellarmine gave Saint Mary’s one of its toughest non-conference games of the season last November before falling 73-64.
No worries, Gael fans, call on Kyle Bowen when the going gets tough. Bowen, the Gaels’ 6’8″ senior power forward from Australia, had a rough night himself against ORU (or Oral Bob as one wag dubbed them). Bowen scored only five points Monday night, and looked uncomfortable playing the post when Mitchell Saxen got into into foul trouble.
As if to emphasize that Monday was an aberration, Bowen started the scoring against Vermont by sinking a three-pointer within the first 30 seconds. He ended up scoring 10 points on 4-9 shooting, including another three-pointer, and grabbed six rebounds to go with his 11 from Monday, as the Gaels smothered the Catamounts (that’s Vermont for mountain lion) 79-53.
But it was what he did to Mr. Penn that had knowledgeable Gael fans smiling after the game.
As stated, Bowen is a 6’8″ forward. Penn is a shifty, 6’3″ guard who does not shoot the three-ball and gets his points by juking defenders in the paint. No way Bowen can stay with that dude, some fans might have thought. But he did, holding Penn to a measly five points until late in the game when Gael Coach Randy Bennett began substituting freely and other Gael defenders such as redshirt freshman Chris Howell, who is considered a defensive stalwart, struggled to contain Penn. Penn ended up with 13 points on the night, but Bowen had neutralized a major threat.
Symbol of a renaissance
Bowen’s game was indicative of the qualitative improvement Bennett’s charges demonstrated against Vermont. They faltered in the second half against ORU, losing the scoring battle by 10 points, 41-31, something that was unheard of last year as they dominated second halves. Last night, they added to an 11-point halftime lead (35-24) by shooting 63 per cent in the second half and pulling away for a 26-point romp.
Also uncharacteristically against ORU, the Gaels relied on one player, freshman Aidan Mahaney, for the majority of their points. Mahaney, making the most sensational Gael debut in memory, scored 25 points on 19 attempts, a big number for a Saint Mary’s guard. Mahaney came down to earth against Vermont, as a swarming defense showed the disadvantages of drawing a lot of attention to oneself. He ended up with one bucket on the night, a three-pointer late in the game.
Never fear, however, as five Gaels — that’s five as in the number of players allowed on the floor at one time — scored in double figures: senior floor leader Logan Johnson had 15; senior small forward Alex Ducas had 14; Saxen, following a 16-point effort against ORU, had 11 and flirted with a double-double as he did against ORU by grabbing eight rebounds; as mentioned, Bowen had 10 and guard Augustus Marciulionis, making a statement after being overshadowed by Mahaney in the opener, almost cracked double figures with nine tough points, mostly on determined drives in the paint.
Then there’s Luke
The fifth Gael in double figures was former walk-on Luke Barrett, pride of nearby Piedmont High School. Barrett earned his spurs against ORU by throttling explosive guard Kareem Thompson, as Bennett decided that Ducas was not up the job. That alone made him a standout, and he settled for three points on 1-4 shooting.
Against Vermont, Barrett again entered the game in relief of Ducas, after Ducas surrendered two early three-pointers and was embarrassed by former San Diego Torero Finn Sullivan by having a shot blocked that led to a run-out bucket and a 7-5 lead for Vermont. Barrett tightened up the Gaels’ three-point defense, and managed one first-half bucket on a put-back, but was saving the best for later.
On a personal 9-0 run midway through the second half, Barrett hit three three-pointers in a less-then-two-minute span to turn a comfortable lead into a rout at 57-39. True to his character, Barrett didn’t break into a big smile or wildly gesticulate. He is all-business on the floor, and acted as if he knocks off nine-point bursts on a regular basis.
Substitution pattern evolves
Another improvement for the Gaels came in the substitution pattern. Bennett, having only 10 scholarship players available with the departure of Leemet Bockler, the continued foot injury of Matt Van Komen and a decision to redshirt grad transfer Mason Forbes, doesn’t feel comfortable yet in relying solely on Aussie freshman Harry Wessels to back up Saxen in the post — no matter that Wessels has played well in limited minutes.
Bennett moved Bowen to the post against ORU, and it wasn’t pretty. Last night, he called on prize recruit Joshua Jefferson, a high-scoring forward at Liberty High School in Henderson, NV outside Las Vegas. And it worked. Jefferson is a splendid athlete, who will eventually become a star for the Gaels, probably at power forward. But he handled his post duties beautifully in 11 minutes on the floor, and scored his first bucket as a Gael with a nifty turnaround jumper in the paint.
And, although Barrett played well in relief of Ducas as he did against ORU, Bennett used Ducas more extensively against Vermont, and it paid off. Ducas sank two three-pointers, as he did against ORU, but also made several strong drives along the baseline and in the paint to show his offensive prowess. Ducas will be counted on to supply much of the Gaels’ offensive muscle this season, and he needs to shore up his defense early in the game to win minutes from Barrett.
Senior Kyle Bowen, shown above launching a three-pointer against Vermont, shut down Vermont’s explosive Dylan Penn and scored 10 points of his own to spur a Gael win Thursday. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.