by Michael Vernetti
Saint Mary’s prided itself on defense last season, finishing in the top 10 nationally in points allowed while playing offensive powerhouse Gonzaga three times along with other top-rated programs.
The North Texas State Mean Green, Saint Mary’s opponent on an unusual late afternoon game in Moraga on Sunday, could sneer at that record. It was the nation’s top-ranked defensive team in 2021-22, allowing opponents a meager 55 points per game, en route to a 25-7 season and a narrow loss to Virginia in the second round of the NIT. Clearly, something had to give when these two teams met.
It wasn’t the Gaels.
Unleashing its most complete defensive effort since vanquishing a strong Colorado State team by 53-33 in 2020, Saint Mary’s held the Mean Green to four field goals and 12 points in the first half, and a total of 33 points for the game in a convincing 63-33 win. The Gaels were simply unyielding.
Inside didn’t work
The Mean Green felt it could punish the Gaels inside, and over and over again sent 6’5″ sixth-year guard Tyree Eady, or 6’3″ guard Kai Huntsberry, into the paint in an attempt to juke the Gael defenders out of position and make an easy bucket. Gael forward Alex Ducas, who drew the assignment on Eady, and guard Logan Johnson, who guarded Huntsberry, weren’t having it.
Ducas, who had found himself replaced early in the Gaels’ first two games for allowing easy three-point buckets, stayed down against Eady and used his height advantage — either one or two inches whether you believe Ducas is 6’6″ or 6’7″ — to stifle the North Texas version of Tommy Kuhse. Eady was 0-4 for the evening, but did sink a free throw.
Huntsberry fared little better against Johnson, who has earned a reputation as one of the premier defensive players in the nation. He was 2-14 on the night for five points, and got his comeuppance near the mid-point of the first half. Trying to back down Johnson in the paint, Huntsberry saw Johnson swat away his dribble, then take a return pass and race toward the Gaels’ bucket. Johnson finished with a graceful finger-roll over Huntsberry as if to punctuate the danger of trying to get by him on defense.
Another potent weapon for North Texas coming into last night’s game was 6’10” forward Abou Ousmane, who averaged 15.2 PPG last season and 17.2 PPG the year before. Ousmane’s nemesis was the Gaels’ 6’10” junior center Mitchell Saxen, who swatted away several attempts by Ousmane and held him to one point on 0-9 shooting from the floor.
Saxen, who has allowed Gael fans to quit worrying about the graduation of stellar post man Matthias Tass, has flirted with a double-double in each game this season. When he tallied his 12th rebound with plenty of time left in the game and eight points to his credit, it seemed like Sunday would be the night. The Gaels’ comfortable lead over North Texas allowed Coach Randy Bennett to give his reserves more rein, however, so Saxen sat out the rest of the game.
The Mean Green’s defensive prowess was no mirage, and Saint Mary’s had trouble penetrating the paint for drives or easy lay-ups. They did, however, take advantage of a handful of deadly three-point shooters to sink 6-9 shots from distance in the first half and 10-18 overall (56 per cent). Ducas and Aidan Mahaney had three each, super-sub Luke Barrett was 2-2 from distance and Johnson and Kyle Bowen contributed one each.
It wasn’t a big night for offensive numbers, and the Gaels were held below the 78.5 PPG average they compiled in their first two games, but their ability to pass out of double-teams and find open shooters on the perimeter wrecked any chance the Mean Green had of staying in the game.
Sophomore guard Augustus Marciulionis, fighting hard to prove to Bennett that he deserves the role of starting point guard in Kuhse’s absence, seemed determined to break down the tough Mean Green interior defense. Marciulionis has shown a more determined mindset in his game this season after Kuhse knocked him out of the starting guard spot last year, and he attempted five drives or short jumpers in the paint despite the menace awaiting him.
He got a bloody nose for his efforts early in the first half, but got patched up and sank a resulting free throw for an early 5-0 lead (he scored the first five points). For the night, he made 4-8 field goals and a free throw for nine points, matching his total for each of the previous two games. With he and freshman sensation Mahaney — 25 points in his first collegiate game — battling it out for floor time, and the veteran Johnson lurking in the shadows and picking his spots to attack, the Gaels have a powerful guard rotation. There will be no need for Bennett to use only two guards to play nearly every minute of every game this year, which should bolster the Gaels’ in post-season play.
The reserves romp
Befitting a romp, the Gael reserves got a lot of floor time Sunday. Barrett has already established himself as an excellent back-up to Ducas at one wing position, but freshman big man Harry Wessels — 7’1″ and 250-plus pounds — forward Joshua Jefferson and guard Chris Howell, also logged major minutes. Howell seems to be having rouble fitting into the offensive smoothly, but has shone on defense, while Jefferson has shown versatility while playing both the post and strong forward positions.
But the night belonged to Wessels, who made three spectacular plays to bring a lethargic Sunday-afternoon crowd to its feet. Early on, Wessels crashed the boards after a Gael attempt and jammed home the rebound with emphasis that only a true big man can provide. In the second half, Wessels picked up a loose ball and headed downcourt for a breakaway that looked more like an elephant stampede.
Perhaps inelegantly but with determination, Wessels gained control of the loose ball and out-dribbled the Mean Green defenders to slam home another emphatic bucket. Just to show the home folks he had some more tricks up his sleeve, Wessels juked his defender in the post and scored on a nifty spin move as the clock wound down. Three-for-three plus a free throw for seven points, two rebounds and a steal made quite a nice line for 11 minutes on the floor.
The Gaels continue their five-game home schedule Wednesday against Southern, then complete the homestand on Nov. 19 against Hofstra. Other more menacing opponents lurk on the horizon, but so far Bennett’s charges have shown defensive spine and offensive chops to raise fan hopes for another memorable season.
Augustus Marciulionis shown above lifting a floater in the paint against North Texas, has scored nine points in each of the first three games while sharing the floor at point guard with Aidan Mahaney. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.