by Michael Vernetti
So, your team opens the season with five wins at home, then heads off to a holiday tournament against a member of the Southeastern Conference (SEC). What should you expect?
For fans of the Saint Mary’s Gaels, playing Vanderbilt last night (and this morning) in the Wooden Legacy Tournament in Anaheim, it probably wasn’t a game in which your best defender couldn’t defend, your best three-point shooter couldn’t make a shot, your team made only 56 per cent of its free throws, was out-rebounded and had the same number of turnovers as assists.
And won by 10 points, 75-65.
So much for holiday tournaments, which have long been a source of heartburn for Gael fans. It’s just not the same as playing at home.
Vanderbilt was an intriguing opportunity for the Gaels, a proud team from a vaunted conference that has struggled in recent years but seems poised to find its way back to the upper echelon of college hoops. Under former North Carolina and NBA star Jerry Stackhouse, the Commodores have improved their NET ranking in each of Stackhouse’s three years, and came into the Saint Mary’s game with a 77 ranking from KenPom. They looked like trouble.
Pick-and-roll to happiness
The Gaels’ answer was a massive dose of Mitchell Saxen, gritty play from super-senior Logan Johnson and a bolt of lightning off the bench provided by freshman Aidan Mahaney. Eschewing the three-point shot that is one of its hallmarks, Saint Mary’s went right at Vanderbilt’s 7-foot fifth-year senior Liam Robbins, a veteran of both Drake and Minnesota before finding his way to Nashville.
Notwithstanding that Robbins is one of the premier shot-blockers in the country, the Gaels attacked him head-on. Saxen, rounding into one of the Gaels’ best post men in his third year, scored early and often off nifty passes in the paint from Johnson. Johnson and Saxen teamed up for four pick-and-roll buckets to power Saint Mary’s to an 18-16 lead before Saxen went to the bench with 8:49 left in the half.
Shortly before Saxen left the floor, Mahaney also checked into the game in place of starting point guard Augustus Marciulionis. He promptly sank a medium-range jumper, as Saxen and Johnson continued their two-man game. With Saxen on the bench, Mahaney went off, sinking three more jumpers from medium range and giving Saint Mary’s a 26-21 lead by the time Saxen returned with 4:42 left in the half.
Mahaney made one more jumper, and Alex Ducas, who had top-scored for the Gaels with 20 points in his previous outing against Hofstra, made his only shot of the half following several missed three-pointers, to push the Saint Mary’s lead to 32-24. The Gaels misplayed Vandy’s next possession, managing to turn an apparent stop into a three-point opportunity for Robbins and allow the Commodores to close the gap to 32-27.
Cue Mr. Mahaney
With fewer than five seconds left in the half, Mahaney took the inbounds pass and headed up- court. Just past the mid-court line, he heaved what looked like a prayer but turned into a nothing-but-net dagger for Vanderbilt’s hopes. His only three-pointer of the game — the Gaels made only 3-11 from distance on the evening — pushed the Saint Mary’ lead to 35-27. Mahaney barely noticed his teammates’ adulation, looking as if he does that sort of thing on a routine basis. He probably does.
Showing that Stackhouse has not lost his team’s confidence, Vanderbilt came out of the gate after the half with renewed purpose, and clawed into a 36-35 lead in less than three minutes. But the Gaels were no less gritty in this one, refusing to wilt under Vandy’s pressure. Saxen scored on another pick-and-roll feed from Marciulionis, then Marciulionis stole the ball and fed Johnson on a breakaway lay-up that put Saint Mary’ back in front at 39-36. They never trailed again.
Ducas, who battled Vandy’s star Jordan Wright throughout the game despite his shooting woes, finally found the range on a three-pointer a little later and pushed the Gaels’ lead to 42-38. Johnson matched Ducas’s three-pointer with one of his own for a 45-40 lead, and the tone was set for the rest of the match: Saint Mary’s would eke out a six, seven or eight-point lead, and Vandy would come back to cut the lead and stoke the heartburn simmering in many fans’ chests.
Harry Wessels — again!
As has become the custom with this Gael squad, all 10 scholarship players saw action, but one did more than make a token appearance. True freshman Harry Wessels, coming off a star turn against Hofstra last Saturday, again did yeoman’s work in relief of Saxen. Saxen picked up his fourth foul early in the second half, and it fell to Wessels to keep up the battle in the paint against the formidable Robbins.
Just after Robbins scored one of his impossible-to-defend fadeaway jumpers to cut the Saint Mary’s lead to 49-46, Wessels foiled a Vandy attempt to double-team the picker in the pick-and-roll. He slipped underneath the basket, Johnson found him and Wessels slammed home the basket to push the lead back to five points at 51-46. Settling into his role, Wessels soon scored on a pick-and-roll of his own to total four points in nine minutes of action.
Many fans will look at the Vanderbilt game, notice that Saint Mary’s made just 14-25 free throws, wonder why defensive demon Kyle Bowen had trouble shutting down Vandy’s three-point ace, Myles Shute, and conclude that the game should have been a 15-20-point breeze instead of a nail-biter.
But these holiday tournaments seldom run true to form, and the Gaels’ struggles were on a par with many other teams playing basketball instead of eating turkey on this Thanksgiving. Look no further than the fearsome San Diego State Aztecs, whom the Gaels will face on Dec. 10. Leading a talented Arkansas squad with time running out, SDSU found a way to stumble into overtime and an eventual loss. That could have been the Gaels’ fate, but they persevered in spite of adversity and lived to face Washington in the Wooden Legacy championship tonight at 9:30 p.m. on ESPN.
Prepare for another adventure, Gael fans.
Aidan Mahaney, shown above in a game from earlier in the season, led all Gael scorers with 20 points on 7-10 shooting against Vanderbilt. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.