by Michael Vernetti
Seldom does a quality team with excellent coaching become flummoxed by a basic tactic used by its opponent, yet that is what happened to Saint Mary’s as it went down to Washington 68-64 in overtime Thursday night in Anaheim.
Simply put, UW is a zone team in a day of man-to-man defenses, and the Gaels never figured out how to attack the Husky zone.
The Gaels had a plan, and had obviously prepared to implement it. Casting aside the pick-and-roll offense that had carried it to victory over Vanderbilt on Wednesday, the Gaels came out firing against Washington. Firing and missing.
In its first three possessions, struggling distance shooter Alex Ducas badly missed two three-point attempts sandwiched around another bad miss by Kyle Bowen. After the Gaels attacked Washington in the paint and evened the score at 4-4, Ducas clanked another, setting the stage for a miserable night of going 1-7 on three-point attempts. Combined with his 1-6 effort from distance against Vanderbilt, Ducas shot 2-13 on the three-pointers that have become his hallmark.
Attack the middle
The Gaels didn’t rely completely on three-pointers to weaken UW’s zone, but also found Bowen near the free-throw line where he could pass to the wings or back out to the guards. That is only one part of the strategy against a zone, however — that player slashing to the middle also has to present an offensive threat if the zone is going to collapse on him and open up opportunities for distance shooters.
Gael fans who have followed and cheered Bowen during his four years at Saint Mary’s have seen him develop a creditable three-point shot to complement his stellar defense, but know he is uncomfortable with almost any other offensive move. He doesn’t back down opponents in the paint as other power forwards do, nor is he particularly adept at converting missed shots or bunnies underneath the basket. A mid-range jumper is completely unknown to him.
That Bowen was going to be a liability against Washington’s zone became apparent midway through the first half when Gael Coach Randy Bennett, who looks upon Bowen as the rock upon which his defense is built, pulled him after repeated offensive possessions that produced little for the Gaels — the score stood at 9-6 in favor of UW with 11:27 left in the half.
Jefferson in the middle
Substituting for Bowen was Joshua Jefferson, the 6’9″, 235-pound freshman from Henderson NV, who looks like a prototype of the power forward position. Jefferson immediately found fellow frosh Aidan Mahaney for an open three-pointer and Mahaney converted to tie the score. Check one box for using Jefferson to foil the zone — hitting open shooters on the wings.
Then Jefferson hit two medium-range jumpers from the area around the free throw line, and the Saint Mary’s offense seemed reborn as the Gaels surged into a 13-11 lead. It looked as if subbing Jefferson for Bowen gave them a weapon to weaken the UW defense.
Doubling down on the youth movement, Bennett then subbed in another freshman, Aussie center Harry Wessels, for Saxen. Wessels immediately corralled a rebound and made a put-back to push the Saint Mary’s lead to 15-12. The Huskies rallied themselves to push the score to 21-17 in their favor, but it was two of their guards, Koren Johnson and PJ Fuller, who did the damage, not the players guarded by Jefferson and Wessels.
Nevertheless, after Jefferson missed on his third jumper and failed to convert a bunny in the paint, Bennett subbed Bowen and Saxen back in. Jefferson’s seven minutes and Wessels’s two minutes were their only action of the night. Despite showing the ability to change the trajectory of the game, Jefferson never got off the bench again.
After limping into the locker room on the short end of a 28-22 score — the first time trailing at the half this season — the Gaels didn’t find any immediate relief as the second half began. Although Washington was anything but a juggernaut — they worked hard to pile up more turnovers than the bumbling Gaels (23 to 16) — the Huskies did just enough on offense to keep Saint Mary’s at bay.
Then, without warning, the Gaels found a pulse.
Mahaney, whose overall three-point shooting effort against Washington was in line with his teammates — he went 3-17 from distance — nevertheless made several key plays to rally the Gaels. At the 9:23 mark of the second half, Mahaney drained a three-pointer to bring the Gaels to a 43-41 deficit. The beleaguered Bowen then made one of his three buckets on the night to tie the game.
As happened repeatedly, however, the Gaels failed to keep the defensive pressure on Washington, and guard Jamal Bey hit a three-pointer to blunt the Gael attack. Bowen got two points back by sinking two free throws — anything but a given for the Gaels in this tournament as they shot a paltry 61.5 per cent from the free-throw line — but Mahaney coughed up a turnover to pave the way for another three-pointer from Washington and a 49-45 lead.
But the unflappable Logan Johnson, who does not recognize deflating circumstances, managed to score on a rare drive and bring the Gaels back to 49-47. After still another countering jumper by UW’s Bey pushed the lead to 51-47, Mahaney sank another three-pointer to cut the deficit to one point. Saxen, the Gaels’ steadiest player in the tournament with back-to-back 19-point efforts, then converted on two buckets down low. Suddenly, the Gaels had a 54-51 lead with 3:22 to go in the game.
Failing down the stretch
Surely, with all the adversity, missed shots and turnovers they had overcome to grab the lead, they would hold onto it for dear life. If only.
Keion Brooks Jr., the three-year star for Kentucky who became one of the most significant transfers to join the Huskies in the off-season, answered with a jumper, and the three-point lead shrank to one. Ducas, who couldn’t make a three-pointer to save his life but sank all six of his free throw attempts, made two more to get the lead back to three points, 56-53 with just 2:30 left.
When Ducas then made two more free throws, the Gaels had a five-point lead, 58-53, with just 1:43 left. How could they blow that? By allowing Brooks to score again, then coughing up the most damaging turnover of a game filled with them — Saxen the perpetrator this time. Although Saxen was one of the Gaels’ least turnover-prone players with just two on the night, his bobble in the paint led to a driving lay-up on the other end by Fuller, who was fouled and sank the and-one to tie the game and send it to overtime.
It was a heartbreaking case of mismanagement by the Gaels, and gave Washington momentum heading into overtime. The Gaels managed just two free throws by Ducas and a lay-up by Saxen in the overtime, while Washington relied on Brooks for a jumper and on center Braxton Yeah for key rebounds and free throws to put away the game 68-64.
Maybe the bitter defeat will harden the Gaels, and inspire them to rid their offense of the crippling turnovers that plagued them in Anaheim. It had better, as they now head into the most difficult stretch of a challenging out-of-conference schedule: New Mexico, Houston, Missouri State, San Diego State, New Mexico State, Colorado State and Wyoming await the Gaels before the WCC season starts on Dec. 29.
All of them will be watching film of the Washington game, and the Gaels can only hope that they take away more lessons than their opponents.
Mitchell Saxen, shown above in an earlier game, was the Gaels most reliable player in Anaheim, averaging 19 points in the two games and being named to the All-Tournament team. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.