Outplayed

by Michael Vernetti

After Saint Mary’s lost to Washington by 68-64 on Thanksgiving, Gael fans could find some…rationalizations (never excuses):

How often would distance shooters Alex Ducas and Aidan Mahaney go 4-20 on three-point attempts?

How often would the Gaels compile 15 assists against 16 turnovers?

How often would they be out rebounded by eight boards (40-32)?

After a similar loss last night to the dynamic New Mexico Lobos by 69-65, the answer seems to be, “Whenever they play a strong team.”

Ugly patterns

The same woeful patterns that emerged from nowhere in a shining 6-0 season before facing Washington reared their ugly heads against a noticeably better Lobo team. Although Ducas redeemed himself with a 25-point beauty against New Mexico, his teammates apparently failed to get the memo for the second game in a row: “This isn’t Vermont, guys, this is a real team.”

The assist-to-turnover ratio worsened from 0.93 against Washington to 0.67 (10 assists, 16 turnovers) against New Mexico. The offense sputtered to almost a complete halt in the first half after the Gaels came out tenacious on defense to run up a 13-2 lead on the Lobos. After that mark was posted with 12:41 left in the half, New Mexico outscored Saint Mary’s 25-10 the rest of the way to take a 27-23 lead and a giant boost in confidence into the locker room.

And, just like in the Washington game, Saint Mary’s failed to maintain control of the game on several occasions when it looked like they had shuffled off the blahs and were back to being last year’s efficient bunch of over-achievers. To wit:

Even with a dearth of scoring, the Gaels managed to forge a 22-17 lead over New Mexico with 2:08 left in the half. Time to put the pedal down and gain separation before halftime. As if.

Lobo guards rise

One of New Mexico’s trio of outstanding guards, 6’2″ Donovan Dent of Centennial High school in Riverside, CA — only California’s Mr. Basketball and John Wooden High school Player of the Year as a senior — drove Luke Barrett (Barrett, the Gaels’ former walk-on who has earned a scholarship and a rotation spot backing up Ducas, picked him up on a switch) for a bucket to cut the Gael lead to 22-19.

The Gaels’ Augustus Marciulionis, who had made two strong buckets in the paint earlier in the half, misfired on a drive, and another Lobo guard, Jamal Mashburn Jr., drove Gael center Mitchell Saxen — who also drew the guard on a switch — for another basket, plus a free throw, for a 22-22 tie. After Saxen converted one free throw — he was only 5-12 for the line for the night — the third Lobo guard tormenter, Jaelen House, hit a three-pointer to put his team ahead for the first time at 25-23. Saxen then was called for a moving screen and another Gael turnover, setting the stage for a halftime nightmare for the Gaels.

After successfully defending a Dent drive — a rarity, as he went 5-8 from the floor — the Gaels watched in horror as Lobo forward Josiah Allick stuffed the miss to send his teammates bouncing into halftime with a 27-23 lead. The Gaels had turned a 22-17 advantage into a 27-23 deficit in just two minutes.

Patino’s juggernaut

New Mexico is coached for the second year by Rick Pitino Jr., son of the peripatetic former Kentucky, Boston Celtics and Louisville (among other stops) coach who has moved on to the Iona Gaels in his 70th year. Pitino Jr. is carefully assembling the pieces needed to build a deep NCAA competitor at New Mexico. He coaxed House, son of all-time Arizona State and NBA great Eddie, from Arizona State, and House blossomed into a 16.9 PPG star last year.

Mashburn Jr., son of another college and pro great, followed Pitino from his former position as head coach of Minnesota, and led the Lobos in scoring last year at 18.2 PPG. Pitino scored a recruiting coup to lure Dent to Las Cruces. These three form the nucleus of a team that should challenge for a Mountain West title and at least begin Pitino’s quest for NCAA stardom.

The three guards scored a combined 42 points against Saint Mary’s, led by House’s 17, compared to 22 points put up by Gael guards Mahaney (11), Marciulionis (7) and Logan Johnson (4). That stark differential only scratches the surface of the Gaels’ offensive woes. After back-to-back dispiriting losses, the question arises, “Who is the leader of these Gaels?”

Gaels future

It was around this time last year that Gael Coach Randy Bennett decided to replace Marciulionis at point guard with sixth-year legend Tommy Kuhse. Kuhse solidified the Gael attack and became a scoring leader at the same time, and Saint Mary’s soared to one of its greatest seasons in history.

Marciulionis remained an active and involved member of the team, didn’t drop his head and mope, and seemed to dedicate his off-season to eradicating weaknesses that showed up in his freshman year. To these eyes he has done so, providing a toughness at the point that is noticeable in his time on the court, which has been limited. Just as Kuhse drifted off to the sunset — and the NBA G-league — another promising guard enrolled at Saint Mary’s — Mr. Mahaney of nearby Campolinda High School and a lifetime of buddy ship with Bennett’s two sons, Chase and Cade.

Mahaney has ben sensational overall, and provides scoring punch that Marciulonis doesn’t have — especially from three-point range. But, he is erratic, went 3-13 from three-point range against Washington and managed to make only 1-6 three-pointers against New Mexico. Johnson, the third wheel of the Gael guard contingent, has been up and down in his fifth-year, providing defensive grit and hustle, but spotty scoring. His four points against New Mexico — none in the second half — was a case in point.

So, what should Bennett do to provide some stability to his team that faces the daunting prospect of playing number-one ranked Houston on Saturday in Ft. Worth, TX? Shuffle the deck? Here’s one option: keep Marciulionis at the point and replace Johnson at the starting off-guard spot with Mahaney. This will give Marciulionis undiluted charge of running the offense, take the ball out of Mahaney’s hands — including bringing the ball up court after possession changes — and give Johnson a charter that might suit his talents better: off-the-bench sparkplug.

It is no knock on Mahaney to note that he made two of the crucial four turnovers committed by the Gaels in the closing moments against New Mexico. He is a freshman and not a natural point guard, and would seem to be more effective as off-guard under a strong court leader. Something to think about as the Gael coaching staff pores through the ashes of the New Mexico game.

Alex Ducas, shown above in a game from last year, was the only bright spot for the Gael offense against New Mexico, scoring 25 points on 7-10 shooting. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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