Toe to toe

by Michael Vernetti

To say the Saint Mary’s Gaels had a lot to prove against the nation’s number one team, the Houston Cougars, Saturday in Ft. Worth, TX, was a bit of an understatement.

Following two successive losses to good but not invincible teams — Washington and New Mexico — many questions were floating in the air respecting the Gaels: were they as good as advertised in the pre-season and during a strong six-game wining streak to open the season?

Could they score consistently to back up a stout defense? Was their three-man back court of Logan Johnson, Augustus Marciulionis and freshman Aidan Mahaney up to the high standards of previous Randy Bennett-coached teams?

That last question arose primarily because of lackluster efforts by Johnson in the Washington and New Mexico games — five points against UW and four against UNM. One cheeky commentator even went so far as to theorize that perhaps Johnson should be replaced as a starter by Mahaney, who would team with Marciulionis as the point guard. Johnson, this commentator opined, might put his energy and defensive chops to better use coming off the bench than logging starter minutes.

As the lawyers like to say, those questions were asked and answered by the Houston game. Johnson revived his leadership status with a daring, often brilliant offensive outburst — team-leading 17 points — and a stifling defensive effort against Houston’s leading scorer, Marcus Sasser — 13 points on 4-12 shooting.

Johnson’s heroic performance was the shining light in the Gaels’ 53-48 loss to Houston.

That other guard spot

As for Mahaney, his performance was perhaps even more noteworthy than Johnson’s since he is a freshman. Mahaney had also sagged somewhat in the two losses, scoring a respectable 11 points in each, but misfiring badly from long-distance and making a combined 4-19 shots from three-point range.

He went 4-8 from distance against Houston on the way to 14 points, but the mere numbers don’t tell the whole story. Four times in the second half when the Gaels were mounting an improbable comeback against the Cougars, Mahaney nailed three-pointers that kept their slim hopes alive.

None was more crucial than the one he made with a little than 13 minutes left and Houston seemingly on a roll toward a convincing victory. Another Gael freshman, forward Joshua Jefferson, had a shot blocked by Houston’s J’Wan Roberts, then Roberts scored on the other end to put his team up by 12 points, 39-27.

Mahaney’s answering three-pointer cut that margin to 39-30, and the Gaels had a new lease on life. Forward Alex Ducas matched Mahaney’s three-pointer a few minutes later to cut the margin to 41-33 with 11:3 left in the game, and then it was time for still another freshman, Chris Howell, to provide a huge lift to his team.

Howell, a defensive standout from San Diego who red-shirted last year, saved Johnson’s pride after Johnson was stripped by a Houston defender. The Gaels survived Johnson’s gaffe, one of only two turnovers he suffered under intense pressure from the Houston ball hawks, and then Howell scored in the paint to bring them within eight points at 43-35.

Howell then stripped a Houston guard and scored again on a floater in the paint to bring the Gaels within six points, 43-37 with nine minutes left in the game. The impossible was within sight, as Saint Mary’s had held Houston to just 12 points in the second half. Feeling the momentum shift, Mahaney drained his second three-pointer to bring his team to within three points, 43-40.

Another Houston stalwart, forward Truman Mark, answered with a stinging three-pointer to put the margin at 46-40, but Mahaney again answered a Houston advance with his third three-pointer of the half and a 46-43 deficit with plenty of time left, more than six minutes. It was then that the Gaels’ weakness in the paint emerged again to derail the comeback effort.

Junior center Mitchell Saxen struggled mightily against Houston’s swarming defense, scoring just four points at that point and coughing up the ball numerous times. Saxen gave up a close-in bucket by the pesky Roberts — who hurt the Gaels more than Sasser — then failed to convert a bunny when the Gaels got the ball back. He was fouled, but missed both three throws to continue a trend that was magnified in the Washington game when he went 5-12 from the line in a four-point loss.

Disaster strikes

Up by five points, 48-43, Houston showed the moxie that has carried them to an unbeaten 8-0 record and the number one ranking among college teams. Sasser, Houston’s scoring and emotional leader, took things into his own hands. Dribbling to his right, Sasser floated toward the end line with three Gaels in close proximity. Kyle Bowen, the closest to him, bumped him slightly, but it didn’t seem to matter as Sasser tossed up what looked like a prayer as he fell out of bounds.

Incredibly, it went in. Even more incredibly, Bowen was called for a foul, which gave Sasser a bonus free throw. He sank that for a 51-43 lead at the 3:14 mark, and the Gael hopes seemed doomed.

Someone forgot to tell Mahaney.

After the teams traded points over the next few possessions, Mahaney sank another three-pointer — his fourth of the half — and gave the Gaels new fight at 53-48. Unfortunately, it failed to ignite a closing charge, and the game ended on that score.

There are no moral victories, as any coach will tell you, but the Gaels salvaged several important accomplishments which should stand them in good stead for the rest of the season. For one, they showed the world that they have a first class back court in Mahaney and Johnson, with Marciulionis in reserve. Mahaney is not a conventional point guard, but he and Johnson proved to be a formidable duo against the nation’s number one team, and will attempt to carry momentum from the Houston game into the future.

Saint Mary’s might also have resolved a question of back-up small forward through the play of Howell, who logged 10 minutes in his longest stint to date. Sandbagged by the departure of Jabe Mullins for Washington State and Leemet Bockler to his home country of Estonia. Bennett turned to former walk-on Luke Barrett to back up Ducas. Although proving himself a solid defender, Barrett did not give the Gaels much scoring off the bench.

Not only did Howell shine on defense against Houston, the two buckets he scored in a second-half burst were instrumental in the Gaels’ comeback. Although a guard, Howell stands 6’6″ and seems capable of filling the small forward position.

It will also not be lost on many observers that the Gaels — despite scoring just 48 points — outshot Houston both from conventional range, 37 per cent versus 36.8 per cent, but also from three-point range, 41 per cent versus 27 per cent. They out-rebounded the athletic Cougars 36-27, and registered 14 assists on 17 made shots.

Troubling for Bennett was the continuing issue with turnovers, as the Gaels coughed up the ball 17 times compared to only five turnovers for the Cougars. That will have to improve if the Gaels are to reach the lofty goals they set for themselves for this season.

Aidan Mahaney, shown above in a game from earlier this season, scored 14 points and accounted for five assists in a spectacular game against Houston. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.


2 thoughts on “Toe to toe

  1. You are way too kind to the Gaels –

    Against Houston, they played good defense and were very good on the boards. What really came up short was their offense, in many respects self-inflicted wounds (not dissimilar to their other recent losses). Specifically –

    1. Their free throw shooting needs to improve – this by itself caused the UNM loss.
    2. They need to start passing more, and not just run the pick and roll that anybody watching film knows is coming. Way too much individuals trying to beat men off the dribble (which they struggle to do against more athletic and tenacious teams like UH and UNM). There needs to be passing out of the post on double team (there are 2-4 reasonably good perimeter shooters) and getting the other team chasing the ball a bit gives the shooters a bit more time (needed by both Ducas and Mahaney) and give the drivers (Johnson and Marciullonis) easier penetration opportunities.
    3. Saxen has to finish consistently and stronger. He also has to stop being a turnover machine and dismal free-throw shooter. If not – put Jefferson in, who is very active on defense. A good jump hook from the middle would serve these fellows well and allow more movement in the post and easier passing opportunities.
    4. Way too many turnovers, the forced pic/roll dive play, too many freshman cross-court passes and an inability to pass out of the post cleanly. It is like the Gaels aren’t ready for the speed of the more athletic teams (each of the last three losses show this).

    Against much of the WCC, I would advocate a small lineup with Bowen at center and all three guards on the floor. Hard to say anything negative about Bowen and Johnson defense and toughness.


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