Missions accomplished

by Michael Vernetti

You could look at the first half of Saint Mary’s 66-46 win over Missouri State Wednesday in Moraga in a couple of ways.

One would be that the Gaels were feeling their way against Mo State, even though the two teams met last year at Saint Mary’s and the Gaels won 75-58. However, this year’s edition of the Bears from the Missouri Valley Conference is almost completely different from last year’s scrappy crew that went 23-11 and earned a berth in the NIT. Mo State has 14 new players, including eight transfers, so some caution was to be expected.

Caution as in a 26-21 halftime lead.

An alternate view was that Saint Mary’s had an additional mission last night besides ending a three-game losing streak against Washington, New Mexico and top-ranked Houston: get Mitchell Saxen back to his usual position of dominance in the paint that suffered a big blow against the ultra-athletic Houston Cougars. After a game spent trying to pass out of an aggressive double-team and dodging leaping Cougars on every shot he attempted — netting just four points and coughing up four turnovers — Saxen was a prime focus of Randy Bennett’s offense from the opening tip.

Operating with confidence and crispness, Saxen scored the Gaels’ first six points on both right-and-left-handed short hooks, and eight of their first 12 points. He ended the half with 15 of the Gaels’ 26 points and no turnovers, giving the Bears’ 6’11”, 260-pound Dawson Carper fits. It was vintage Saxen, and just what the Gaels needed to re-establish their post-oriented, in-and-out offense.

So concentrated were the Gaels on featuring Saxen that two of its leading scorers, Alex Ducas and Aidan Mahaney, were scoreless at the half. That would soon end.

Second-half explosion

Where the Gaels were careful and precise in the first half — only four turnovers following 16 or 17 turnovers per game during their three-game losing streak — they were loose and deadly following the break. Mahaney single-handedly ended his scoring drought by stripping a Missouri State guard and sprinting the length of the floor for a thundering dunk to announce his presence.

After another steal — Saint Mary’s forced Mo State into 13 turnovers and swiped the ball five times — Ducas sank a three-pointer and suddenly the Gaels were up by 10 points, 33-23. Mo State called time-out at the 17:55 mark as if to ask, “What is going on here?”

It was a full-scale Saint Mary’s blitz, as in rapid succession Logan Johnson fired a dart to Ducas under the basket and he scored, Mahaney drove the paint for a lay-up, Ducas scored again from under the bucket and Mahaney hit a three-pointer. Presto-chango, the Gaels were up 44-31.

While the emphasis on Saxen waned — he finished the night with 19 points, six rebounds, two blocks and two steals — the Gaels’ up-and-down guard corps also staged a resurgence from the losing streak. The trio of Mahaney, Johnson and Augustus Marciulionis were slapped in the face by New Mexico’s talented guards, and even though Johnson and Mahaney were brilliant in the Houston loss, Marciulionis fired a goose egg in just 11 minutes on the floor.

Mahaney’s first start

Seemingly acknowledging a changing of the guard, actually and metaphorically, Bennett started Mahaney at the point in place of Marciulionis, the freshman’s first start of his short college career. What effect did that change have on Marciulionis or the Gael chemistry in general? No apparent change, as Marciulionis posted a sharp, eight-point effort in 17 minutes — including a three-pointer that he has struggled to master — and Mahaney and Johnson operated smoothly in their time together.

Although scoring just six points following his team-leading 17 against Houston, Johnson offered his usual hard-nosed defense and survived a jolt to his surgically-repaired shoulder in a second-half rebound collision. Mahaney, following his first-half shutout, almost matched Saxen’s numbers for the game, scoring 13 points on 6-11 shooting against Saxen’s 8-12 posting.

Gael fans have enjoyed dual point guards in the past — the combo of Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon comes immediately to mind — but got used to the Tommy Kuhse-dominated offense of the past few years. The three-man rotation on display this season may prove just as effective, and will have the added benefit of keeping all three guards fresher than if they each played 38-40 minutes per game.

All three delivered NBA-caliber assists against Mo State, with Johnson kicking things off with the bullet he fired to Ducas at the start of the second half, and with a delicate pocket-pass to the rolling Saxen later on. Marciulionis delivered a brilliant look-away pass to Saxen in the second half, and Mahaney dropped a no-look dime on Saxen just before his second steal-and-dunk of the game for a 58-40 lead near the end of the second half.

The trio accounted for seven assists against four turnovers , which will probably stand the Gaels in good stead as the season progresses. With Saxen back in the scoring saddle, and with the guard rotation seemingly in good shape, Saint Mary’s seems ready to take on the rest of its tough non-conference schedule.

Next up is a ranked San Diego State squad on Saturday in Phoenix, AZ, followed by New Mexico State and Colorado State at home before meeting Wyoming back in Phoenix on Dec. 21. The Gaels will be tested — and maybe well-prepared — when the first WCC game of the season takes place at home against an improved San Diego squad on Dec. 29.

Logan Johnson, shown above scoring against Missouri State last night, anchors a three-man guard rotation for Saint Mary’s. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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