Monkey off back

by Michael Vernetti

It was not only the satisfaction of beating 22nd-ranked San Diego State, as Saint Mary’s did Saturday afternoon in Phoenix, AZ, by 69-61, but it was also the relief of breaking a two-game losing streak to the Aztecs that made it a particularly satisfying day.

After losing to SDSU by 10 points last year in the same tournament as this (63-53), and losing by a much greater margin, 74-49, the year before, Saint Mary’s had had enough of the defensive-minded, hard-nosed team from the Mountain West Conference. Moreover, after three straight losses to strong teams in Washington, New Mexico and Houston, the Gaels needed a signature win to keep the NCAA Tournament watchdogs in a positive frame of mind.

They accomplished that objective by forging nine-point leads in each half and then watching their opponent scratch and claw to make up the difference, instead of coming from behind in spirited but unsuccessful bids as happened in the three losses. The Gaels will gladly attest that it is better to be in the driver’s seat against a talented foe than hanging from the side door.

This year’s SDSU team is similar to the one Saint Mary’s played last year, with a nucleus of Matt Bradley, the former Cal standout and all-Mountain West selection, Nathan Mensah, the 6’10” shot-blocking ace who has particularly plagued the Gaels, and Keshad Johnson, the rugged forward who has played four years for the Aztecs. The biggest change is at guard, where Lamont Butler replaced the departed Trey Pulliam and Adam Seiko has been replaced as a starter by transfer Darrion Trammell.

It should be noted that Pulliam scorched the Gaels for 15 points last year, and Seiko sank 4-4 three-pointers to add 12. Butler and Trammell totaled 18 points between them Saturday, while Seiko, playing only 16 minutes, took only two shots and missed them both for a goose egg on the day.

Coming out firing

It was refreshing to see the Gaels come out of the blocks firing against San Diego, instead of tip-toeing into the game as has been its wont against talented opponents. Senior forward Alex Ducas was particularly aggressive, stripping San Diego’s Micah Parrish and making a lay-up and free throw to bring Saint Mary’s into a 12-12 tie early on. Ducas then sank a step-back three-pointer — not something he has done often in his career in Moraga — and capped an 8-0 run of his own with a runner in the lane and a 24-16 Saint Mary’s lead.

Super-senior guard Logan Johnson then took over, scoring on two successive blow-by drives, drawing fouls on each and sinking one of two free throws for the Gaels’ largest lead of the half, 30-21. A little later, after San Diego had scored four straight points, guard Augustus Marciulionis sank a three-pointer to put the Gaels up by eight at 33-25. Marciulionis, sharing guard duties with freshman sensation Aidan Mahaney, has made it a point to add three-point scoring to his repertoire in recent games.

The Gaels lost a bit of their lead to two free throws by Butler and a drive by Aquek Arop, and then watched in stunned silence as Parrish launched a half-court shot as the clock wound down that brought the Aztecs even at 35-all for the half. Momentum lost, but the Gaels were not daunted.

Pitched battle

The second half was akin to hand-to-hand combat, but the Gaels were not saddled with the burden of coming from behind. They and the Aztecs traded baskets and the lead until center Mitchell Saxen scored his first bucket of the day for a 44-44 tie, then matched that effort with another lay-up off a nifty pass from Johnson for another tie at 46-46. The Gaels were energized by Saxen’s outburst, but he soon picked up his third foul and went to the bench.

As he has on several occasions, Aussie freshman Harry Wessels performed solidly in Saxen’s place. He defended Jaedon LeDee, a highly-rated transfer forward from TCU, on an inside move, then drew a charge from LeDee that gave the Gaels a precious possession. When Ducas was blocked on a drive of his own, Wessels swept in and put the missed shot back in the bucket for a 50-46 Gael lead. He later grabbed a crucial rebound and made one of two free throws to push the Gael lead to five points, 51-46. Saxen came back in at the 9:17 mark.

The Gaels thought they had salted the game away over the next few possessions, as first Mahaney sank a three-pointer, Johnson scored on another power drive and Ducas added a three-pointer for what looked like a solid 59-50 lead with 5:30 left. But San Diego fought back to pull within three points at 59-56, and Gael defensive stalwart Kyle Bowen fouled out with 2:13 left.

Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett went small by subbing in 6’6″ guard/forward Chris Howell for the 6’8″ Bowen, but the coach’s brainstorm was upstaged by the play of the day. Saxen, who had struggled against rugged defense as he did against Houston and scored just four points, outsmarted San Diego on an inbounds play.

Receiving the ball in the left corner of the court, Saxen pulled a Draymond Green by faking a hand-off to Mahaney, spinning toward the bucket and catching the San Diego defender by surprise for a tough inside shot. He missed a subsequent free throw, but his bucket pushed the Gael lead to five points at 61-56 and left San Diego little choice but to foul and hope for misses.

Unfortunately for them, the player they fouled was the unflappable Mahaney, who sank six straight free throws down the stretch to push the lead to 67-61, leaving it to Howell to make the final free throw and seal the 68-61 win. Mahaney’s perfect turn at the free throw line raised his game total to a team-leading 20 points, followed by 17 for Ducas and 15 for Johnson.

Aidan Mahaney, shown above from a game earlier this season, led all Gael players against San Diego with 20 points, including 6-6 from the free throw line. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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