by Michael Vernetti
The San Diego Torreros who lost to Saint Mary’s by 27 points (85-58) Thursday in Moraga were not the team new coach Steve Lavin envisioned when he took over the Torreros in April.
Lavin, a well-respected former coach at UCLA and St. John’s, hit the ground running, rescuing prize guard Wayne McKinney III from the transfer portal, and landing Pac-12 standouts Jaiden DeLaire from Stanford and Eric Williams Jr. from Oregon. With that nucleus joining holdover Torreros Jase Townsend, Marcellus Earlington and Sigu Sisal Jawara, Lavin was set to compete in the constantly-improving West Coast Conference.
The Toreros started strong, winning four of five against so-so competition — Sonoma State and San Diego Christian included — before the wheels fell off with a disastrous trip to Las Vegas and losses to New Mexico State and Nicholls. Blowout losses to UNLV and Arizona State followed, and that was before San Diego lost DeLaire and Townsend to injuries. Without those two starters, Lavin’s lads limped into Moraga to face a well-rested and motivated Saint Mary’s squad, which has suffered its own ups and downs in an 11-4 season.
The Gaels have been a mystery throughout the non-conference portion of their season, disposing of well-respected opponents such as Oral Roberts, North Texas State and Vermont with ease, but stumbling over Washington of the Pac-12 and New Mexico of the Mountain West Conference.
After reassuring their fans that they were, indeed, a potential NCAA Tournament team by beating nemesis San Diego State on a neutral court and handling New Mexico State easily at home, the Gaels sleep-walked to a 62-60 loss to a good-but-not-great Colorado State squad in Moraga to rekindle the doubts. An up-and-down win over Wyoming (66-54) last Wednesday didn’t answer all questions about the Gaels, so last night’s opener of the West Coast Conference season was a crucial test.
And Saint Mary’s passed, holding a high-scoring but defensively challenged Torero squad to its lowest point total of the year and posting 85 points of its own — the highest total so far this season. So, is it Easy Street from here on in for the Gaels? Hardly.
On the plus side was a dominating effort from center Mitchell Saxen. the junior who has faced the challenge of replacing rock-solid Matthias Tass in the post with checkered success. Saxen went 8-11 from the field against a smallish San Diego front line, cashing in on a barrage of drop-off buckets supplied by his teammates, who tallied 16 assists on 32 made baskets.
Saxen, who had fallen below 50 per cent shooting from the free-throw line, managed to sink 4-7 of his free throw attempts, and added 10 rebounds for his third double-double of the year, along with three assists, two blocks and two steals. A solid night’s work, following a similar effort against Wyoming — 19 points and nine rebounds. The Gaels need a stellar effort from Saxen every night to make their in-and-out offense work .
Ducas is back
The game also featured the return of Alex Ducas, the sometimes magnificent wing man with the silky-smooth three-point shot, who managed to score not a single point against Wyoming. Ducas was one of the main recipients of the Toreros’ casual approach to defense, finding himself so alone on two of his three-pointers that he couldn’t find anyone to chat with. He finished with 13 points on 5-10 shooting, and seemingly could have had many more if Gael Coach Randy Bennett hadn’t emptied his bench.
The Gael guard threesome, Aidan Mahaney, Logan Johnson and Augustus Marciulionis was efficient, totaling 33 points on 13-28 shooting. Marciulionis started out as if he were going to have a scoring breakthrough, racking up eight points by halftime on aggressive drives to the rock and his now-patented stop-and-twist floater, but made just one free throw in the second half to end up with nine.
Johnson also had nine points, but he can be forgiven after his 28-points against Wyoming saved the Gaels’s bacon in that one. Mahaney played only seven minutes in the first half after picking up two quick fouls, but returned with a 10-point flourish in the second half to finish with 15. Mahaney made only one of two there-point attempts, penetrating to the rim on several occasions and hitting his unstoppable, 15-foot jumper seemingly as he wished.
Bowen is everywhere
Kyle Bowen, the Gaels’s defensive lockdown artist, made only one bucket against San Diego — a three-pointer at the game’s outset — but may have been the most dominating force on the floor. Bowen began the game by blocking Earlington’s first shot of the game, made two more blocks on the evening and grabbed 13 rebounds to go along with a steal. He even led a fast-break, finding Saxen out front after a long rebound and feeding the big man perfectly for a lay-up and score.
Bowen may have excited Gael fans by his 16-point outburst against New Mexico State two games ago, but that is not his strength. He has worked his way to respectable three-point shooting success, which he demonstrates occasionally, but does not try to be an offensive threat. He proves his worth by defending the opponents’ best front-line weapon and grabbing every rebound in his vicinity. If Ducas, Mahaney and Johnson are doing their jobs offensively, the Gaels don’t need double-digit scoring from Bowen to be successful
Saint Mary’s has not ben universally successful inserting reserves during comfortable wins, as the second-teamers have shown themselves prone to turnovers and defensive lapses. Coach Bennett, who has only 10 players available, has doggedly stuck to his plans to get everyone involved, however, and did so against San Diego as the Gael lead ballooned to 30 points in the second half. And the reserves did well!
Most impressive was Joshua Jefferson, the chiseled 6’8″ freshman power forward from Henderson, NV. Jefferson has shone for moments — his two jump shots against Washington were rare examples of the Gaels handling Washington’s zone defense — but has seemed often on the brink of showing himself to be a star of the future. He had his best game of the season against San Diego, dishing off two sweet assists to Saxen and sinking two three-pointers in two attempts — his first long-range goals of the year.
Almost anyone would pale in comparison to Bowen’s defensive prowess, but Jefferson is working hard to become an acceptable replacement even in non-blowout situations. Bowen is a senior and Australian players don’t often stick around after four years even given Covid allowances, so Jefferson may be the heir apparent at power forward. His obvious offensive abilities compared to Bowen are intriguing, and if he continues to improve defensively he could prove to ba a worthy successor.
Saint Mary’s travels down 680-880 on New Year’s Eve (Saturday) to play the 13-3 Santa Clara Broncos, who opened their WCC season by handling a strong San Francisco team by 79-67. If any Bronco-haters among the Gael faithful think Herb Sendek’s Broncos are quavering over the prospect of facing the hot-and-cold Gaels, they haven’t been paying attention to the new WCC. This will be the test Saint Mary’s did not receive from San Diego.
Mitchell Saxen, shown above shooting a free throw against San Diego, led all scorers with 20 points and added 10 rebounds for his third double-double of the year. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.