by Michael Vernetti
This is the new normal for Saint Mary’s as evidenced by Saturday’s 67-64 win over Santa Clara in Broncoland:
— defense that ruthlessly stifles the opposition
— ferocious rebounding, especially on the offensive end
— dogged adherence to the offensive plan despite early problems
What’s new about that, you say? It’s a matter of degree, as if the sleepwalking effort against Colorado State stuck in the collective throats of the Gaels and they decided they didn’t like the taste of it. For three games since then — wins against Wyoming, San Diego and Santa Clara — Saint Mary’s has held opponents to an average of 58 PPG and out-rebounded them on the offensive end by a margin of 43-27.
Kyle Bowen has been the avatar of the Gael resurgence, upping his game from stalwart defender to super-rebounder and spiritual leader. His two-game total of 28 rebounds against San Diego and Santa Clara was the hallmark of those two wins. It is as if in his senior year Bowen is refusing to accept mediocrity, and has taken it upon himself to lead his teammates back to the NCAA Tournament.
A huge play by Bowen at the 15-minute mark of the second half against Santa Clara epitomized what the shaggy-haired Aussie has become for the Gaels. After trailing most of the game, Saint Mary’s took the lead 37-36 on a lay-up by the brilliant Aidan Mahaney. They followed that up with one of only two pick-and-roll successes (by my count) in the game, a nifty dime from Logan Johnson to Mitchell Saxen that pushed the lead to 39-36.
On their next possession, they stumbled into a desperation three-point attempt by Johnson to avoid a shot-clock violation. As with nearly everything he tossed up yesterday (2-13), Johnson missed badly, but an alert Alex Ducas swatted the miss back to Bowen, who stormed the rim for a dramatic follow-up bucket that increased the Saint Mary’s lead to 41-36 — and he was fouled.
Bowen sank the and-one to give saint Mary’s a six-point lead, 42-36, which they quickly increased to 14 points, 55-41, with a little less than eight minutes left in the game. Bowen’s put-back was the emotional and actual turning point of the game. Santa Clara Coach Herb Sendek, looking glum during a post-game interview, lamented the second-chance points manufactured by Saint Mary’s, and it wouldn’t be a wild guess that he had the Bowen play in mind.
Offense follows defense
Except for an 85-point explosion against a defensively-challenged San Diego squad, Saint Mary’s has not shown indications that it has overcome a season-long malaise on offense. The beginning of the Santa Clara game looked like a contest between grade school teams — the score at the first media time out was 2-2!
But it seems as if Gael Coach Randy Bennett has convinced his charges not to let early lapses diminish their adherence to the game plan. Can’t get the ball into Saxen in the post? Keep churning and someone else will pop open. Can’t hit three-pointers? Same advice. The Gaels don’t seem to care that Saxen has up and down games (I know, I know, 20 points against San Diego, but it was San Diego) and that the pick-and-roll is an anomaly these days.
Mahaney, who led all scorers yesterday with 18 points on 8-16 shooting, doesn’t even look at Saxen as the big man begins the roll part of the P&R. He uses Saxen’s rolling to the hoop as a distraction for the defense to worry about and heads elsewhere to find weaknesses to exploit.
The overall offensive plan is attrition: Bennett seems convinced — and his team has bought in to the idea — that if the Gaels continue to pound the ball inside when they can, continue to keep the ball moving, continue to look for driving lanes for Johnson, Mahaney and the improving Augustus Marciulionis, they will take control of games sometime in the second half. Their opponents, weary from competing against the Gaels’ ruthless defense, inevitably tire as the game wears on and loosen up their guarding of Gael shooters.
The road ahead
The WCC season is only two games old and already has produced a bunch of surprises. Portland, showing signs of resurgence last year under Shantay Legans, was the darling of prognosticators tired of the Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s dominance of league play. To the prognosticators’ chagrin, the Pilots limped to two losses against Loyola Marymount and BYU in the first week of conference play after a pre-season highlighted by a win over Villanova and a one-point loss to Michigan State.
San Francisco, another alternative choice for Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s haters, joined Portland at the bottom of league standings after losing to Santa Clara and a revenge-seeking San Diego Torero squad that didn’t take well to a 27-point loss handed it by the Gaels on Thursday. It helped that San Diego had one of its two starters back who didn’t play against Saint Mary’s, guard Jase Townsend who went for 22 points against San Francisco.
LMU was a brief darling after upsetting Portland in the league-opener, but gave way to Pacific as the Tigers took them down in the second game. So, WCC standings look eerily familiar after the first week, with Saint Mary’s and BYU in front with 2-0 marks, Gonzaga in third only because it played just one game — beating Pepperdine handily — and Santa Clara, LMU, San Diego and Pacific tied at 1-1. The more things change…
The Gaels have a mid-week practice game against Academy of Art Institute — no, they aren’t expecting a draw — before returning to WCC play against Portland on Jan.7, followed by LMU on the 12th, both in Moraga. The grind continues.
Aidan Mahaney, shown above in an earlier game this season, continues to have a freshman season for the record books, leading the Gaels in scoring against Santa Clara with 18 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.