The guards have it

by Michael Vernetti

In both Saint Mary’s wins last week — 76-62 over Loyola Marymount in Moraga on Thursday and 78-61 over San Francisco in the City on Saturday, Gael guards Logan Johnson and Aidan Mahaney were dominant.

Dominant as in 44 points against LMU and 45 against San Francisco.

But lest fans become bored with consistent excellence, Johnson and Mahaney switched the script in each game. Johnson, the dogged defender who routinely draws the opponent’s most dangerous guard, had his hands full with LMU’s super-senior Cam Shelton. Shelton scored near his average with 18 points, but had to take 16 shots to get there, making six for a shooting percentage of 37 per cent.

Despite running down the lightning-quick Shelton for 31 minutes, Johnson scored 19 points himself with an efficient 7-12 shooting percentage, dished out a team-high five assists, grabbed six rebounds, and had a block and a steal for good measure. Not a bad night’s work.

Mahaney, the unflappable freshman, went through his full bag of offensive moves against LMU, scoring on three-pointers, mid-range jumpers and runners in the paint for 15 points at the half — Saint Mary’s up 35-21 — and 25 for the night, matching his career-opening total for the second time this year.

Mahaney’s defensive assignment looked daunting on paper — 6’6″ fifth-year guard Justin Ahrens who transferred to LMU after four years at Ohio State. In his last season at OSU, Ahrens went 54 of 127 on three-point attempts for a 42 per cent success rate from distance. Mahaney would be over-matched on defense, right?

Except Ahrens attempted only two shots on the night, none from distance, and finished with a tame four points against Mahaney’s 25. Hmmm, can Mahaney defend as well as score?

On to San Francisco

Gael coach Randy Bennett obviously thinks well of Mahaney’s defensive chops, as he indicated by matching Mahaney instead of Johnson on San Francisco’s leading scorer, the electric Khalil Shabazz, who was coming off a 25-point effort in the Dons’ loss to Portland on Thursday. Shabazz moved to the top of San Francisco’s all-time three-point shooting chart with the effort in Portland, and was averaging 15.2 PPG coming into the Saint Mary’s game.

Johnson’s assignment was no cupcake, as he drew Washington State transfer Tyrell Roberts, who has matched offensive stats with Shabazz all season, averaging 15 PPG and specializing in three-point proficiency. Roberts, who is only 5’11” and very quick, seemed to flummox Johnson early, hitting two quick three-pointers and beating Johnson off the dribble for a jumper in the paint as the Dons led the Gaels by 22-20 with seven minutes left in the half.

Let’s hope he enjoyed that moment in the sun. Not only did Saint Mary’s shift into high gear after Roberts’s jumper, going on a 17-3 tear behind three buckets by Mahaney to lead 39-25 at the half, but Roberts scored only one more basket in the game, ending with 10 points on 4-12 shooting. Johnson figured him out, while Roberts proved no match for Johnson’s physicality, as the Gaels’ super senior punished Roberts and San Francisco with 24 points on 10-15 shooting.

Johnson’s dominance — all of his baskets came off driving lay-ups — contributed to the Gaels’ 34-22 advantage in points in the paint.

What about Mahaney?

Unlike Johnson, Mahaney didn’t suffer even a hiccup in his defense of Shabazz, shutting down the Dons’ star from the opening tip. Shabazz, who shot 1-11 on the night, didn’t score a single point until he sank two free throws with 4:18 left in the game. He later sank a three-pointer in garbage time, shrinking the Gaels’ edge to 14 points at 65-51.

Stopping Shabazz didn’t tire Mahaney, who played 34 minutes in the game, as he scored early and often to finish with 21 points on 8-15 shooting. A snapshot of his production on offense and defense highlights his overall contribution. Near the end of the first half, with Saint Mary’s leading by just 24-22, Mahaney sank a corner three-pointer off an out-of-bounds play that Shabazz complained loudly about because, Shabazz said, the referee allowed the Gaels to start before he was ready. Really.

Mahaney then blocked a Shabazz jumper in the paint and hit a jumper of his own to push the Saint Mary’s lead to 29-22. Following a three-pointer by the Dons’ Isaiah Hawthorne, Mahaney answered with a three-pointer of his own, then sank a two-pointer to increase the lead to nine points, 34-25. Just another night’s work for the sensational freshman.

Let it not be said that the two wins last week — which left Saint Mary’s tied for first-place in the WCC with Gonzaga at 5-0 — came solely through the efforts of Johnson and Mahaney. Remember the rampage initiated by senior power forward Kyle Bowen when he feared his teammates weren’t playing with enough passion to propel them into the NCAA Tournament?

The Bowen effect

The rampage that saw him capture 28 rebounds in crucial wins over Santa Clara and San Diego, slow down a bit with only four boards against Portland and seem to Peter out with a seven-rebound game against LMU in which he scored zero points and fouled out? Bowen came back with a vengeance against San Francisco, keeping the Gaels alive during a slumping start to the game with four first-half three-pointers en route to 14 points, seven rebounds, four assists, a block and a steal.

To see how important Bowen’s three-point output was to the Gaels’s success, note that Alex Ducas, the team leader in three-point shooting, made only 1-5 from distance in a generally subpar game which saw him total only three points. Although the Gaels ended up with an impressive win over San Francisco, fans might not want to think too hard about how the result may have been different without Bowen’s surprising burst of three-point accuracy.

The Gaels head to Malibu on Thursday to take on the slumping but dangerous Pepperdine Waves, then return to Moraga for a return match with Santa Clara next Saturday. Santa Clara seemed to be on a mission in its 92-81 victory over a scrappy Pacific squad on Saturday, and will be itching to pay back Saint Mary’s for its 67-64 win at the Leavey Center on New Year’s Eve.

The Broncos were without sensational sophomore transfer guard Brandin Podziemski against Pacific and still racked up 92 points. Podziemski was scratched for unexplained reasons, but seemed fine on the sidelines in sweats. One can expect he will not lightly miss the rematch in Moraga next Saturday.

Aidan Mahaney, shown above scoring against LMU on Thursday, scored 46 points in two games last week. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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1 thought on “The guards have it

  1. It may be just because it was the end game, but Bennett had all three guards on the court against the Dons. I hope it happens more often. As you describe, Johnson and Mahaney are such good defenders, they need the minutes they are getting which leaves Marciulionis the odd man out.

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