A win, then a WIN!

by Michael Vernetti

With two dominating wins against Pepperdine in Malibu, 73-44 (29 points) on Thursday, and Santa Clara, 77-58 (19 points) in Moraga yesterday, Saint Mary’s moved into sole possession of first place in the WCC following a shocking mid-week loss by Gonzaga to Loyola Marymount in Spokane. The Gaels swept to their eighth straight win by beating Santa Clara, and now look down from their 7-0 perch in the WCC on second-place Gonzaga at 6-1 and Santa Clara and LMU tied for third at 4-3.

Dropping quicker than the drink tab at a campus party, BYU has fallen four games behind Saint Mary’s (4-4) with consecutive losses to Santa Clara and San Francisco, and must regroup for a maximum effort against the Gaels next Saturday in Provo. As things look now, the WCC could end up with Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga battling it out for the conference title and Santa Clara and LMU fighting for third and fourth places. It is not inconceivable that they all could be vying for NCAA bids as well.

The Gaels absolutely, positively had to beat Pepperdine to start the week, as the talented-but-undisciplined Waves were on life support at 0-5 in league play. Would unconcern about their overall record and hope for a season-justifying upset propel Pepperdine into a maximum effort against Saint Mary’s? Hardly.

Mahaney off

Pepperdine benefited from an unprecedented so-so effort from the Gaels’ Aidan Mahaney, who was coming off a spectacular 21-point performance in his team’s shellacking of San Francisco, 78-61, in which Mahaney stifled the Dons’ superstar, Khalil Shabazz (1-7 on three-pointers), en route to sinking 5-7 three-pointers of his own.

After having played 34 minutes of tough offense and defense against San Francisco, Mahaney logged only 24 minutes against the Waves, scored only six points on 2-9 shooting and committed two first-half turnovers that seemed to test Coach Randy Bennett’s patience. After re-entering the game at the eight-minute mark of the half, Mahaney made an unforced bad pass that was intercepted by the Waves, and Bennett immediately replaced him on the floor with Augustus Marciulionis.

In what became a pattern for the week’s two games, Marciulionis took advantage of Mahaney’s misfortune by driving the lane and scoring to push the Gaels’ lead to 29-13. The Gaels’ carelessness with the ball continued, however, as first Logan Johnson, then Joshua Jefferson then Johnson again coughed up the ball, fueling a Pepperdine 9-0 run to end the half down by only 33-24.

That was it for drama in Malibu, however, as the Gaels regrouped under no-doubt loving words of encouragement from Bennett during the halftime break, and ran up a 40-point second half to cruise to a 29-point win. The most memorable moment of the game was Johnson’s connecting on one-of-three three-point attempts, his first successful three-pointer since making 1-3 against San Diego in the conference opener on Dec. 29.

The argument could be made that three-point baskets are superfluous to Johnson’s drive-the-basket approach to scoring, but that is not true. In going 0-9 from distance against Santa Clara, Portland and LMU and attempting not a single three-pointer against San Francisco, Johnson shuttered one of his most potent weapons. Every three-pointer he makes gives defenders something to worry about besides being taken to the rack, which makes it even more likely that they will, indeed, be taken to the rack.

Enter Santa Clara

Santa Clara entered the Gaels’ playground yesterday afternoon looking like a team on a mission — to revenge the Gaels’ 67-64 win over them on New Years Eve and inch closer to second place in the WCC by giving Saint Mary’s its first loss. At 16-5 overall to the Gaels’ 17-4 and 4-2 in conference play to the Gaels’ 6-0, the Broncos no doubt often told themselves how close they were to the Gaels. What a difference a game makes.

Under veteran Coach Herb Sendek, Santa Clara has assembled an impressive roster of not-so-gentle giants. Manning the post are 6’10”, 245-lb senior Jaden Bediako or 7’0″ freshman Christoph Tilly from Berlin (Germany, not New Hampshire); at strong forward is 6’10” Parker Braun; at small forward is 6’7″ grad student Keshawn Justice; at shooting guard is one of the best transfer portal pick-ups in the country, 6’5″ sharpshooter Brandin Podziemski formerly of the Illinois Fighting Illini; and at the point is the only not-huge member of its rotation, the 6’1″ Carlos Stewart, who makes up in speed and determination what he lacks in giantism.

They are not only big, but they can shoot, as Podziemski and Justice are genuine three-point threats, and Braun and Stewart are not far behind them. Turns out, size and three-point shooting are no match for a smooth-operating outfit like the Gaels, who are seemingly improving game by game since a disheartening loss to Colorado State on Dec. 18.

And the Gaels had Mahaney, who undoubtedly chafed under his lengthy benching against Pepperdine and was determined not to let that happen again. Mahaney made his presence felt toward the end of the first half after the Broncos had closed to within one point, 23-22, following two questionable three-point attempts by Johnson that missed badly.

On the possession following Santa Clara’s creeping to within one point, Mahaney immediately sank a three-pointer to erase any ideas of falling behind at the half. He repeated again on the next possession, pushing the Gaels’ lead to 29-22, and sank his third in a row a little later after the Broncos had scored twice themselves. Mahaney’s sharp-shooting lifted Saint Mary’s from a precarious one-point lead, 23-22, to a more comfortable 32-27, and set up the Gaels to close the half with a seven-point lead at 36-29.

Foot not off the pedal

One of the hallmarks of the Gaels’ success following the Colorado State loss is coming out strong after the halftime break. Gael fans used to wince at the beginning of second halves, fearing their team would stumble around for a few minutes before regaining its composure. Not so the renewed Gaels, as Santa Clara learned to its chagrin.

Mahaney kept up the pressure, driving Bediako to start the half, then giving Saint Mary’s its first double-digit lead with a corner three-pointer and a 45-34 advantage. Alex Ducas matched Mahaney with a corner three-pointer of his own, and the Gaels were up 48-34 in the opening minutes of the second half.

During the second half surge, Johnson forgot about regaining his three-point stroke and drove the Broncos’ inner defense with with two patented power moves. Ducas continued the onslaught with two more three-pointers, and before the second half was eight minutes old Saint Mary’ led by 54-36. So much for second-half letdowns.

They then unleashed a potent additional weapon.

Mahaney was not in Bennett’s doghouse, but after his three-pointer gave him 20 points for the night, he went to the bench in place of Marciulionis. Gael fans have noticed that Goose, or Gus, or whatever you want to call him, has slowly grown in confidence and scoring ability over the course of this season. It’s as if he has stopped worrying about regaining his starting position from Mahaney, and has accepted his role as a valuable fill-in for Mahaney or Johnson.

The Marciulionis show

He showcased the importance off that role with about nine-and-a-half minutes left against Santa Clara and his team up comfortably at 56-38. Using a tactic he has perfected with repeated use, Marciulionis drove hard into the paint from the right side. Reacting to his obvious intent to attack the basket, the Bronco defenders rotated to cut him off, but Gus was waiting for them. He rifiled a short bullet to the crashing Gael center Mitchell Saxen, who caught it and finished for a 20-point Gael lead, 58-38.

A little later, operating at the head of the key, Marciulionis blew past his defender and took on the imposing, 6’10” Braun, who was coming toward him with evil intent. Marciulionis arched a left-handed hook shot high off the backboard to thwart Braun’s reach, and it fell through the net for the score.

Marciulionis then repeated a hard charge into the paint, but this time passed out to the right corner where Johnson was waiting with little choice but to hoist a three-pointer. Forgetting his three-point drought that had ended against Pepperdine, plus his two errant three-point attempts from the first half, Johnson confidently lifted a high-arching beauty that drew, you guessed it, nothing but net.

Marciulionis was having fun now. He soon found himself at the head of the key again, this time with Bediako between him and the bucket. As he did against Braun earlier, Marciulionis bested Bediako easily for another score, then took his part in one of the prettiest sequences of this year’s Gael offense.

Watching the never-stagnant Gael offense go through its patterns, Marciulionis noticed Saxen moving up to the high pick-and-roll position with Johnson poised to Saxen’s right. Without a pause, Marciulionis passed to Saxen just as Johnson broke for the basket. Mimicking the Golden State Warriors, who utilize the same play with Draymond Green in Saxen’s role, Saxen handed off the ball to the streaking Johnson, who crashed through one of the Bronco bigs for yet another driving lay-up to put the Gaels up by 69-45.

It was all over but the shouting, as the Gaels eventually ran up a 28-point led, then turned things over to the second team and settled for a 19-point rout of the Broncos, whose day started so promisingly.

The Gaels continue their countdown to a showdown with Gonzaga in Moraga on Feb. 4 by traveling to Provo to face the reeling BYU Cougars next Saturday (Jan. 28). Despite BYU’s recent problems, this will be no picnic for the Gaels, who will be facing a desperate team backed by its rabid fans. The Gael defense has proved impervious to spirited attacks whether at home or on the road, and it will be tested mightily against BYU.

Logan Johnson, show above shooting against Santa Clara, scored 13 points, dished out four assists and registered a steal in the Gaels’ crucial 77-58 win over the Broncos. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.


2 thoughts on “A win, then a WIN!

  1. Was also impressed with Luke Barrett’s hustle, 6 rebounds in 18 minutes, and 4-4 from the line.  That “line” needs to be taken more seriously by some of Luke’s teammates.


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