500, 501…

by Michael Vernetti

The most common observation after Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett led the Gaels to wins number 500 — 68-59 over San Francisco on Thursday — and 501 — 78-70 in overtime against Gonzaga last night — was, “Let’s hope he sticks around for another 500.”

Sounds comforting, but after reviewing tape of both those grinders Bennett’s more likely comment may have been, “I should live so long.”

On both nights, Bennett’s charges faced talented, motivated teams determined that he would not reach any milestones against them. San Francisco was in the midst of a mini-revival under first-year Coach Chris Gerlufsen, having won three WCC games in a row since activating former redshirt Ndewedo Newbury, a 6’7″ forward from London.

Newbury made Gerlufsen look like a genius in his first game, scoring nine points and grabbing 11 rebounds as the Dons romped over Pacific by 78-57. Things did not go so well against the Gaels (two points, one rebound), but at least Gerlufsen was shaking things up.

Saint Mary’s was lurching along against San Francisco as the second half got underway, nursing a 44-31 lead with about 15 minutes left and tantalizing fans with the expectation of an imminent surge. Didn’t happen, and a possession at the 15:14 mark demonstrated why.

The great stall

Logan Johnson, ragged against both San Francisco and Gonzaga, missed a lay-up off one of his patented drives to the hoop. Mitchell Saxen was in perfect position for a tip-in, but he missed that, too. Forward Kyle Bowen grabbed the rebound after Saxen’s miss, but became befuddled under the basket and couldn’t convert the basket either. Ever aggressive, Bowen grabbed his own miss and tapped the ball out to the Gaels’ BYU hero Aidan Mahaney for a three-point attempt that would salvage the possession.

“Clank” went Mahaney’s attempt, so the score stood at 44-31 when San Francisco’s Marcus Williams, a 6’2″ sophomore guard who was the Dons’ prized acquisition off the transfer portal from Texas A&M, caught fire. Williams, who had barely bothered the Gaels until that point, drove Mahaney for a lay-up to make it 44-33.

A little later, Khalil Shabazz, the Dons’ mercurial leading scorer, drove the Gaels’ Augustus Marciulionis for a bucket and free throw. The score moved to 45-36. Saxen was stripped under the basket, the Dons’ Isaiah Hawthorne drove Gael freshman Joshua Jefferson and was fouled, converting both free throws — 47-38.

Williams then officially went off, nailing three three-point attempts in the next several minutes to give San Francisco a two-point lead at 53-51. Bennett was frustrated by the inability of Gael forward Alex Ducas to stay in the same area code as Williams, and made an inspired decision at the 4:28 mark. Instead of going to forward Luke Barrett as a defensive replacement for Ducas, Bennett called on Marciulionis, giving Saint Mary’s a three-guard offense with Gus, Johnson and Mahaney.

It worked, as Marciulionis effectively shut down Williams and sank crucial free throws down the stretch that allowed Saint Mary’s to claw their way to victory. But, as effective as Marciulionis was, he had a sidekick who arrived at just the right moment — Mahaney. Mahaney had been reflecting the Gaels’ ineffectiveness on offense until that point, but came alive when fouled with his team still behind by two points, 55-53.

The dagger

Mahaney made only one of two free throws, but shortly thereafter drove the lane and scored to put the Gaels back ahead by 56-55. Marciulionis then made the first of his clutch free throws to push the lead to three points, 58-55, setting the stage for Mahaney’s dagger. Unable get free from a clinging San Francisco defense all night, Mahaney had tried and missed on his only three-point attempt. Until there was only 1:35 left in the game and he found himself on the left elbow facing down the Dons’ 6’10” forward Josh Kunen.

Mahaney’s teammates cleared out the space surrounding the two players, as Mahaney dribbled calmly and assessed his chances. Kunen seemed paralyzed, afraid to press Mahaney for fear the clever freshman would go around him and score inside. When Mahaney made a slight movement suggesting he might begin his dribble, Kunen took a slight step backward and Mahaney had all the space he needed.

Mahaney launched his only successful three-point basket of the night, the Gaels went ahead by six points, 61-55, and the game was all but over at the 1:35 mark. It was mostly a free-throw contest after that point except for an exceptionally poor call by a referee against Mahaney. Shabazz challenged Mahaney with a dribble toward the paint, then slipped and fell to the ground, giving the ball up to the Gaels.

But not according to the referee, who had the play right in front of him and saw the same thing everyone in the building saw: falling victim to a slippery floor — the residue of humid conditions caused by the elements — Shabazz simply slipped. Mahaney come nowhere near fouling him, but he was called anyway and it was his fifth foul, disqualifying him for the final seconds.

Sinking 7-8 free throws in the waning seconds, the Gaels pushed on to the nine-point win, 68-59, allowing Gael players to break out T-shirts designed by former great Gael E.J. Rowland commemorating Bennett’s 500 victories. Bring on the Zags.

Gonzaga at a turning point

Gonzaga, the all-powerful force of the WCC and national polls for much of Bennett’s tenure, did not come into Moraga with its usual swagger. The Zags had suffered respectable losses to powerhouses Texas, Purdue and Baylor, but countered those with wins over Michigan State, Kentucky and Alabama. Still commanding a top-10 national ranking, Gonzaga nevertheless seemed weakened by the loss of superstar guard Andrew Newbhard and forward Chet Holmgren to the NBA.

Then came disaster at the hands of WCC rival Loyola Marymount, which did the impossible — beating Gonzaga on their own floor by 68-67. Thus, the mighty Zags came into Moraga last night trailing 9-0 Saint Mary’s by one game in the WCC standings and bearing a so-so national ranking of 14, slightly ahead of the Gaels’ 18th ranking. Saint Mary’s was favored by up to three points, but would the Zags suffer the same fate as last year, when they lost to the Gaels on the final day of the WCC season?

It sure didn’t seem that way in the early going, as the Zags resembled their offensive powerhouses of earlier seasons, racing out to leads of 19-8 and 20-9 before Saint Mary’s straightened itself out and began the long, slow climb to overcoming a double-digit deficit at the hands of a steamroller. The Gaels had pulled to a respectable eight-point deficit, 32-24, at halftime.

Showing the same defensive grit as it had against San Francisco, the Gaels could not switch on the offense, epitomized by the struggles of Mahaney, who carried over his early-game troubles against San Francisco. To wit: only a single bucket scored when Bennett sent him back onto the floor at the 7:30 mark with the Gaels still trailing by the halftime deficit of eight points, 49-41.

Johnson carrying the load

Although he was struggling offensively almost as much as Mahaney, the Gaels’ spiritual leader, Johnson, was trying to pick up the slack as the game inched toward a dismal climax for Saint Mary’s. Johnson willed himself to a score in the paint to reduce the deficit to six points, then an alarm clock seemed to go off in Mahaney’s head.

Penetrating the lane, Mahaney scored only his second basket of the game and was fouled, sinking the free throw to reduce the Gael deficit to six points at 51-45. Then Johnson showed the grit that has marked his tenure at Saint Mary’s, sinking a three-pointer after three not-close attempts has gone awry previously.

Suddenly, it was a two-point game, 51-49. Cue Mr. Mahaney, who scored on four straight lane penetrations with both his left and right hands, arching deadly hook shots higher and higher off the backcourt as furious Zag defenders struggled to slow him down. With periodic counters by Zag stars Drew Time and Julian Strawther, Mahaney’s last drive pulled Saint Mary’s even at 59-all.

The Zags edged ahead by 61-59 at the :19 second point, however, and it looked as if the heroics by Mahaney might go for naught. As he dribbled the ball on the Gaels’ end of the court, the entire Gonzaga team seemed alert to keep him from scoring. And they did, but surrounded in the paint and seemingly stymied, Mahaney revealed his uncanny court vision to spy Saxen under the basket, and bounced a pass into the eager center’s hands. Basket by Saxen, overtime for the Gaels!

Overtime heroics

Mahaney had scored 11 straight points and made the key assist of the night to bring the Gaels into a five-minute chance to turn the tide of the 22-23 WCC season. He wasn’t done yet. As the overtime got under way, Saint Mary’s took a 65-64 lead and then Mahaney switched strategy on the Zags, connecting on an off-the-backboard three-pointer to give them a 68-64 lead that seemed huge. It was Mahaney’s only three-point make of the night against seven misses.

Again taking advantage of a Zag defense ganging up on him to keep him from scoring, on the Gaels’ next possession Mahaney dropped a no-look dime on Saxen that caught the Zags by surprise. It didn’t surprise Saxen, however, as he dropped in the bucket that put Saint Mary’s up 70-64 with 2:32 left in overtime. Mahaney doesn’t grandstand over his offensive heroics, maintaining mainly a calm demeanor as he demolishes opponents, but he relished the two assists he completed that, first, sent the game into overtime and, second, give the Gaels a six-point lead.

When Gonzaga called a desperate time out to regroup for the final two-and-a-half minutes, Mahaney made a goggle gesture with his hands as he walked to the sidelines with his teammates. “I’ve got eyes as well as a great shooting touch,” his gesture seemed to say, and who would deny him.

A three-pointer by the mostly irrelevant Zag point guard Nolan Hickman — did I mention that the Zags desperately miss Nembhard? — provided the only excitement for the rest of overtime, cutting the Gael lead to four points, 71-67. But the Zags were forced to foul from that point on and, repeating their performance from the San Francisco game, Gaels Ducas and Marciulionis were deadly from the free-throw line and led the Gaels to an eight-point lead, 78-70.

Saint Mary’s had come from a shaky halftime total of 24 points to a second half-and-overtime total of 54 points to gain the victory that left them in sole possession of first place in the WCC at 10-0, and gave them a two-game lead over the Zags. If Saint Mary’s maintains that lead for the next five games, it will head into Spokane for a rematch with the Zags knowing it can lose and still win the WCC regular-season championship.

It’s enough to make Coach Bennett think about another 500 wins.

Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett, shown above in a worried moment of the San Francisco victory — with a looming Aidan Mahaney behind him — reached the 500-win milestone against the Dons, and extended it against Gonzaga. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.


6 thoughts on “500, 501…

  1. Hello Michael,

    I can’t seem to figure out how to get restored to your distribution. The instructions for Word Press don’t give me clear paths.

    The problem with distribution began with the BYU game. I received the most recent write up from another alum who didn’t get the BYU article but did get this one.




    1. Hi, Ted, thanks for reaching out. The immediate distribution path is through Twitter, but you mentioned you do not have a Twitter account. Other than that, there is no distribution prices — the post is available at http://www.gaels360.com by loading that address in your browser. Other people access it through God is a Gael or Facebook.


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