by Michael Vernetti

For better or worse, last week’s two-game road trip for the Saint Mary’s Gaels — overtime loss to Loyola Marymount by 78-74, convincing win over Portland by 81-64 — was in the hands of fifth-year senior Logan Johnson.

Johnson, whose value to the Gaels is usually realized on the defensive side of the ball, scored a career-high 31 points against LMU — including eight of the Gaels’ 11 points in overtime — and followed that up with another career-high 34 points against Portland, including 4-8 on three-point attempts, usually not his strong suit.

So what’s the “or worse” part of the equation? Zoom in on the last two minutes of regulation and the overtime period of the LMU game to see.

Saint Mary’s seemingly was grinding to a hard-fought but satisfying win on the road against an up-and-down LMU team that proved its toughness with a rare win over Gonzaga in Spokane earlier this season. Up by 60-53 at the 1:58 mark of the second half, the Gaels just had to hold on for the victory.

Except everybody not named Johnson seemed not to realize they still had to play out those last two minutes, starting with spectacular freshman Aidan Mahaney, who had a rare off-game against the Lions on both sides of the ball. Mahaney had scratched his way to 22 points, but had made only 3-9 three-point attempts and had coughed up five turnovers.

For some reason, Mahaney fouled LMU star Cam Shelton underneath the basket, sending Shelton — who was on the cusp of a legendary finish to the game — to the free-throw line. Shelton sank both free throws, moving the score to 60-55, but the Gaels still seemed in good shape.

Soon after, senior forward Alex Ducas missed his fourth three-point attempt (he was 1-5 for the game from distance), a wide-open corner shot, then senior forward Kyle Bowen missed the second of his three three-point attempts as well — like Ducas’s, a wide-open corner shot. Two opportunities to close out the game, two opportunities wasted.

The Shelton strategy

Unruffled, Johnson continued to dog Shelton on the next possession, defending him as he had throughout the game and had done in an earlier matchup in Moraga on Jan. 12, and forcing a turnover with a mere 55.5 seconds left in the game. On LMU’s next possession, the Gaels revealed the strategy they had adopted to assure that Shelton did not get hot down the stretch: they hedged on LMU’s pick-and-roll set, with Ducas preventing Shelton from going to his left, then deftly picking him up when Johnson was screened and preventing Shelton from driving successfully just as Johnson had done previously. Piece of cake, score still 60-55, but with only 36.5 seconds to go.

The Gaels’ luck seemed to change with the next possession, as Shelton tried to back down Johnson in the paint — not something that is usually successful against the powerfully-built Johnson. Except Johnson fell down after what appeared to be a slight collision with Shelton, leaving Shelton free to attack the basket. Bowen, the Gaels’ second ace defender, rotated to pick up Shelton, but Shelton scored over him and was fouled. He made the free throw for a three-point play that brought LMU to within two points, 60-58, with 20.9 seconds left.

Just as quickly the tide seemed to turn the other way, as LMU committed a foul on Ducas as the Gaels were having trouble inbounding the ball. Ducas calmly sank two free throws, putting the Gaels in front by four points, 62-58. Then the Shelton strategy went awry for the first time.

The Gaels hedged Shelton with Mahaney on the next possession, and Johnson didn’t seem to trust that Mahaney would pick up Shelton on a switch with LMU guard Justin Ahrens. Thus, Johnson was slow to pick up Ahrens, keeping his attention on Shelton. Left with an open look at the basket, Ahrens, a three-point specialist for four years at Ohio State before transferring to LMU, drilled the three-pointer to bring LMU within a single point, 62-61, with 12 seconds left.

The momentum swung heavily to LMU at that point, but the Lions fouled unnecessarily for the second time, this time sending Mahaney to the free-throw line. He converted one of two attempts, giving the Gaels a two-point margin, and setting the stage for a colossal defensive failure for the defense-minded Gaels.

Saint Mary’s did not oppose LMU’s inbounds pass, nor pick up the Lions in the back court, allowing Shelton to dribble unguarded until Johnson picked him up. Mahaney again hedged on the LMU pick-and-roll set, but there seemed to be confusion between Mahaney and Johnson over whether Mahaney would switch onto Shelton or not. Mahaney didn’t, choosing to stick with Ahrens, who had burned the Gaels a few seconds earlier, and Johnson was slow to pick up Shelton, allowing the LMU star to cruise to his easiest basket of the game and a tie score at 63-63 with a little more than two seconds left.

Mahaney almost saved the Gaels’ unbeaten conference record by sending a 75-foot heave right at the LMU basket, but it came off the backboard a little too hard and rimmed out. OT it was.

Shelton strategy, part 2

Following a two-point step-back jumper from Mahaney to open the overtime, Saint Mary’s again hedged Shelton on the Lions’ possession, this time with Ducas. Just as had happened in regulation, Johnson seemed uncertain whether Ducas would switch on Shelton or not, he didn’t and Johnson was again unable to defend Shelton strongly, allowing him to make another lightly-contested lay-up to tie it at 65-all.

Certainly these guys had come to agreement on their switching strategy during the time-out before the overtime period started, but apparently they had not.

What followed was a series of Shelton drives off pick-and-roll sets, with the Gaels defending none of them effectively. The overtime period became a contest between Shelton and Johnson, with the Gaels going ahead on a Johnson drive and the Lions tying it on a drive by Shelton. Then the Gaels blinked.

If LMU was going to rely solely on Shelton during the overtime period — as they did — Saint Mary’s would seem to have an advantage by having Mahaney and Johnson ready to counter. Except Mahaney didn’t have the uncanny success driving the lane against LMU in overtime as he had in the second half of the Gaels’ win over Gonzaga last Saturday. He misfired on two drives early in the overtime, then took the ball into the paint with a little more than a minute left and the score tied 71-71.

He missed for the third straight time, Shelton drove Bowen for a basket and a free throw, and LMU had a 74-71 lead. Johnson gave the Gaels another mighty lift on the next possession, making a lay-up to cut the lead to 74-73, but Shelton again drove Bowen to make it 76-73, and it was all but over.

On to Portland

We’ll have to wait for his biography to know what Gael Coach Randy Bennett made of his proud team’s inability to defend the pick-and-roll against LMU, but the Gaels would have little time to lick their wounds. After the tough Thursday loss to LMU, the Gaels hopped on a plane to Portland for a Saturday afternoon encounter.

The first half of the Portland game seemed to reflect the confidence of an underdog surging with the Gaels’ loss and an opportunity to kick the Gaels when they were down on their home court. Portland was sharp offensively, and entered the second half trailing by only one point, 39-38. It would be nearly eight minutes before the Pilots scored again, and by that time Saint Mary’s had scored 16 points, so the score after Portland’s initial basket was 55-40.

Johnson continued his brilliance, Ducas shook off a lackluster performance against LMU and Mahaney seemed sheepish after his 8-21 shooting against the Lions and limited himself to only nine shots, making four (2-6 from distance) for a quiet 10 points. And no turnovers.

Johnson went 11-18 from the floor, made 8-9 free throws, grabbed six rebounds and handed out six assists. Ducas was 6-10 on three-pointers for 18 points and freshman Joshua Jefferson got his most extended play of the season at 15 minutes and chipped in with eight points and five rebounds.

The Gaels continue on the road Thursday against San Diego, then return to Moraga next Saturday, Feb. 18, to face BYU. They had better put the LMU loss completely behind them before facing BYU, who will be looking for late-year atonement for a disappointing season.

Logan Johnson, shown above shooting against Santa Clara earlier in the season, exploded for 65 points as the Gaels split two road games last week. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.


3 thoughts on “DIY, LJ

  1. Absolutely right on! Many SMC fans were left wondering why RB didn’t make any adjustments to the sloppy defense that allowed Cam to repeatedly drive the lane. Or was it mental fog on the players’ part that did the team in?


  2. The key in the last 10 minutes of the LMU game was the Lions appeared to go into a “5 out” offensive set pulling all of the interior help defense with it. Why the Gaels did not make some kind of adjustment after the first couple of layups was baffling. Take your chances leaving on of the bigs a bit uncovered. Make someone other than Shrlton beat you. Need to be ready to see this again in upcoming games.


  3. Excellent analysis of the Loyola endgame and overtime. I would argue that the Aherns 3 point shot with 20 seconds left was critical to the outcome. Had Loyola scored a 2 instead, they would have been behind by three when Mahaney sank one of the two free throws. At that point, Loyola has to either take a desperation 3 or SMC fouls. In either case, the odds of victory would have been much better.


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