The week that was…head-scratching

by Michael Vernetti

The primary goal for Saint Mary’s as it took the floor against BYU Saturday night in Moraga was to forget what had happened the previous Thursday evening in San Diego.

In one of the most inexplicable performances in Coach Randy Bennett’s career, the Gaels basically stopped performing with 10:20 left and a 60-40 lead over a San Diego team that was without its best scorer, Marcellus Earlington, and three of the four other starters from the last time the two teams met, a 27-point scorcher (85-58) by Saint Mary’s.

So, instead of forward Bendji Pierre, guard Sigu Sisoho Jawara and key Oregon transfer Eric Williams Jr. — who accounted for 32 of San Diego’s 58 points in the previous match-up — the Toreros went with Steven Jameson II, Deven Dahike, Dominic Muncey and some others.

For most of the game, Saint Mary’s played like the heavy favorite it was, crisply and efficiently, knowing it had but one goal — get the win and protect its one-game lead over Gonzaga in the WCC. Then the wheels came off, and Bennett’s charges watched as San Diego held the Gaels to two free throws by Mitchell Saxen over the next three minutes while scoring six points itself.

After Saxen’s scoring outburst, making the score 62-46, the Gaels went into even deeper offensive slumber, managing not a single point the rest of the way as San Diego scored 13 straight points to finish at 62-59. Not to single out someone who has been the Gaels’ leader during the two games since a win over Gonzaga on Feb. 4 — one loss, one win, 65 points — but Logan Johnson managed just three free throws against San Diego, going 0-3 from the floor.

Energy needed

Clearly, Saint Mary’s needed an energy transfer from the San Diego game to the contest with BYU, which has seen its season crumble with heart-breaking losses to Gonzaga and the Gaels a week ago in Provo, and provoked anger from its fiery Coach Mark Pope by losing 81-74 to Santa Clara on Thursday. Pope would have the Cougars fired up, but what about the Gaels?

Not to worry, as a raucous crowd and an inspired Johnson led the Gaels to a nine-point lead nearing the end of the first half, only to see it whittled to six points, 33-27, on a buzzer-beating three-pointer by the Cougars’ pesky sixth man, Rudi Williams. While Johnson scored a team-high 14 points in the first half, his sidekick, Aidan Mahaney, had scored just a single basket, and still had the second half — where he has had some of his most brilliant performances in a brilliant season — ahead of him.

As if sensing the crowd was expecting him to do something spectacular, Mahaney made two quick mid-range jumpers and a pair of free throws to counter a fast start by BYU’s formidable post player, Fousseyni Traore, who had led BYU within two points of the Gaels at 43-41. This was a turning point in the contest, a moment when either the Gaels or the Cougars would strike a deadly blow to the other.

Mahaney decided he would do the striking. Defending the lightning-quick Williams with the score still at 43-41, Mahaney stole the ball from the BYU guard and began dribbling out of danger when he spied Johnson racing downcourt. Harassed by Williams, Mahaney fired a left-handed bounce-pass that hit Johnson in full stride, allowing Johnson to cruise to a basket and give the Gaels a little breathing room at 45-41.

Mahaney dagger

Sensing as he does that his opponent was vulnerable to a follow-on blow, Mahaney hit a step-back three-pointer on the Gaels’ next possession to push the lead to seven points, 48-41. A little later he sank two free throws to push the lead to 50-41, then drove the lane hard and barely missed a left-handed runner.

Mahaney had drawn a BYU big to him as he drove, however, so the Gaels’ ever-alert forward Kyle Bowen was able to tip in Mahaney’s miss for a nine-point lead at 52-43. The Cougars didn’t crack, however, and countered with a bucket and free throw from Noah Waterman to cut the deficit to six points.

Feeding off Mahaney’s energy, the Gaels’ Johnson got loose along the baseline for an emphatic stuff, then scored on a difficult shot in the paint to put the Gaels up 56-46 with 9:16 left in the game. Waterman got a little too cute on a succeeding three-point attempt, falling down after being defended well by Bowen. A sharp-eyed referee called a flop on Waterman and sent the Gaels’ best free-throw shooter, Alex Ducas, to the line for a free throw that pushed the lead to 11 points at 57-46.

Mahaney continued to make his presence felt, as he hounded Williams on an ensuing possession, and Williams responded by shoving Mahaney away. Foul! called a referee, and the Gaels were back in business. Johnson brought his team’s second-half surge to its highest point on an acrobatic score under the basket, and the Gaels were in front by 13 points, 59-46, with 7:26 left.

No quit in BYU

Out of contention for an upper-tier finish in the WCC, seeing post-season hopes going out the window, BYU nevertheless fought back against the deficit. Turning a missed second free throw by Atiki Ally Atiki into a four-point play off a three-pointer by Waterman, the Cougars were back in business. They brought little-used Richie Saunders off the bench for two quick three-pointers under casual defense by Ducas, then Dallin Hall, the freshman who hounded Saint Mary’s for 23 points in their narrow win in Provo, caught fire.

Hall, who had been defended solidly by Mahaney throughout the game, hit a short jumper in the paint, then found himself with the ball in his hands as time was running out on a later possession. Naturally he threw up a prayer, and naturally it was answered for another three-point bomb by the cougars and what looked to be a solid Gael lead was whittled to two points at 63-61.

Something prodded the officiating crew to review the Waterman three-pointer from several minutes previously, and they noticed that his foot was on the three-point line, so the score was reset to 63-60. Traore quickly cut that to 63-62 with a floater in the paint, then Johnson and Mahaney decided to end things once and for all.

Johnson answered Traore’s bucket with a driving lay-up, then Mahaney unleashed his second dagger of the night, beating Traore for a three-pointer that put the Gaels back up by 68-62 with 47 seconds left.

There were some free throws coming after predictable BYU fouls, and Williams sank a three-pointer near the end, but Johnson and Mahaney had returned the Gaels’ mojo as they face still another daunting week. A feisty Pacific squad with nothing to lose and glory to be won comes into Moraga on Thursday, and the the Gaels face a showdown with Gonzaga in Spokane next Saturday with the possibility of winning the WCC regular-season title for the first time since 2012.

The beat goes on.

Following a slump against San Diego on Thursday, Logan Johnson, shown above in an earlier game, bounced back for a team-high 27 points in the win over BYU. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.


1 thought on “The week that was…head-scratching

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s