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UCLA ends Gaels’ Sweet Sixteen hopes

by Michael Vernetti

Sometime in the early going of Saint Mary’s second-round NCAA game against UCLA on Saturday — when the Gaels were looking suspiciously like the squad that had annihilated Indiana by 29 points (82-53) two days earlier — UCLA Coach Mick Cronin found himself chafing under a sideline reporter’s annoying questions.

“Why had Saint Mary’s cruised to leads of 16-9 and 20-13 against his defensive-minded team?” she asked. “They’re too comfortable,” Cronin snapped, meaning his team had not harassed the Gaels sufficiently to disrupt their offensive flow. The Bruins took their leader’s advice and made things anything but comfortable from about the mid-point of the first half until the end of a disappointing 72-56 loss.

As if a switch had been thrown by the basketball gods, Saint Mary’s lost the glow that came from the Indiana win and the hope of facing North Carolina next week in the Sweet Sixteen round of March Madness. Turnovers, missed shots and blown defensive assignments brought the Gaels from that 16-9 lead with 12:29 left in the first half to a seven-point halftime deficit of 36-29.

Two turnovers, one a travel in the paint by a beleaguered Matthias Tass and the other a botched pass by Alex Ducas, gave UCLA life. A block of a Tass shot by Jaime Jacquez Jr. — an early best bet for tournament MVP — led to a run-out goal by UCLA that cut the deficit to 22-19, and then ensued a nightmare series for Tass’s back-up, sophomore Mitchell Saxen.

In the next several possessions, Saxen missed two bunnies that would have halted UCLA’s momentum, misfired on a put-back of a missed lay-up attempt by Tommy Kuhse, and finally tapped in a miss by Logan Johnson, but was called for basket interference. Saxen probably hated the Gaels’ flight home from Portland more than most of his teammates, but his troubles overshadowed the progress he has made his year and the promise he shows for the future.

Saxen wasn’t alone in the misery that took the Gaels from a comfortable-seeming lead to a 24-22 deficit at the 6:30 mark of the first half: Alex Ducas, one of the stars of the Indiana win, missed a floater in the paint and Tass missed a put-back; Johnson misfired on a three-point attempt, then couldn’t finish a drive; Kuhse followed suit with a missed drive of his own, then Johnson failed to convert another drive to the hoop; Kuhse turned up the misery index by then missing a jumper in the paint, and the Gaels had left 15 points on the floor over a span of about three minutes.

UCLA responds

Seemingly at every Saint Mary’s miss came a UCLA basket: following the blocked Tass shot, Jacquez scored on a run-out, then scored again when he drew Kuhse on a defensive switch, a bucket that brought UCLA dangerously close at 22-21. After Johnson’s missed three-pointer, the Bruins’s star of the future, Jules Bernard, sank a three-pointer over Kuhse that gave UCLA its first lead at 24-22. Another Bruin sub, Peyton Watson, put the finishing touch on the run by sinking a jumper in the paint to push UCLA’s lead to 26-22.

To emphasize the Gaels’ frustration, Johnson then threw away what should have been a routine entry pass to Tass, which earned Johnson a seat on the bench. Johnson, who would lead the Gaels in scoring with 18 points following a 20-point effort against Indiana, could only sit in misery as his substitute, Augustas Marciulionis, was burned twice by UCLA’s dynamic point guard, Tyger Campbell, to push UCLA’s lead to 30-22.

Although Saint Mary’s would creep to within a point, 38-37, thanks to a five-point run by Ducas, and, later to within four points, 48-44, at the 11:42 mark of the second half, that first-half push by UCLA seemingly doomed the Gaels. They wilted while the Bruins soared, and Saint Mary’s couldn’t find the magic that marked the final weeks of what remains a glorious ’21-22 season.

Gritty, not pretty

An undefeated home record — first in program history — a league win over Gonzaga and the team’s highest-ever NCAA seed, 5th, ensured that the “Gritty, not pretty” crew will be long remembered by Gael fans. Due to the uncertainties of Covid-related rules changes, Gael Coach Randy Bennett cannot be sure who will show up for the first day of practice next October.

Although Tass, Johnson, Dan Fotu and Kuhse received the traditional going-away honors on Senior Night before the Gonzaga game, all of them except Kuhse could invoke the new rules and return, even though Bennett has recruited three strong players to take their spots: center Harry Wessels of Australia, forward Joshua Jefferson of Liberty High in Henderson, NV, and guard Aidan Mahaney of Campolinda High in Moraga.

Questions remain about next year to be sure, but Bennett and the Gaels changed the conversation about Saint Mary’s basketball this season, quieting talk of competitors such as BYU, San Francisco or Santa Clara surpassing the Gaels as primary challengers to Gonzaga as league leaders.

BYU is on the way out of the WCC by a football-driven decision to join the Big 12 Conference, and San Francisco has lost is dynamic young coach, former Gael Todd Golden, to the allure of a six-year, $18 million contract with Florida. Bennett, finishing his 21st year in Moraga, doesn’t appear to be headed anywhere, and he relishes the opportunity to coach Mahaney, a childhood friend of his sons Chase and Cade, in the coming season.

Shed a tear for what might have been in Portland, but don’t despair of the Gaels’ future.

Logan Johnson, shown above from an earlier game, shone as a defensive and offensive star for the Gaels in the NCAA Tournament, totaling 38 points in the two games. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

On to the Dance

by Michael Vernetti

The turning point of Saint Mary’s two-day stay in Las Vegas — the point that determined it a favorable result instead of a titanic triumph — came at the 9:13 mark of he second half in last night’s game against Gonzaga.

Following a steal by Alex Ducas and a foul on Dan Fotu on the ensuing run-out, the Gaels pulled within two points of Gonzaga, 52-50, with Fotu’s two made free throws. That sequence topped a steady erosion of Gonzaga’s 10-point halftime lead, 38-28. It put the Gaels in position to complete a two-game, 10-day sweep of the Zags that would have stunned the college basketball world and possibly endangered Gonzaga’s position as the overall no. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

Alas, it wasn’t to be.

Many observers felt that Saint Mary’s 67-57 win over the Zags Feb. 26 in Moraga required a perfect performance by the Gaels — a razor-thin margin between just another good try and the massive effort required for a monumental upset. The Gaels had that edge on Feb. 26, but the Zags got it back last night.

How perfect was the Zags’ response to the Gaels nipping threateningly at their position atop college basketball?

Following Fotu’s free throws, Gonzaga made five tough, contested shots in a row — including a step-back three-pointer by Rasir Bolton with Tommy Kuhse in his face — while Saint Mary’s countered with just a Matthias Tass tip-in and two free throws from Ducas. While the Zags were perfect, Saint Mary’s suffered an agonizing miss by Logan Johnson on a ferocious drive into the paint that just rolled off the rim, and another near-miss on an equally-determined drive by Fotu.

That burst of excellence by Gonzaga and heartbreak by the Gaels turned a tenuous, two-point lead over a determined challenger, to a seven-point lead, 61-54, that must have seemed massive to the gritty Gael defenders. With the Gaels wounded, Gonzaga continued to separate, with Bolton extending the margin to nine points with a runner in the paint and a free throw to counter a single free throw by Kuhse.

Still fighting, Saint Mary’s crawled back behind another tough drive by Johnson to cut the margin to 65-57. As if to punish Johnson for his effrontery, Andrew Nembhard, the Zags’ scoring leader, sank a cold-blooded three-pointer with Johnson sagging off just enough to make the shot possible. The ensuing 11-point lead, 68-57, at the 4:15 mark, almost mirrored the final margin of 13 points, 82-69, and marked the unofficial end of the Gaels’ challenge.

Gonzaga was perfect, the Gaels merely scrappy, and that was the difference.

Similar to Santa Clara game

Ironically, the Gaels facing a stretch of nearly flawless basketball resembled the situation on Monday night against Santa Clara. In that instance, however, Saint Mary’s was in seeming control of the game with a 65-51 lead and 9:06 left in the game. The lead nearly increased to an insurmountable 68-53 when Kuhse apparently sank a three-pointer after a rebound scramble, but a review showed that the ball was still in Kuhse’s hand as the shot clock expired.

Whether Santa Clara drew strength from that reprieve, or just summoned its own inner excellence, the Broncos made life miserable for the Gaels from that point on. Their weapons were ferocious offensive rebounding to keep key possessions alive and some remarkable shooting by Josip Vrankic and Keshawn Justice.

Vrankic, who has been a menace to the Gaels throughout a standout career at Santa Clara, led the charge by rebounding a teammates’ miss and going up for a put-back. The Gaels’ reserve center, Mitchell Saxen, blocked Vrankic’s initial put-back attempt, but Vrankic recovered the ball and scored on a second effort to bring the Broncos to 65-56 with 7:12 left in the game.

A series of unfortunate calls and ball-control miscues ensued, including a traveling call on Tass, followed by Tass throwing away the ball on a routine pass. On the ensuing run-out by Santa Clara, Johnson made one of the best defensive efforts of the tournament, standing his ground under the basket as Vrankic charged into the lane and neatly taking the ball out of Vrankic’s hands before he could shoot.

His reward for that stellar bit of defense? A foul call by one of the referees, sending Vrankic to the free-throw line for two makes that cut the lead to 67-60. Vrankic followed up the free throws by taking a rebound away from Tass on a missed shot by Santa Clara star Jalen Williams and putting it back in to narrow the lead to 67-62.

Ups and downs for Tass

Gael Coach Randy Bennett showed his continued support for Tass by calling a play for the 6’10” Estonian out of a timeout — and Tass delivered a clutch bucket to give his teammates some breathing room at 69-62. Tass then suffered the same problem that Johnson did a few minutes earlier when an eager referee detected something amiss with a screen Tass set. Rigorous examination of the game tape could detect nothing more than a textbook screen by Tass, but, nevertheless, the result was a turnover to the Broncos at exactly the wrong time.

Then Mr. Justice made his presence felt in a painful way for the Gaels, sinking a corner three-pointer that brought the Broncos to within four points at 69-65. Following some back-and-forth action that moved the score to 73-67, the combination of offensive rebounding and Justice struck again.

Jaden Bediako usually provides Santa Clara not much more than a big body inside to intimidate shooters, but he showed the same determination on a miss by the Broncos’ PJ Pipes that hurt Saint Mary’s down the stretch. Bediako outfought Gael defenders after Pipes misfired, secured the ball and fired it out to the waiting arms of Justice in the short corner.

That Justice sank the three-pointer and cut the margin to one point, 73-72, should not have surprised any Gael supporters at the Orleans Arena or watching on ESPN. There were 42 seconds left in the game and the Broncos were in business, especially after Kuhse had a jumper in the paint blocked by Williams.

Williams, the Broncos star guard who had been hyped by ESPN announcer Sean Farnham into a potential lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft, steamed down court after blocking Kuhse. No one in the sensate world doubted he was taking his team’s destiny in his hands, and few doubted his ability to connect on one of his specialty shots — a runner in the paint.

But they didn’t count on Johnson, the epitome of Gael grit who had harassed Williams into a below-par 15-point effort, especially considering that Williams racked up 11 points in the first half alone. Johnson hovered near Williams’ right hand, then leaped into the air as the Bronco star released whet many thought would be a game-winning shot — and blocked it cleanly.

The Gaels’ Kyle Bowen rebounded the miss and shoveled it quickly to Johnson, who was promptly fouled. With 3.6 seconds left on the clock, Johnson calmly sank two free throw to put the Gaels ahead 75-72 and massively complicate Santa Clara’s chances for a buzzer-beater. Indeed, Johnson met Williams along the sideline after Santa Clara inbounded the ball, and forced him into a difficult heave that clanked harmlessly off the rim to give the Gaels a chance to face Gonzaga in the championship game.

Perfection/near perfection were the prime subjects of this two-day sojourn into the desert that left the Gaels’ regular-season record at 25-7 and solidly within the Top 20 teams in the nation. Selection Sunday on March 13 will determine which of those teams or the 40 or so other participants in the NCAA Tournament Saint Mary’s will face as the Dance progresses.

Tommy Kuhse has become the face of Saint Mary’s in the final weeks of the 21-22 season, including the WCC Tournament in which he scored 42 points and led his teammates in every way possible. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Don’t call it an upset

by Michael Vernetti

This one was different.

Unlike other Saint Mary’s wins over Gonzaga through the years — scarce as hens’ teeth — there was no singular outstanding performance or memorable turning point in the Gaels’ 67-57 win Saturday night in Moraga.

No Paul Marigney 40-point outburst from back in the day, no Mickey McConnell floater in the paint in Spokane, no Jordan Hunter monster game four years ago for the WCC championship. This was a methodical disassembly of one of the most prolific offensive juggernauts in recent college basketball history.

The Gaels harassed, defended and befuddled Zag nemeses such as Drew Timme from the outset, blocking shots, digging out turnovers and stealing passes to hold Gonzaga some 30 points under its usual per-game average. They outshot the Zags by 44 per cent to 37 per cent, out-rebounded them 37-33 and forced 14 Zag turnovers against four assists. Defensive domination.

The Zags’ vaunted front court combination of Timme and 7’1″ Chet Holmgren — endlessly characterized by pundits, announcers and sportswriters as the best tandem in the country — scored 12 points between them. The Gaels’ combo of Matthias Tass, Kyle Bowen and Mitchell Saxen totaled 26 points and pulled down 13 rebounds. Saxen, a sparingly-used sophomore from Washington, blocked three shots to Holmgren’s four, and outscored the Boy Wonder seven points to six — in 16 minutes compared to Holmgren’s 32.

Wire-to-wire

The Gaels blasted out of the gate to an 8-0 lead in the first three minutes behind the incomparable Tommy Kuhse and the oft-embattled Tass. The Zags’ first pass of the game was intercepted by Bowen, and Kuhse calmly waltzed down the paint at the other end of the court and scored a lay-up to start things off. Logan Johnson, who had a defensive game for the history books, promptly snatched the ball out of Holmgren’s hands and led a textbook fast break with Alex Ducas that ended with a Ducas lay-up and a 4-0 lead.

Tass, serving notice that the paint was not going to be Zag territory, followed with two scores around a three-pointer by the Zags’ stellar point guard, Andrew Nembhard, for a 10-3 lead that expanded to 12-3 on another lay-up by Kuhse before the first media time-out. The die was cast, although Saint Mary’s endured several stress points throughout the game.

To keep Tass from sinking into foul trouble — he picked up a quick one on a ticky-tack push-off call in the first five minutes — Gael Coach Randy Bennett subbed in Saxen. It turned out to be an inspired move, as Saxen immediately flummoxed Holmgren with a spin move, reverse lay-up and foul for a 15-5 lead. A few minutes later, the defensively-challenged Timme left Saxen alone while jumping out on a pick-and-roll initiated by Kuhse. Seeing Saxen alone under the bucket, Kuhse rifled a pass to him that he converted for a 19-12 lead (the Zags were rallying).

Saxen then defended Timme on his patented spin move, and on a subsequent possession knocked away an entry pass intended for Timme. When he finished his 10-minute relief stint for Tass with a put-back off a missed three-point attempt, Saxen had scored seven points, blocked three shots, grabbed three rebounds and stolen the ball once. Quality minutes, indeed.

Another bench star

Almost simultaneously with Saxen’s impressive play off the bench, Jabe Mullins made a mark of his own after subbing in for Ducas. After a bad miss by the Zags’ Hunter Sallis, Mullins pulled a trick out of the Gonzaga playbook and leaked out toward the Saint Mary’s basket. Johnson spotted him and sent a perfect lead pass that Mullins caught and laid in for a 24-16 lead with 6:32 left in the half.

Mullins, the sophomore recruiting class star with Saxen who is paying bigger dividends as the season progresses, then made back-to-back defensive stops. First came a clean steal from Timme, who was coughing up more turnovers (four) than he was making baskets (zero at that point). Nothing eventuated from that theft, but Mullins was just getting warmed up.

On the Zags’ next possession, Mullins victimized Holmgren with a steal of a weak cross-court pass and took off for the basket, finishing with his left hand when challenged at the rim. That brought the Gaels to a 31-16 lead and caused Gonzaga Coach Mark Few to call time out. At this point, Gael fans knew their heroes would face a severe Zag challenge to whittle away that lead before halftime, and they braced for the worse.

It looked as if it were coming, as Holmgren scored off an alley-top following the time out, Kuhse coughed up the ball under pressure and Nembhard made the Gaels pay with a three-pointer that cut the lead to 31-20. The Gaels held the lead at 10 points as the clock wound down under two minutes and Mullins positioned himself in the short corner of the offensive end. He confidently swished a three-pointer to push the lead back to 13 points and set the stage for a final Gael dagger before halftime.

Johnson turned the tables on the other excellent Gonzaga guard, Rasir Bolton, whom he had been battling throughout the game, by losing Bolton in traffic on an out-of-bounds play. Open under the bucket, Johnson converted to give his team a 15-point lead, 36-21 at the break. It was about as perfect a half as any Randy Bennett team has ever played, and major credit went to Saxen and Mullins and their 14 points off the bench.

The rest of the story

The second half began as did the Zag pseudo-run toward the end of the half, with Nembhard taking advantage of another SMC turnover — this one by Johnson — to nail a three-pointer. Then began a mystifying run of bad shooting by Bowen, who whiffed on four straight three-point attempts over the next 11 minutes. The Gaels didn’t wilt under the pressure caused by Bowen’s misfiring, however, bolstered by big buckets from Ducas — he hit his first three-pointer of the game at the 15:56 mark to keep the Gaels ahead by 44-30 — and a two-play mini-highlight reel by Johnson that sent a fevered crowd into near hysteria.

Following Timme’s first basket of the night at the 14:46 mark that brought the Zags within 46-32 and might have served as a rallying point for his team, Johnson again victimized Bolton on an out-of-bounds play. This time Johnson dribbled by Bolton at the top of the key and steamed toward the bucket, defended by Timme. Obviously judging his opponent correctly, Johnson challenged Timme with a slam-dunk attempt…and Timme blinked. He didn’t even challenge he 6’1″ Johnson, backing off his 6’10” frame as if to say, “I don’t want to be on a Gael poster.”

To say Johnson’s courageous slam riled up the crowd might imply that it was sleeping at that point. In fact, the Gael student body was on hyper-activity mode from the get-go, so Johnson’s play merely poured gasoline on a roaring flame. Johnson wasn’t about to let the fire go out.

With the Gaels still holding a comfortable lead, 50-34, Kuhse was stripped on one of his forays into the paint, and it looked as if the Zags were off to the races. Sallis was out front with the ball, but Ducas gave ground near the bucket and kept Sallis in front of him. Ducas’ heady play allowed Johnson to make up enough ground to soar across the paint and swat away Sallis’ lay-up attempt, and then corral the ball before it went out of bounds.

What’s the point beyond hysteria? Check the crowd shots from that moment and you will have an answer.

More drama

Despite Johnson’s momentous plays, the Zags still were not finished, and Bowen was not through clanking three-point attempts. After missing his fourth in a row, during which time the Gael lead shrank to 50-40, Ducas bailed out his fellow Aussie. Ducas and Bowen came to Saint Mary’s from the same part of Australia, and, by all reports, are inseparable friends. So friendly, in fact, that the shiner Ducas has been sporting since the San Diego game last Thursday, was compliments of an errant Bowen elbow thrown inadvertently while the two watched a Gael baseball game.

Ducas clearly harbored no hard feelings, as he chose the moment of Bowen’s offensive nadir — that fourth missed three-pointer — to can a second huge three-pointer of his own that restored the Gael lead to 53-40 with 7:42 to go. That didn’t get the Gaels out of the woods, however, as the Zags’ Julian Strawther, a thorn in the Gaels’ side to rival Nembhard and Bolton, nailed a three-pointer to bring the game back within range at 57-50.

So how did Bowen react to this ebb and flow, prominently featuring his long-range shooting ineptitude? By sinking his next two three-point attempts and restoring the Gael lead to nine points, 63-54 with less than two minutes left. So compelling was this plot turn that Zag Coach Few chose an out-of-bounds play in front of the Zag bench to chat up Bowen about it. It would take a mind-reader to describe exactly what was being said, but Few was obviously amused enough by Bowen’s chutzpah to break out a smile in the face of defeat.

And a defeat it was, one that gave the Gaels’ undeniable momentum heading into the WCC Tournament next week in Las Vegas, an undefeated home record for the first time in school history and an undoubted improvement in their national ranking. Their reward for all these good deeds? Potentially a rematch with Gonzaga for the WCC Tournament championship on March 8. Stay tuned.

Logan Johnson, shown above harassing the Zags’ Andrew Nembhard, led a stout Gael defense, while scoring 10 points, leading all Gaels with eight rebounds and picking up two steals and a block. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

The week that was

by Michael Vernetti

This week began with Valentine’s Day on Monday, but it was anything but hearts and flowers for the Saint Mary’s Gaels, who faced two crucial games against WCC foes San Francisco and BYU.

Both foes were considered by pundits to be logical heirs to the Gaels’ long-held position as chief challenger to Gonzaga for WCC supremacy, and BYU held an early-season win, 53-42, in Provo. To make a difficult situation worse, Saint Mary’s lost its best outside shooter, Alex Ducas, early in the San Francisco game, and it was unknown whether he would be available against BYU.

Ducas did return for the BYU game, scored nine crucial points, grabbed five rebounds and created two steals as the Gaels finished out the nerve-wracking week with a 69-64 win over the Cougars — the same score by which they defeated San Francisco on Thursday. Suffice it to say, the Gaels were glad to put the week behind them, which is where every WCC team not named Gonzaga sits after the Gaels’ clutch performance left them with a 10-3 record with two games to go.

San Francisco and Santa Clara are tied for third place at 8-5, and BYU is in fifth place at 7-6. Therefore, if Saint Mary’s takes care of business with a road win over San Diego next Thursday, neither San Francisco, Santa Clara nor BYU can challenge the Gaels for second place behind Gonzaga and a double-bye in the upcoming WCC Tournament. By maintaining a two-game lead over its challengers, Saint Mary’s can even afford to lose its season-ending game with Gonzaga on Feb. 26, although they will hardly concede that.

How it happened

The BYU game held several characteristics of that against San Francisco, primarily an early chance to put an opponent away, followed by a dogged second-half BYU comeback when the Gaels seemed to have finally done enough to win — as in a 16-point lead, 62-46, with 8:15 left. Things got hairy instead of fun, however, as BYU closed to 67-64 with 1:46 left.

The Gaels dissipated their lead with a combination of cold shooting, poor ball protection and some gritty shooting by BYU stalwarts Alex Barcello and Caleb Lohner. Cold shooting hit first, as Ducas suffered a complete reversal of fortune after sinking his first two jumpers of the half to go with a three-pointer in the first half. From the 16:22 mark on, Ducas missed six straight shots, any one of which could have derailed BYU’s comeback.

The Gaels also suffered several cases of ball-itis, as first Tommy Kuhse — who was even more heroic against BYU than he was against San Francisco — then Logan Johnson coughed up crucial turnovers. Kuhse started down the slippery slope by simply over-throwing a routine pass to Kyle Bowen with no pressure on him. That one didn’t cost the Gaels an immediate bucket, but it made the crowd nervous.

Almost immediately, Johnson did the same thing, air-mailing a cross-court pass into the lower reserved section of the crowd. A few minutes later, after BYU had creeped to within three points, Johnson threw away another errant pass into a crowded lane, and the Gaels missed a golden opportunity to ward off BYU’s comeback. Ducas also got into the action by fumbling away the ball in traffic when BYU was charging.

Lohner, who had been looked upon as one of BYU’s leading lights based on his stellar freshman season, has been stumbling somewhat as a sophomore, but the Gaels gave him a boost. Taking advantage of a cut under his right eye suffered by the Gaels’ intrepid defender Bowen, Lorner slipped by Bowen’s replacement, Dan Fotu, for an easy lay-up to give BYU a crucial bucket at 62-50.

Shortly thereafter, Fotu found himself guarding BYU’s huge post man, 6’6″ freshman Fousseyni Traore, on a switch, and Traore scored another easy lay-up over Bowen’s replacement. Proving he could score against the first team as well, Lohner hit a big three-pointer after Bowen returned to the floor, this one bringing his team within nine points, 66-57, then sank a put-back after a scramble under the net to make it 67-59.

Enter Mr. Barcello

Barcello is far and away BYU’s best player, and even though he is a slightly-built 6’1″ in an era of giant guards, is a potential NBA player. Because of his quickness, he is extremely hard to guard and hits three-point shots at a nearly 50 per cent clip. With all that going for him, he had the impediment of Johnson’s dogged defense facing him all night, and struggled to make 2-8 three-point attempts.

After Lorner’s put-back and a free throw by Johnson, Barcello hit two free throws to narrow the lead further, to 67-61. Then the Gaels’ poor shooting struck again. Gael post man Matthias Tass got free along the baseline and had what seemed to be a wide-open lay-up which would have put Saint Mary’s back up by eight points, but he managed to hit the bottom of the rim instead.

That opening was made to order for a clutch performer like Barcello, and he didn’t disappoint. With Kuhse guarding him instead of Johnson, Barcello curled around a screen and launched a three-pointer that brought BYU from 16 points down to trailing by only three. Some mutual ball mishandling brought the clock down to 43.7 seconds, and the game was still on the line when Tass redeemed his earlier botched lay-up.

Fouled on a rebound attempt, Tass calmly sank two free throws to make it a two-possession game, 69-64. Then some good old-fashioned smarts helped out the Gaels. After a BYU miss, Bowen, not the Gaels most nimble ball-handler and not its best free-throw shooter, found himself surrounded by frantic BYU defenders. He called time out with 11.4 seconds left. Brilliant.

The move seemed to take the wind out of BYU, and after a successful inbound pass by Saint Mary’s, the Cougars chose not to foul any more, letting the clock run out. The Gaels didn’t mind, having withstood as tough a two-game stand as they have faced in Coach Randy Bennett’s 21-year tenure. It was time to exhale, and contemplate the final week of conference play.

Logan Johnson, shown above pulling down one of six rebounds against BYU to go with 17 points, a steal and a block, hounded BYU’s star guard, Alex Barcello, throughout the night, holding Barcello to 2-8 on three-point attempts. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

No Ducas, lots of Kuhse

by Michael Vernetti

Facing a tough opponent in a must-win game, no team wants to play without its best outside shooter, with its leading scorer missing nine of 12 shots and its secondary long-distance bombers going 1-7 on three-point attempts.

And yet, that’s what Saint Mary’s faced Thursday night against San Francisco in a game for second place in the WCC. Despite all the negative headwinds, however, the Gaels had one major factor in their favor.

They had Tommy Kuhse, and he made up for the shortcomings of his teammates with one of the most commanding games of his six-year career: 22 points, six assists, six rebounds and four steals in a 69-64 victory over the Dons, who fell behind Santa Clara into fourth place in the WCC at 8-5 with a showdown against mighty Gonzaga next Thursday in San Francisco.

Kuhse internalized the message Gael Coach Randy Bennett undoubtedly repeated over and over in preparation for the San Francisco game: don’t allow a repeat of the horrible start suffered by the Gaels in their first meeting with the Dons last month — falling behind by 21 points and needing a miracle comeback to pull out a 72-70 win.

Despite losing Alex Ducas and his potent three-point stroke in the first few minutes of the game — Ducas wrenched his back and didn’t return — Kuhse didn’t let San Francisco bolt ahead after two early three-point buckets by the Dons’ Gabe Stefanini gave them a 9-5 lead. Stefanini, the Columbia transfer who resembles the NBA’s Luka Doncic with his stocky 6’3″, 215-lb frame and deliberate style, was a thorn in the Gaels’ side all night long, finishing with 23 points.

After a back-and-forth period which saw the Gaels eke out a 17-15 lead behind a pair of corner three-pointers by Kyle Bowen and Jabe Mullins — filling in for Ducas — Kuhse located Mitchell Saxen inside, who converted for a 19-17 lead, then repeated the formula with another drop-off pass and conversion for Saxen and a 21-19 lead.

Then Kuhse conducted a lesson in guard penetration against the Dons’ excellent three-point shooter, Khalil Shabazz. Twice in a row, Kuhse utilized his well- developed stutter-step to get an angle on Shabazz and drive for lay-ups. At that point, Kuhse had scored six points, giving him 1001 for his Saint Mary’s career, and helped the Gaels to a 25-22 lead.

Easing off

With a timely three-pointer by Dan Fotu and another corner three-pointer from Mullins, the Gaels looked to gain early control of the game by moving into a 31-22 lead with 6:07 left in the half. They seemed able to give San Francisco a taste of its own medicine with a significant halftime lead.

Then they conducted a clinic in how to give up a promising lead.

Matthias Tass, the Gaels’ leading scorer who had made one inside shot then missed several others, deviated from his script of blowing bunnies by failing to convert a dunk set up by Kuhse that would have gave his team an 11-point lead. Showing unusual versatility, Tass followed up the missed dunk by badly missing a three-point attempt that led to a run-out and three-point basket by Shabazz. What could have ben a 33-22 lead became a 31-25 lead, but the Gaels weren’t through being generous to San Francisco.

Gael guard Logan Johnson coughed up a turnover, then Mullins fouled Stefanini on a corner three-point attempt he had little chance of converting. Displaying a Don weakness which would plague them throughout the game, Stefanini missed two out of three free throw attempts, but cut the once-promising lead to five points at 31-26.

As if attempting to rally his teammates, Kuhse drove Stefanini for a 33-26 lead, but Bowen took a quick three-point attempt that rivaled Tass’s in inappropriateness. Kuhse covered up that lapse in judgment by finding Saxen again for a score inside and a 35-26 lead, but Shabazz made the Gaels pay with a driving floater, then followed up another ill-advised Bowen three-point attempt with a three-pointer of his own to cut the lead to 35-31.

Jamaree Bouyea is San Francisco’s best player, but he had a horrible night against the Gaels, finishing with just one made basket in nine attempts and a goose egg, 0-6, on three-point attempts. But he was a constant pest against Gael ball handlers, swatting several balls away from behind, including one from Augustas Marciulionis, in for a brief time in relief of Johnson, who picked up three early fouls. That steal accounted for Bouyea’s lone bucket of the night, but it was enough to wipe away all thoughts of an early commanding lead and pulled the Dons to within two points at 35-33.

Once again, Kuhse tried to absolve his teammates’ errors with a three-pointer in the closing moments of the half, giving the Gaels a respectable-but-hardly insurmountable lead of 38-33.

Enter Mr. Johnson

Logan Johnson, as mentioned, had a bumpy first half, picking up three fouls and scoring only once, but he was far from finished for the night. The Gaels continued their wobbly play after the break, allowing the Dons to move within three points at 40-37. Johnson then scored on a driving lay-up to put the lead back to five points, then trailed Kuhse on a run-out following a Bouyea miss.

What followed was a thing of beauty, as Kuhse led a trio of Don defenders into the paint, each of them anxious to be the one who would swat away Kuhse’s expected lay-up attempt. Except Kuhse recognized that Johnson was behind him, and passed back to his teammate for an uncontested lay-up and a 44-37 lead at the 15-minute mark of the second half.

This might have deflated the Dons, but they responded with a pair of three-pointers from Zane Meeks and Shabazz to get back within a single point. Then the Kuhse-Johnson duet played a return engagement.

Kuhse once again led several San Francisco defenders deep into the paint, then assumed the position of a post player, adroitly passing off to a driving Johnson for a bucket that gave the Gaels some breathing room at 46-43. The by-play between Kuhse and Johnson far exceeded the rocky execution between Bouyea and Shabazz, although Shabazz bailed out his back court mate with some deadly three-point shooting.

It took the Gaels another ten minutes of back-and-forth tussle before they established what again looked like a comfortable lead, 59-49, with a little more than four minutes left to play. Largely because of outstanding play by Shabazz and Stefanini, however, the Dons did not wilt, and some dubious fouling by the Gaels abetted the Don stars.

Kuhse, in one of his few miscues on the night, fouled Shabazz on an errant there-point attempt, and Shabazz sank all three free throws to pull San Francisco within six points, 61-55, with 1:24 left. That boo-boo, however, was overlooked because a few minutes before Kuhse had made the defensive play of the night on Stefanini, the burly Don guard who had his way with a number of Gael defenders, including Ducas before he went out, Mullins and even walk-on Luke Barrett .

Kuhse had the duty with a little more than two minutes left, and Stefanini appeared to gain an edge on the Gael veteran as he headed for the bucket. Kuhse slapped the ball out of Stefanini’s hands, however, and it bounced off his leg for a Gael possession. It became a free-throw shooting matter from there on in, and Kuhse, Johnson and Bowen sank 6-8 to ice the game. Johnson, after his slow start, ended up with 16 points and four steals to complement Kuhse’s output.

Getting closer

With the win over San Francisco, Saint Mary’s cemented its hold on second place in the WCC with just three losses (8-3). San Francisco and BYU each have five, and the Gaels can sink BYU with a win at home Saturday evening. Santa Clara, now at 8-4, will be hard-pressed to avoid a fifth loss next Saturday as they take on Gonzaga in Spokane.

The Gaels’ path is clear: beat BYU on Saturday, then win their second in a few weeks against San Diego on the road next Thursday. If they accomplish those two goals, they will be at least two games ahead of San Francisco, Santa Clara and BYU in the loss column before facing Gonzaga in the conference finale next Saturday in Moraga.

That gives them the luxury of withstanding a possible loss to Gonzaga, which would leave them at second place in the conference at 11-4 and give them a bye until the semifinals of the WCC Tournament that begins March 3 in Las Vegas. Of course, an upset of Gonzaga would make that trip to Las Vegas much sweeter.

Tommy Kuhse drives on San Francisco’s 6’10” center Yauhen Massalski in last night’s game in Moraga. Kuhse finished the game with 22 points and Massalski with 10. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Finding a path

by Michael Vernetti

What can Saint Mary’s take away from its 74-58 loss to Gonzaga Saturday night in Spokane?

Relief that it wasn’t a blowout of the 2019 variety when the Zags went off for a 48-point win, 94-46? Let’s hope it was more than that.

I think the Gaels discovered a path to, if not victory, then at least a much more competitive rematch in Moraga on Feb. 26, the last game of the WCC season and the lead-in to the conference tournament in Las Vegas.

The path was revealed over the last 17 minutes of the second half, when the Gaels tenaciously dug themselves out from a 21-point deficit at 47-28. Over that period, Saint Mary’s outscored Gonzaga 30-27, which although encouraging wasn’t nearly enough to eliminate the total deficit. What did they do to hold the Zags even for such a long period of time?

For one, Alex Ducas came alive after a mysterious first half when he was MIA. Ducas scored all 12 of his points after the intermission, scoring from all over — from deep (2-4 three-pointers), from underneath the basket and in the paint with a pretty runner.

Secondly, they got tough with the Zags’ two powerhouses in the paint, Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren. After letting Timme dance through the paint and under the basket for 15 first-half points on 7-9 shooting, Gael center Matthias Tass tightened down enough to hold Timme to 10 points in the second half (4-7 is better than 7-9). The Gaels got an important stop when Ducas helped Tass out and grabbed the ball as Timme spun toward the basket.

Kyle Bowen, facing seven-foot Wunderkind Holmgren, likewise decided to rough it up a little with the skinny-but-talented Minnesotan. Bowen forced Holmgren into a turnover that the Gaels couldn’t convert for a bucket, then defended him again on a subsequent possession. That possession led to a Ducas three-pointer when the Gael forward turned Gonzaga’s playbook against them — scoring quickly off a defensive stop.

Giving Holmgren a little more adversity, Mitchell Saxen, Tass’s back-up, drew a foul on him and sank one free throw to cut the margin to 53-38 with a little more than 13 minutes left. Saxen scored his only bucket of the game a little later and was fouled, but couldn’t convert the and-one. But he brought the Gaels a little closer at 58-44.

Using his bigs

Now comes the unsolicited advice from the peanut gallery that every coach just loves. When Saint Mary’s faces Gonzaga in two weeks, why not look at Tass and Saxen as a two-man defensive front against Timme with 10 fouls to give between them? Saxen played only six minutes last night, leaving Tass on the floor for the remaining 34.

Leave Bowen, with minimal relief from Dan Fotu, to deal with Holmgren, but pester Timme with alternating 6’10” fresh legs — belonging to Tass and Saxen. I know blaming a player’s miscues on fatigue is subjective, but look at Tass’ game against the Zags. He was effective early, scoring six of the Gaels’s first 12 points as they carved out a 12-11 lead after eight minutes.

Down the stretch, however, Tass mixed six inside shots after getting good position. He also made two shots in that stretch, including a short jumper that brought the Gaels under the 10-point deficit mark at 65-56, and a nifty spin move that left Holmgren looking lost and brought his team a point closer at 66-58.

That was it, however, for Tass and the Gaels. Tass missed twice more in the paint and the Gaels stalled out at 58 points while the Zags outscored them by eight to increase the final margin to 74-58.

The path revealed

That period, however, when the Gaels dug in on Timme and Holmgren and loosened up the offense behind Ducas, showed a path to follow in Moraga. It will take more, of course, including a better performance from Logan Johnson, who was 1-6 in the first half and only slightly better in the second, 1-4, to finish with six points. Johnson has had success by sticking to his guns many times this season, following up early misses with big buckets in the clutch.

He was the epitome of futility against the Zags, however, time and again forcing tough shots in the paint that he couldn’t convert. He came alive briefly after making his only shot of the second half by getting his only steal of the game on the next possession. He turned that steal over to Tommy Kuhse, however, and Kuhse promptly forfeited the advantage by throwing the ball away. Opportunity lost.

But let’s not dump on Kuhse, who had five assists to more than compensate for that one brain-fart, and led all Gael scorers with 16 points. Kuhse was good enough to divert the efforts of ESPN announcers Sean Farnham and Dave Flemming to enshrine Timme, Holmgren and Andrew Nembhard into the college Hall of Fame.

One again, Kuhse came to the Gaels’ rescue off the bench behind starting point guard Augustas Marciulionis. Kuhse started slowly, but made his mark shortly after the beginning of the second half by sinking a three-pointer that prevented the game from getting away from the Gaels and keeping them within the halftime deficit of 13 points, 39-26.

When Holmgren scored underneath off a nifty Timme feed, Kuhse immediately answered with a lay-up to keep the deficit under 20 points at 49-30. A little later Nembhard answered Ducas’s first three-pointer with a jumper of his own to dim the Gael enthusiasm, but Kuhse answered Nembhard with another lay-up. If the game was tit-for-tat at that point, Kuhse was the one answering for his teammates.

What lies ahead

Although a win over Gonzaga would have lightened the Gaels’ load over the last two weeks of WCC competition, they are still in the catbird’s seat to snag a No. 2 seed in the WCC Tournament. That is crucial because the top two seeds are automatically slotted to the conference semifinals on Monday, March 7. That means no messy quarterfinals or other distractions as they fight for the right to face, let’s face it, Gonzaga for all the marbles in the form of an automatic NCAA Tournament bid.

Saint Mary’ sits in second place in the WCC at 8-3, behind the undefeated Zags. San Francisco, a resounding winner over Santa Clara at Santa Clara yesterday, sits at 8-4, and Santa Clara at 7-4. The Gaels can ward off San Francisco when facing them next Thursday in Moraga, and the Dons still have a rematch with Gonzaga at home on Feb. 24. My personal preference is for San Francisco to lose to the Gaels and beat the Dons, but I seldom get my hoops wishes.

Santa Clara has no direct opportunity to derail the Gaels or Dons, but has a rematch of its own against Gonzaga in Spokane on Feb. 19. I would not like to have to count on an upset of Gonzaga on their home floor to overtake San Francisco and Saint Mary’s for second place, but that is Santa Clara’s problem.

After undergoing a tough week against San Diego, Santa Clara and Gonzaga, the Gaels face an even tougher agenda next week when San Francisco comes to Moraga on Thursday and BYU on Saturday. Going 2-0 next week would make those WCC hopes almost certain. Let’s hope the Gaels follow the right path.

Tommy Kuhse, shown above in action from earlier this season, was the Gaels’ brightest star against Gonzaga, scoring 16 points and dishing out five assists. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Gaels tighten D, get a W

by Michael Vernetti

A reasonable assessment of Saint Mary’s efforts so far this week would be that they recovered the offense they misplaced in Tuesday’s 77-72 road loss to Santa Clara with a commanding 86-57 win over San Diego on Thursday in Moraga.

Reasonable but inadequate.

What the Gaels recovered against San Diego was their identity — defense first, leading to offense. No one besides a sports psychologist can explain why Saint Mary’s allowed a quartet of Santa Clara guards — PJ Pipes, Jalen Williams, Carlos Stewart and Giordon Williams — to score 47 points against them.

47 points! More than half of their entire offensive output from basically two guys — Pipes and Williams, both of whom were well-known to the Gaels since a 73-65 SMC win over the Broncos on Jan. 20 in Moraga. Williams, a full-blown WCC star and potential NBA player, led Santa Clara in the loss with 18 points, and Pipes, a grad transfer from Wisconsin-Green Bay, chipped in with 16. Should have had targets on their jerseys.

Williams at least had to struggle for his 18 in the rematch, fighting off the tenacious defensive efforts of the Gaels’ Logan Johnson to go 7-10 with one three-pointer, and, by the way, 10 assists.

Pipes did his damage against a trio of Gael defenders — Tommy Kuhse, Jabe Mullins and Augustas Marciulionis — but had most success against an overmatched Kuhse. As he cruised to 10 first-half points, Pipes put an exclamation point on his performance with an alley-oop pass to Parker Braun that stemmed from getting past Kuhse in the paint, forcing Kyle Bowen to come off Braun and challenge Pipes. It turned into the easiest slam dunk that Braun will ever experience, and gave Santa Clara a four-point lead at 33-29 that they would hold on to for a 35-34 halftime lead.

Big three MIA

Things deteriorated in the second half, culminating in an 11-point Santa Clara lead at 54-43 with 13:33 left in the game. The Gaels’ top three scorers, Matthias Tass, Johnson and Alex Ducas, scored a combined 9-28 baskets for the game, with Tass scoring his second bucket with a little more than 11 minutes left. At that point, he had as many turnovers — two — as field goals.

Sophomore Mullins provided a brief spark when he entered the game with about 10 minutes left, immediately hitting a three-pointer, then following that up with a sliding steal to set up Kuhse for a lay-up which halted the Santa Clara momentum. Then Mullins nailed another three-pointer that brought the Gaels within four points at 60-56, and emphasized how winnable the game was if the other Gael shooters could match Mullins’ output.

Alas, they couldn’t, and Santa Clara held on for a win so important to them that their fans rushed the court after it was over. The Gaels rushed off the court for the bus back to Moraga, and, it would seem, nightmares of Williams and Pipes riddling their defense.

Cut to San Diego

So what accounted for the defensive turnaround against San Diego? Again, consult that sports psychologist to explain the beat down of a team that back in January battled Santa Clara to a 78-74 overtime loss on the Broncos’ home court. In other words, San Diego played Santa Clara tougher than did the Gaels in that encounter, although Santa Clara cruised to a 79-66 win in the rematch.

One reason was the play of two of those Gael guards who were embarrassed by the Bronco guards– Kuhse and Johnson. Kuhse, who despite his woes led Saint Mary’s in scoring with 16 points against Santa Clara, was hot early against San Diego, accounting for seven of the Gaels’ first nine points as they led 9-7. Then came a period of defensive genius by Johnson that seemed to knock San Diego off its axis and set the stage for an overwhelming victory.

With the game tied at 9-9, Johnson picked the pocket of San Diego guard Jase Townsend, but was unable to capitalize on the steal and missed a three-point attempt. Minutes later, Johnson swiped an errant pass from the Toreros’ Joey Calcaterra, one of a few recognizable San Diego players left after a two-year raid on the transfer portal that left the San Diego lineup looking like a guide to college hoops elsewhere — St. John’s, Rice, Pittsburgh and New Mexico.

This time, Ducas made the Toreros pay for the misplay, as he weaved through the paint and finished with a left-handed lay-up for a 17-9 Gael lead. Johnson then hit his first of two three-pointers on the night to give Saint Mary’ a 22-15 lead, and looked for another theft opportunity. It came at the 7:11 mark, as Johnson, his leonine mane billowing in the wind, swiped the ball from a hapless San Diego guard and sprinted for a rousing dunk and a 28-18 lead that quelled a brief San Diego comeback.

On the Toreros’ next possession, Johnson made his fourth steal of the half and cruised once again toward the basket, settling for a conventional lay-up this time, and giving Saint Mary’s a 30-18 lead signaling that the rout was on. One player seldom accounts for a team’s overall success, but Johnson’s four-steal performance certainly set the tone for what followed — a 56-39 Saint Mary’s advantage.

Maintaining the edge

It is hard for a college team to maintain a 30-point lead once it begins subbing in bench players for starters, but the Gaels didn’t falter with the likes of Leemet Bockler, Judah Brown, Mitchell Saxen, Luke Barrett and Mullins on the floor. Indeed, that makeshift lineup with only one guard on the floor — Mullins — held things together and gave several role players an opportunity ro shine.

No Gael sub has riveted Gael fans’ attention more than Bockler, the 6’6″ win from Estonia, who in a brief, eight-game span last year demonstrated shooting excellence and overall court presence that promised great things. Bockler went down with a recurring foot injury, however, suffered an ankle injury this year just as he was recovering from foot surgery, and has had a hard time getting on the floor.

Bockler looked good against San Diego, scoring five points and grabbing a rebound in his 12 minutes of play, and making good a recent pronouncement from Gael Coach Randy Bennett that he was on the verge of being whole. Also shining was Mullins, another recruit from the class of 20-21 who had a brief, shining moment in his freshman campaign and has struggled to recapture that magic.

Mullins regularly plays with the starters, usually in relief of Ducas, but occasionally logs time at guard, his high school position. He looked every bit the floor leader as he led the subs down the stretch against San Diego, scoring once on a spinning drive in the paint that had both the fans and the Gael bench erupting in rapture.

Also scoring points more than figuratively was Brown, another 20-21 recruit who has stoked fans’ hopes that he can recapture the stardom he displayed in high school. Brown, who scored 16 points in one half against Gonzaga last year, led the subs with eight points off two three-pointers and a rousing dunk on a baseline drive.

On to Spokane

The final score, 86-57, was just under the 30-point margin that existed when the subs took over, but keeping San Diego at bay was nevertheless a signature accomplishment by the bench. Now, it’s up to the starters to cap off the week with a date against no. 1 Gonzaga — that’s nationally not just in the WCC, where it is undefeated.

The most reliable touchstone by which to judge the Gaels’ chances in Spokane is a Jan. 20 match-up between the Zags and San Francisco, also in Spokane. In that game, San Francisco trailed by just three points at half, 36-33, before succumbing by 16, 78-62. The Zags’ fearsome front court duo of Drew Timme and freshman sensation Chet Holmgren had their way against San Francisco, scoring 23 and 22 points respectively.

The Gaels’ best hope for an upset rests on the ability of its best defender, 6’8″ forward Bowen, to discombobulate Holmgren, and for the center combo of Tass and Saxen to contain Timme, who is the most talented post player in the country. It may be a long shot, but the Gaels also have a rematch against the Zags in Moraga on the last day of the 21-22 season, Feb. 26.

Logan Johnson, shown above in last night’s game against San Diego, led the Gaels in scoring with 16 points, to go along with five steals and nine rebounds. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Aussie double-down

by Michael Vernetti

Okay, Gael fans, ‘fess up: how many of you thought your team would come to rely on Kyle Bowen as one of its most dangerous three-point shooters?

If the answer is “none,” you’re not Debbie Downers, your skepticism just reflects the path Bowen has taken from reluctant chucker with a weird-looking delivery to the dude who has made 7-10 three-pointers in the last two games and now averages 39 per cent from distance. For comparison, fellow Aussie Alex Ducas, who is considered the gold standard of Gael three-point shooters, also sits at 39 per cent on threes, albeit on a larger sample size — 50/127 for Ducas compared to 27/69 for Bowen.

The Gaels’ hard-fought 71-60 win over Loyola Marymount Saturday in Moraga was largely reflective of the paths Bowen and Ducas have taken in their three years in Moraga. Bowen has stubbornly ignored negative thoughts about his shooting and worked hard to perfect his three-point stroke.

Ducas has overcome high expectations as an elite shooter, and fought through an injury (high ankle sprain) that derailed him last season when he was just beginning to blossom. Their separate paths converged last night in a showdown against a fired-up LMU team which didn’t take kindly to being humiliated by the Gaels 83-51 on its home court on Jan. 22.

Both Bowen and Ducas have shown signs of excellence in recent weeks, but the pair, the sole Gael recruits in 2019, put their stamp on this Saint Mary’ team by their play against LMU.

Solid when it counted

Ducas was aggressive from the start, taking the Gaels’ first shot — a runner in the paint following a feint toward a three-pointer that his defender expected — and sinking the first of five three-pointers six minutes later to give the Gaels the lead at 14-6. He remained aggressive and hot, despite having to defend one of LMU’s rising stars, the 6’8″ 230-pound sophomore Alex Markviladze, throughout the night.

As Markviladze — a steal from the transfer portal after a solid freshman campaign (10 PPG, 7 RPG) at Cal State Northridge — pulled LMU within four points at 46-42 with a nifty scoop shot, the Gaels regained some footing behind a three-point bucket from Logan Johnson. Ducas then stole the ball in the paint at LMU’s end of the court, raced down court and fired an audacious three-pointer that was — you guessed it — nothing but net.

Pressing his advantage — and running his point total to 22 — Ducas followed up the three with a sweet two-point jumper to give his team a 10-point lead, 54-44, with 11:20 left that it would need to hold off LMU down the stretch.

Bowen also struck early and often, hitting his first three-pointer from the corner at the 6:46 mark of the first half, and striking again shortly after the mid-way point as LMU crept within three points at 40-37 behind a three-pointer by Markviladze. Bowen’s second corner trey inspired a sigh of relief by fans and teammates, and gave his team a six-point edge at 43-37.

Continuing to deliver when the going got tough, Bowen hit his third triple shortly after LMU’s veteran inside scorer, Eli Scott, bullied his way to a basket that brought LMU within five points at 54-49. Bowen’s gutsy corner trey provided some much-needed breathing room for the Gaels and gave them an eight-point lead, 57-49, with 8:23 left in the game.

Bowen’s finishing touch

Then came the dagger. Scott, who was a monster down the stretch despite Bowen’s dogged defense, struck again with an inside bucket to cut the lead to five at 59-54. Showing versatility fans didn’t know he had, Bowen took a pass just to the left of the apex of the three-point circle and nailed his fourth three-pointer of the night for a 62-54 lead.

A few minutes later, Bowen picked up Scott as Scott tried to bull his way through the paint for a lay-up. It was not a decision to be taken lightly, as Scott can be fearsome to defend when he has the basket in sight. Nevertheless, Bowen stayed in front of Scott, and drew a charging call that kept LMU from shrinking a 62-56 lead. To cement the win, Ducas then sank his fifth three-pointer to give Saint Mary’s a comfortable lead at 67-56 with 1:42 left.

It was a great night for Aussies Bowen and Ducas, who totaled 37 points between them, aided greatly by 14 points each from Johnson and Tass. It also gave the Gaels a taste of what they can expect next Tuesday, when they take on Santa Clara at the Leavey Center, the first of three crucial games that week.

Santa Clara has prospered mightily with the wilting of BYU’s once-promising WCC chances, sliding into a tie for third place with San Francisco at 6-3 behind Gonzaga (8-0) and Saint Mary’s (7-1). BYU stayed mired in sixth place at 5-5 after a blowout loss to Gonzaga on its home court Saturday.

Therefore, the Broncos, who lost to Saint Mary’s 73-65 on Jan. 20 in Moraga, look at this Tuesday rematch as an opportunity to shove their way into top-tier WCC contention by taking down the Gaels. LMU was tough on the Gaels’ home court, but Santa Clara will be another level of tough on the road next Tuesday.

Alex Ducas, shown above firing a three-point attempt against LMU last night, was the soul of confidence, going 5-10 on three-point attempts and leading all scorers with 25 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Taking care of business

by Michael Vernetti

On a night when San Francisco took care of a major piece of business — defeating BYU by 73-59 in Provo — Saint Mary’s took care of its own business on a trip to Portland, downing the Pilots by a score of 75-54.

The win-win by the Gaels and Dons solidified the Gaels’ hold on second place in the WCC, 6-1 behind Gonzaga’s 7-0, and put San Francisco into a third place tie with Santa Clara at 5-3. More importantly, it dropped BYU all the way to sixth place at 5-4, with some daunting roadblocks facing the Cougars as they attempt to climb back into contention for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

To wit, a game against the Zags Saturday night in Provo, and a rematch with Saint Mary’s in Moraga on Feb. 19, a date the Gaels no doubt have circled in red on their calendars. BYU is facing the prospect of ending WCC play with six or more losses, which means they would probably have to sweep the WCC Tournament — or at least fight their way to a tournament championship probably against Gonzaga — to get into the NCAA field. Good luck.

But back to the Gaels. They were in Portland for the first time in three years, thanks to Covid-caused cancellations and new WCC scheduling procedures which eliminate the necessity to play conference bottom-feeders twice a year. That description fit Portland to a “T” in the last years of Kevin Porter’s disastrous run as head coach, keeping the Gaels from experiencing the joys of a Pacific Northwest jaunt to Spokane (Gonzaga) and Portland.

The Pilots are now led by Shantay Legans, who came from Eastern Washington with a winning record and his best player, Tyler Roberston. Gael fans may remember Robertson from last year’s too-close-for-comfort win over Eastern Washington in Moraga, 80-75, in which Robertson led all scorers with 17 points.

Two Gaels in particular, Alex Ducas and Kyle Bowen, remember Robertson from the time he played with them in the FIBA World Championships in Greece several summers ago. Robertson, a native of Melbourne, was a less heralded member of that Aussie contingent. He has improved since then.

Looking like trouble

Robertson, a rosy-cheeked, unemotional type, started off against the Gaels as if he were going to personally engineer a Portland upset, scoring 11 of Portland’s first 22 points as the Gaels led the game 28-22 with about four minutes left in the half. Saint Mary’s assigned its top defensive stopper, Bowen, Robertson’s erstwhile teammate, to guard Robertson, but with little early success. Note I said “early” success.

Bowen, as is his won’t when guarding some opposition hot-shot, takes his time settling in, learning to gauge the opponent’s quickness, shooting ability, toughness, etc. in real time. His appraisal of Robertson experienced a setback when Robertson plowed into Bowen on a breakaway with less than two minutes left in the half, sending Bowen crashing to the floor and his head ricocheting off the hardwood in a frightening manner.

While Bowen headed to the locker room for damage assessment, Robertson continued his attack on the Gaels with a late bucket to bring the Pilots within six points, 34-28, at the half. But Bowen was not seriously inconvenienced by his first-half tumble, and took the floor when the second half began. He was fired up.

Within the first four minutes of the second half, Bowen sank two three-pointers to steady the Gaels, whose lead had shrunk to three points at 39-36, and move them ahead by six, 42-36. Robertson had only a missed three-pointer in that time period, and, for all intents and purposes, his night as a Gael-beater was over. He took only two more shots in the half, missing both, and ended the night as he ended the first half, with 15 points and seven rebounds, a good night’s work, but not enough to foster an upset.

Bowen sank another three-pointer late in the second half, which, combined with a bunny in the first half, gave him 11 points in a little more than 24 minutes on the floor. Combined with his second half clamp-down on Robertson, Bowen more than earned his keep on the Portland trip. But so did his substitute.

Fotu gets a little run

One of the intriguing subplots of the Gael season has been the meteoric rise, then fall, of Dan Fotu as a contender with Bowen for playing time at power forward. After a sensational early-season performance, Fotu slowly lost minutes and favor while Bowen became the mostly full-time power forward. Given a shot at redemption when Bowen picked up his second foul with 14:40 left in the first half, Fotu didn’t let the opportunity pass.

He immediately sank a three-pointer, was defended well on a power move inside, then sank an opportunistic bunny for a quick five points. He then scored on another power drive, and followed up that bucket with a follow-up to a miss, giving the Gaels an early 24-11 lead. Nine points in a seven-minute burst, reminding Gael fans of the explosiveness Fotu possesses.

Fotu wasn’t the only Gael making hay while the sun shone. Mitchell Saxen, the sophomore center who has looked more and more as if he is ready to play major minutes behind the Gaels’ leading scorer, Matthias Tass, got an opportunity when Tass picked up his fourth foul with 15:20 left in the second half. It was a puzzling call, as Tass was whistled for setting what looked like a textbook screen on a Portland defender, but the ref detected something amiss, and Tass went to the bench.

Robertson challenged Saxen as soon as he came on the floor, but Saxen defended him strongly and may even have blocked his shot. Saxen was given credit for one blocked shot in the game, and it was hard to tell if it was from that first confrontation with Robertson or another successful defense later in the game.

Saxen scored on a strong drive against Portland’s under-sized post man, Chika Nduka, and on a sweet pick and roll with Tommy Kuhse as he Gaels extended their second-half lead to 57-39. Overall, Saxen manned the post extremely well for nearly 12 minutes until Tass returned with 3:39 left in the game.

Johnson over all

With all the emphasis on Bowen’s defense of Robertson and Saxen’s sub-in for Tass, a constant standout throughout the game was Gael guard Logan Johnson. The Gaels’ three-point offense was funky throughout the game, and they ended up shooting a respectable-but-hardly-scary 12-34 from deep — 35 per cent. Although Alex Ducas hit his first three-point attempt just minutes into the game, he would make only one more on the night and end up scoring only six points on 2-7 shooting.

Likewise, Kuhse, who has been the Gaels’ most consistent three-point scorer, also made only 2-6 from distance, and ended up with only eight points on the night on 2-8 shooting and a pair of free throws. Johnson filled in, scoring 17 points, with three assists and three steals, one of them a highlight reel effort.

Midway through the second half, Johnson jumped the passing lane, stole a Portland pass and motored up-court. He finished with a powerful dunk to bring the Gael bench to its feet and wake up a small crowd of Portland fans. Moments later, Johnson took the ball out of a Portland player’s hands and seemed to be off to the races again, but someone fouled him before he could get up a head of steam and avoided another highlight reel moment.

The Gaels have a rematch with Loyola Marymount Saturday in Moraga, a game which will challenge them not to play down to the level the LMU displayed in an 83-51 Saint Mary’s rout two weeks ago in Los Angeles. Then comes their most challenging stretch of the WCC season, with a make-up game against Santa Clara on the road on Tuesday, Feb. 8, a home game against rising San Diego two days later, then the first encounter with Gonzaga on Saturday, Feb. 12 in Spokane.

Saint Mary’s is in good shape to endure that gauntlet, but has only to look at BYU to see how fast a team can fall in the increasingly competitive WCC.

Logan Johnson, shown above from action earlier this year, led all Gael scorers against Portland with 17 points, three assists and three steals. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Where we stand

by Michael Vernetti

Your faithful correspondent did make the trek to War Memorial Gym Thursday night, did write about the Gaels’ marvelous comeback win over San Francisco and did attempt to post it in this space. Alas, the computer gods decided to devour it after 236 straight posts without a hitch, so it is lost in cyberspace. Onward!

Pepperdine will be good, probably sooner than most people think. This statement undoubtedly baffles some fans who watched Saint Mary’s build a 31-point lead over the Waves Saturday afternoon and cruise to an 81-57 victory. Nevertheless, Lorenzo Romar has assembled an excellent group that will get better and better.

Pepperdine, who has yet to win a conference game and is 6-17 overall, starts a back court of two freshmen, Mike Mitchell Jr. and Houston Mallette, and against the Gaels was forced to start another freshman, Carson Basham, at center because of lingering injuries to the team’s leading scorer, Jan Zidek, the 6’9″ junior from the Czech Republic.

Along with sophomore Kendall Munson, the Waves also started senior Jade’ Smith, but kept their best prospect, freshman Maxwell Lewis, in reserve. Lewis, who was shining so brightly as a junior at basketball power Compass Prep in Arizona that he passed up his senior year to prepare for an NBA bid that didn’t materialize, led the Waves last night with 16 points on 4-10 shooting, and definitely has game.

All this is to say that the Waves could have provided a severe test to the high-flying Gaels after Saint Mary’s rebounded from a 17-point halftime deficit to edge San Francisco by 72-70. The shopworn phrase “trap game” probably found itself on the lips of more than one Gael fan, but it did not turn out that way.

Veteran composure

Instead, the Gaels took care of business in their own house. They pounded the ball inside to Matthias Tass, who tied for scoring honors with Tommy Kuhse with 16 points after a 27-point effort against San Francisco, hit their outside shots (9-19, 47 per cent) and took care of the basketball, something Romar’s charges have not yet mastered. Careless ball-handling and passing by the young Waves cost them 17 turnovers, including 13 steals by the tenacious Gael defenders.

Continuing to benefit from a strong bench, Saint Mary’s got big boosts from Jabe Mullins — 11 points including 3-4 on three-pointers — Mitchell Saxen — four points in 10 minutes following an eight-points-in-eight minute effort against San Francisco — and Kuhse, continuing to come off the bench behind starter Augustas Marciulionis. That’s 31 bench points from three players.

Kuhse, of course, could have an asterisk beside the “bench points” description since Gael Coach Randy Bennett obviously favors his six-year veteran over starter Marciulionis, who totaled three points and three steals in 16 minutes against Kuhse’s 16 points and seven assists in 31 minutes. Bennett sees value in starting Marciulionis, even though Kuhse has been stellar coming off the bench.

Former Oklahoma State hoops star turned peripatetic announcer/analyst Doug Gottlieb said it best during his coverage of the San Francisco game: “Kuhse is better right now, but Marciulionis will be better than Kuhse in the future, so Bennett has to use him.”

Second in the WCC

Saint Mary’s epic win over San Francisco coincided with another beneficial event Thursday night — Santa Clara’s upset of BYU at Santa Clara. The gods continued smiling last night, as BYU fell to Pacific in Stockton and dropped to fourth place in the WCC at 5-3. The Gaels are in second at 5-1 behind the undefeated (in conference) Gonzaga Bulldogs.

Because of weird scheduling, compounded by Covid-related make-up games, the Saint Mary’s schedule from here on in is unusually difficult. They head to Portland next Thursday and return for a rematch with Loyola Marymount in Moraga next Saturday. So far, so good, but it gets worse.

Squeezing in a make-up game against Santa Clara on the road on Tuesday, Feb. 8, the Gaels play San Diego at home two days later before heading to Spokane for a tilt with no. 1 ranked Gonzaga on Saturday. Talk about a week from….not heaven.

A make-up home game against San Francisco is scheduled for the Thursday following the Gonzaga game (Feb. 17), then the Gaels face BYU the following Saturday. Both San Francisco and BYU will consider these games as must-wins, so Saint Mary’s will have to mount an exceptional effort on both nights.

Finally, to finish off the 2021-22 WCC schedule, Saint Mary’s travels to San Diego on Feb. 24 and concludes against Gonzaga on the 26th at home. Whew!

With excellent wins over Santa Clara, Loyola Marymount, San Francisco and Pepperdine in succession, Saint Mary’s appears to be jelling at a good point. Whether the recent success portends a successful WCC season — holding on to the second spot — is far from certain, however.

Much work to be done.

Matthias Tass, shown above in an earlier game this season, continued a string of strong performances with a 16-point, six rebound effort against Pepperdine. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.