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.
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.