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Uh oh

by Michael Vernetti

With 12 seconds left in a nail-biter against Santa Clara on Saturday, and his Gaels behind 65-64, Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett called time out to devise a game-saving play.

Would he go with veteran Tommy Kuhse, who was having a terrible day against the Broncos — 4-17 from the floor and a killer turnover a minute earlier — or put the ball in the hands of a sizzling Logan Johnson, who had scored 26 points on 9-14 shooting and was almost a cinch to score or get fouled on a last-minute drive?

For those of you who have followed Bennett and the Gaels for 20 years, it probably wasn’t much of a mystery which way the ultra-loyal coach would go. Removing Johnson from the equation by having him inbounds the ball to Kuhse, Bennett rolled the dice with his tried and true captain.

The result, for those of you who watched the contest on the CBS Sports Network, was not pretty. Kuhse dribbled around, trying to force a mis-match with one of the Santa Clara bigs, but failed, and was stuck with the Broncos’ 6’7″ forward Keshawn Justice guarding him. As happened three times previously in the game, Kuhse had his shot stuffed, Santa Clara sank a last-second free throw and Saint Mary’s lost in its WCC opener, 66-64.

It was a bitter ending for the valiant Kuhse, who has carried Saint Mary’ and its often-anemic offense on his back throughout this season. After having his first three shots in the paint blocked either by the player guarding him or a secondary defender, Kuhse seemed to tighten up for the rest of the game. On at least six occasions, Kuhse left lay-ups, floaters and jump shots short, and scored on only three attempts from the eight-minute mark of the first half until the final buzzer.

Sensational Johnson

On the other hand, Johnson, the third-year transfer from Cincinnati, was simply sensational, scoring on a series of drives, spin moves and dunks that left the Broncos flummoxed. His most brilliant play came after still another weak Kuhse attempt in the paint, when Johnson swept in from the perimeter and stuffed the Kuhse miss for a 43-41 Gael lead with less than 14 minutes left in the game. It should have been the kind of emotional lift that allows a team to gain separation from a dogged foe, but this year’s Gael team — minus injured sharpshooters Alex Ducas and Leemet Bockler — just can’t pull the trigger on the dagger three-pointers they have relied on in the past.

Indeed, following Johnson’s rousing dunk, Kuhse missed a three-pointer that would have given the Gaels a four-point lead, and the Broncos’ top scorer, Josip Vrankic, slipped by the tight defense of Kyle Bowen for a lay-up that switched the momentum back to Santa Clara.

In the final analysis, it wasn’t a last-minute coaching decision that cost Saint Mary’s the game, it was an inability to score often enough to keep the Broncos back on their heels. Santa Clara is anything but an offensive juggernaut, leaning on two inside players, the 6’9″ Croatian-Canadian Vrankic and Guglielmo Caruso, a 6’11” Italian, who account for around 22 PPG. But it was a player coming off a 1-7, two-point performance against Colorado State (L70-57) who killed the Gaels.

Justice was an over-match for Saint Mary’s freshman Jabe Mullins, who had a decent game against Sacramento State on Dec. 30 to make Gael fans think he might become a reasonable stand-in for the injured Ducas. One three-minute segment in the first half, however, underlined Justice’s effect on the game and Bennett’s ongoing headache over who to play in Ducas’s stead

Justice started with a three-pointer over Mullins, which was answered by Quinn Clinton’s second three-pointer of the first half — and, unfortunately, his last of the game — then sank a jumper in the paint and was fouled by Mullins. Sinking the free throw gave Justice two successive three-point plays, equalling Clinton’s full-game output.

Mullins exited at that point, leaving Justice to be guarded by the 6’2″ Clinton, who promptly fouled him for two more free throws. Justice finished his three-minute rampage with another three-pointer at the 7:23 mark that gave Santa Clara its biggest lead of the game at 22-15. Justice, of course, twisted the knife in the Gaels’ back by his opportunistic lay-up at the end of the first half and his game-winning three-pointer over Johnson with 18 seconds left that gave Santa Clara a 65-64 lead.

Who is the Gaels small forward?

Bennett must be seriously reconsidering his logical-seeming decision to insert Mullins in Ducas’s place. At 6’5″ and possessing long arms that allow him to stifle smaller guards, Mullins adroitly stopped into the two-guard spot when Johnson was injured early in the season. At small forward, however, he seems unable to figure out his role on offense. Used to playing with the ball in his hands throughout a standout high school career in Washington state, Mullins seems lost at small forward.

He attempted only one shot in 22 minutes against the Broncos, a missed three-pointer, and did little else to advance the cause. Although Bennett has a player on his bench who seems a better fit at small forward, 6’5″ freshman Judah Brown, the Gael coach has used Brown only sparingly so far. Inserting Brown would allow Bennett to return Mullins to the guard rotation, where he seems more comfortable, and use Clinton as a sub at the two or three-man position.

If that is not enough of a stretch for Bennett, what about a truly radical idea — using power forward Dan Fotu at three-spot, with Brown as his back-up? Bennett seems inclined to use Bowen over Fotu at the four anyway — Bowen logged 31 minutes against Santa Clara to eight for Fotu — so why not give Fotu a shot at the Gaels’ weakest position?

Grasping at straws? Maybe, but it is hard to see any advantage in standing pat with the lineup that flopped against Santa Clara. BYU and Gonzaga are coming to Moraga next Thursday and Saturday, and the Gaels are looking into an 0-3 start to the WCC season unless something is changed for the better.

Logan Johnson, shown above making one of his many acrobatic shots against Santa Clara, led Saint Mary’s with 26 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

On to the WCC (Covid permitting)

by Michael Vernetti

The Gaels’ good-enough-for-government-work win over Sacramento State last Wednesday by a score of 63-45 set the stage for their first WCC game of the ’20-21 season on Jan. 2 against Pepperdine — until Covid problems in the Pepperdine program forced a postponement.

Next up is San Diego on Jan. 7 (Thursday) in the Slim Gym — unless it isn’t. The Toreros, struggling with Covid problems throughout the season, postponed their scheduled opener against BYU last Saturday, and must remain questionable for Thursday. If that goes by the boards, Saint Mary’s will look to a scheduled Jan. 9 away game against Santa Clara, played, I guess, in Santa Cruz, where the Broncos have set up shop since Santa Clara County authorities forbade all athletic activity in the wake of a Covid surge.

Thursday in San Diego or Saturday in Santa Cruz, the question remains: where do the Gaels stand on the brink of a WCC season? Anyone who knows the definitive answer to that question should call Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett immediately, as I imagine he is struggling for an answer.

Ducas and Bockler sidelined

All was going well in Gael-land until small forward Alex Ducas suffered a severe ankle injury during the Dec. 19 game against Colorado State. That was compounded by news that Ducas’s back-up, Leemet Bockler, had also been sidelined by a foot injury that has left him toddling around on one of those scooters used by people who can’t put any pressure on sore feet.

Watching the Gaels on the sidelines during the last two games looked like episodes of “MASH”, with Ducas and freshman walk-on Luke Barrett hobbled on crutches, and Bockler rolling across the floor on his tiny scooter.

Instead of being stocked with dangerous shooters, the Gaels are now struggling to re-direct the promising talents of freshmen Jabe Mullins and Judah Brown to play small forward. Mullins is a natural guard, who had forced himself into the starting lineup at the off-guard position following an earlier injury — thankfully, short-lived — to opening-game starter Logan Johnson.

Mullins is physically adaptable to small forward with his 6’5″ frame, but questions remains as to his scoring ability. Ducas was averaging 10.9 PPG when he went down, second on the team, and Bockler 5.5 PPG in just 88 minutes of action. That’s more than 16 PPG wiped away at one fell swoop, and the Gaels have to be concerned whether Mullins — averaging 5 PPG on 32% shooting — and Brown can come near equalling it.

Brown was one of the most eagerly-awaited freshmen on the Gaels’ roster following an outstanding high school career at tiny Pacifica Christian High School in Santa Monica, and, like Mullins, has the size, 6’6″, 205 lbs., to play small forward. Used even more sparingly than Bockler, Brown had gone 1-10 on three-point attempts before sinking one against Sacramento State. Needless to say, the jury is still out on whether he and Mullins can become reliable substitutes for Ducas and Bockler.

What do San Diego State and Sacramento State tell us?

Hopefully, those games are not indicative of the Gaels’ post-Ducas and Bockler future. Saint Mary’s was totally flummoxed by San Diego State’s swarming defense on center Matthias Tass and deadeye shooting by guards Jordan Schakel and Terrell Gomez, and struggled to score 49 points. The Aztecs breezed to 74 points on 56% scoring.

The picture was somewhat brighter against Sac State, a mediocre member of the Big Sky Conference. Mullins seemed to be growing into the small forward position, and was more aggressive in exploiting his height and quickness advantage by driving the lane frequently. He converted only two of those drives, but a couple of others were negated by a whistle-happy officiating crew who called 18 fouls on the Gaels, several of them questionable charging calls.

Mullins finished the game with 10 points and an impressive nine rebounds, coming just one rebound short of a double-double. If he can keep improving, especially on his three-point shooting — 9-31, 29% — he could help Gael fans forget Ducas a little bit. Brown also looked more comfortable against Sac State, drilling his single three-point attempt with seeming ease.

For now, however, the Gaels’ chances in the WCC hang on the backs of Tass and senior point guard Tommy Kuhse. Kuhse, held to just nine points by San Diego State, rebounded for 17 against Sac State, although he made only 3-11 field goals. When he didn’t score on his repeated drives into the paint, however, he often was fouled, and sank 10-11 free throws to accompany seven assists, six rebounds and three steals. A solid game from the Gaels’ best player.

Tass started out against Sac State’s undersized and inexperienced center, 6’8″ freshman David Jones, as if he would score at least 20 points. After making his first five shots, however, Tass was unsettled by a sudden onslaught of double-teaming. He responded badly to the first double-team, throwing an unwise cross-court pass into the arms of a Sac State defender. Faced with the same strategy on the next possession, Tass bailed himself out by calling a time out.

Tass scored only one more bucket in the game, finishing with 16 points and six rebounds — not an overwhelming performance against a weak opponent. He certainly did nothing to dispel the impression that he can be rattled by aggressive double-teaming, which he will probably see a lot of in conference play.

Can tough defense offset weak scoring?

Not only is the Gaels’ scoring average of 69 PPG down somewhat from their usual mid-70s output, but also the trend is unsettling. Against Colorado State, San Diego State and Sacramento State — maybe they should not play teams with “State” in their titles — Saint Mary’s scored 53, 49 and 61 points, respectively.

They are demonstrably stronger defensively compared to last year’s weak-in-the-paint crew lacking the injured Tass or freshman Mitchell Saxen. Those two in the post, along with strong power forward play from Kyle Bowen and Dan Fotu, have made Saint Mary’s an unwelcome opponent for many teams. Colorado State Coach Niko Medved responded to his team’s inability to score against Saint Mary’s — just 33 points — by acting as if it had been subjected to assault and battery.

Colorado State proved in succeeding games, wins over Santa Clara (70-57), Fresno State twice (75-53 and 81-59) and, most impressively a 70-67 comeback win over San Diego State, that it can, indeed, score when the other team does not insist on mugging its players.

Can the Gaels parlay improved defense to challenge BYU for runner-up in he WCC against powerhouse Gonzaga? They better if they entertain hopes of recovering the NCAA Tournament bid that was obliterated by the Covid outbreak last March. Devoid of a signature win, and bearing the stigmas of blow-out losses to the two toughest opponents they have faced — Memphis and San Diego State — Saint Mary’s must beat BYU at least once to have a prayer of an NCAA bid.

It is unreasonable to expect the Gaels to topple Gonzaga, which is ranked number one in the country and is busy answering questions whether anyone in the country can beat it, so a win or two over BYU is mandatory. And that, of course, must be accomplished while avoiding losses to WCC opponents such as Pepperdine, San Francisco and Loyola Marymount.

The first BYU game is scheduled for next Thursday (Jan. 14) in Moraga, part of a brutal two-game nightmare that brings in Gonzaga on the following Saturday. The Gaels need the San Diego and Santa Clara games to continue adjusting their offense, so are hopeful the Covid gods will allow one or both of them.

Here’s hoping that 2021 will prove more favorable on that score than 2020.

Tommy Kuhse, shown above in an earlier game this season, leads Gael scorers going into WCC play, averaging 15 PPG. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Back to the drawing board

by Michael Vernetti

As poorly as they played in spots — 5-22 on three-pointers — as much as they missed newly-injured Alex Ducas — see above — and as much as they tried to make San Diego State’s Nathan Mensah the second coming of Bill Russell — 18 points, 13 rebounds, six blocked shots — Saint Mary’s had a chance to make a game of it against the Aztecs last Tuesday.

Instead, they lost by 25 points, 74-49.

Gael fans have probably spent a good part of their Christmas holidays wondering what happened: is it last season all over again, when an injury to Matthias Tass on Dec. 21 derailed a 12-2 season that seemed to be gaining momentum; is it a case of too much missing offense with the departure of Jordan Ford, Malik Fitts and Tanner Krebs; or is it just too early for Coach Randy Bennett to have fully formed his post-Ford and Fitts team?

A close look at what happened against San Diego State reveals it was more a case of poor defense by the Gael guards, a sudden loss of ability to switch on high ball screens and a continuing inability to generate offense from beyond the three-point stripe that doomed Saint Mary’s. Bennett showed last season that he could craft a successful team out of the wreckage of his post offense after Tass was sidelined (26-8 overall, well-contested loss to Gonzaga in the WCC championship game and near-unanimous agreement by bracketologists that the Gaels were a lock for a decent seed in the NCAA Tournament), so it doesn’t seem impossible that he will return these Gaels to the eight-wins-in-a-row budding juggernaut they were before Tuesday night.

But first, some needed repairs.

Forget Terrell Gomez?

We know Saint Mary’s players didn’t sleep through the entire scouting report on the Aztecs since they took Matt Mitchell, San Diego’s high-scoring senior forward, almost completely out of the game. Coming off a 35-point outburst against BYU in his previous outing — a 72-62 loss — Mitchell saw a steady diet of Dan Fotu and Kyle Bowen en route to a meek, 10-point effort consisting of one made field goal. He got to the foul line 10 times, making seven, but Fotu and Bowen expended just six of their allotted fouls against him, and Bennett would probably concede that roughing up Mitchell paid big dividends.

Terrell Gomez should have received some special attention, although the 5’8″ senior from Los Angeles doesn’t start for SDSU. He did spend three sensational seasons at Cal State-Northridge before transferring to San Diego, however, averaging 19.8 PPG in his last season and ranking first in the Big West Conference in three-point field goal percentage. A guy to be watched, one would think.

Gomez started inflicting damage about halfway through the first half, when the Aztecs had cruised to a 21-10 lead but things were not out of control. Quinn Clinton, the Gaels sophomore guard from New Zealand, went under a screen instead of fighting through it and Gomez sank his first three-pointer to push the lead to 24-10. Gomez then stripped Logan Johnson as he brought the ball up-court and scored on a driving lay-up. He completed his less-than-two-minute destructive burst of seven straight points with a long two-pointer over a leisurely-guarding Johnson to push the score to a seemingly-insurmountable 28-10 margin with about nine minutes left the half.

The Gaels would fight back to come within 14 points in the second half, but the damage had been done early by Gomez and starters Jordan Schakel and Trey Pulliam. Schakel is a known quantity as a senior and San Diego’s designated three-point specialist. Nevertheless, Schakel hit his only two three-pointers of the game in the early going, once over Johnson, who was playing his too loose as he was against Gomez later, and then over Clinton, who picked up Schakel on a scramble after one of Bowen’s numerous missed shots.

Pulliam burned the Gaels’ point guard Tommy Kuhse on a straight drive to the bucket and a back-door cut, both baskets coming in the game’s first 10 minutes, setting up Gomez’s first dagger three-pointer. Thus, the Gaels dug themselves into their first hole largely through poor defense by their guards.

The comeback…sort-of

As poorly as the Gaels played to earn a 40-20 halftime deficit, they actually showed some signs of life just before the half. Clinton, who had looked like he might be a reliable outside scorer in several early games, continued a trend against the Aztecs that he revealed in the Gaels’ previous game against Colorado State: one early make, several misses — five in a row against CSU, four against San Diego State — and then a final make. When he sank a corner three-pointer in the closing minutes of the first half, it pulled Saint Mary’s to within 39-17, then Johnson made a clean steal and the Gaels had a chance to gain some momentum.

They blew that when freshman Judah Brown, subbing for Jabe Mullins at Ducas’s small forward spot, drew a charging call when pushing through the paint on the Gaels’ next possession. Brown redeemed himself on the ensuing possession, however, and showed that he might be a better choice than Mullins — a true guard — to man the wing position until Ducas returns from an ankle injury suffered against Colorado State.

Brown juked his way past Schakel, who looks to be a better shooter than defender, then made a Euro-step against San Diego State’s reserve center, Joshua Tomaic, and found himself free under the basket for an easy lay-up. It wasn’t much, but Saint Mary’s was searching for any ray of hope at that point.

The second half began with Kuhse’s first bucket of the game, a tough, driving runner to cut the margin to 18 points, 40-22. Fotu then defended Mitchell at the other end, leading to a Mullins runner that accounted for the Gaels’ first back-to-back buckets of the game and a 16-point deficit.

Mensah scored on a tough left-hander in the paint, but the Gaels answered with another back-to-back scoring sequence. Battling the tight defense of Mensah, Tass converted one of his patented right-hand hooks underneath, then Johnson made the play that could have sent the Gaels on a concerted comeback run.

Seeing an opening from the top of the key, Johnson roared toward the bucket and made a tomahawk dunk over Mensah to bring the Gaels within 14 points, 42-28, with almost 17 minutes left. Plenty of time to change the course of what had looked like a hopeless cause.

Unfortunately, Johnson let himself get carried away by the excitement of his big play, and shouted into Mensah’s face what looked like, “You can’t stop me!” To a nearby referee that constituted taunting, Johnson was called for a technical foul and Schakel sank both free throws. Plus, San Diego State was given possession of the ball following the free throws. Talk about a momentum-killer.

To exacerbate the damage done by Johnson’s temper tantrum, Tass mis-played a high ball screen situation with Mensah and one of the Aztec guards on that post-free throw possession. Instead of hedging on the screen and then getting back quickly on Mensah, Tass let Mensah slip past him to receive a lob and convert it to push the score back to 46-28.

The Gaels didn’t collapse immediately after that deflating sequence, as Kuhse sank a corner three-pointer off an inbounds play to cut the deficit to 15 points, then scored on another tough drive in the paint to make it 49-33. Clinton made a nifty steal off the Aztecs’ in-bounds play, and found Bowen alone in the corner for a chance at a three-pointer that would have cut the margin to 13 points at 49-36. As he did on all four of his three-point attempts, however, Bowen misfired.

The Gaels were still not done, however, despite Gomez’s second three-pointer that pushed the margin back almost to the half-time deficit, 52-33. Kuhse made still another tough shot in the paint, then Johnson did what had eluded the Gaels throughout the game — sank a corner three-pointer that gave them life again at 54-40. Fourteen points down with more than 10 minutes left, Saint Mary’s was still in it, right?

Tass gets the wobbles

At this key point, the Gaels showed the effects of Mensah’s shot-blocking that had haunted them throughout the game. With Mensah on the bench, Tass slipped behind his sub, Tomaic, and received a pass from Kuhse with a clear path to the basket. With Gael fans undoubtedly shouting at their screens, “Dunk it Matthias!” Tass instead passed out to the corner to no avail. A Kuhse turnover leading to another three-pointer by — you guessed it — Gomez — sealed the deal, and the Gaels soon found themselves behind 59-40, just about where they were at the end of the first half. It was all over but the shouting, except there was no shouting in the fanless Cal Poly gym.

As Bennett sifts through the wreckage of his offense before the Gaels’ final out-of-conference game next Wednesday against Sacramento State in Moraga, he must struggle with several uncomfortable realities. The team’s three-point offense is deeply compromised by the injury to Ducas, as well as a more serious foot injury to Ducas’ back-up, freshman Leemet Bockler. That one-two punch moved Mullins to the small forward position, and he did play solid defense against the Aztecs. He made only 2-7 shots, however, including going 1-5 on three-point attempts.

Bowen was even worse from distance, harking back to his early-season inability to connect from distance. Critics will cite Kuhse’s inability to score off drives in the first-half against San Diego State, and claim a strong effort to keep him out of the paint presages death to the Gaels’ offense. There are two arguments to counter that: Kuhse rallied for four buckets in the second half, including a crucial three-pointer, and got the ball out to the corners enough times to keep the Gaels in the game — if those corner shooters had converted often enough.

And Johnson showed that San Diego State was not impregnable against the drive, making 4-7 field goals and getting to the free throw line 10 times, making six. He and Kuhse scored 24 points together, not far off the approximately 26 PPG the combination of Ford and Kuhse accounted for last year.

Kuhse and Johnson will continue to do damage against Gael opponents for the rest of the season. Whether Ducas returns in time to help out with three-point offense or Clinton becomes more reliable, however, are big question marks. Bennett is faced with another major question about whether he is better off playing Fotu more at the power forward position or Bowen. Fotu is better offensively than Bowen, and can make the occasional three-pointer that greases the offense, while Bowen is arguably the better defender and rebounder.

These are the questions that are troubling the Gael brain trust as Saint Mary’s gets ready for Sacramento State and the WCC season.

Logan Johnson, shown above scoring against Colorado State on Dec. 19, led Saint Mary’s in scoring against San Diego State with 15 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

For the defense

by Michael Vernetti

Colorado State began Saturday’s contest versus Saint Mary’s by dumping the ball into its skilled guard-forward David Roddy, who was immediately cut off by the Gaels’ Dan Fotu and travelled.

Little did Roddy know, but that was the highlight of the game for him and his teammates. A few minutes later, Fotu blocked another inside attempt by Roddy, rebounded the miss and began a Gael counter that ended with Matthias Tass flushing the ball for 7-0 lead.

In short order, the Gaels’ Alex Ducas stole an errant Colorado pass, drove the length of the court and was fouled attempting a lay-up. Never mind a referees’ decision that Ducas actually wasn’t fouled, the steal was notable as it was the first of 13 for Saint Mary’s in the game.

Tass’s back-up, freshman Mitchell Saxen, tied up Colorado’s star guard, Isaiah Stevens, on a subsequent possession, then the Gaels’ Logan Johnson emphatically rejected lay-up attempt by Colorado’s John Tonje, which led to a three-point bucket by the Gaels’ Quinn Clinton and a 19-6 lead with fewer than nine minutes left in the first half.

You might say the die was cast, as Colorado State managed just 12 field goals for the entire game, and limped to a 53-33 loss that had its usually buoyant third-year coach, Niko Medved, sounding like someone who had been mugged outside his home when interviewed by a Colorado newspaper.

“This is what they do. They are an extremely physical team. They are going to be physical on drives, they’re going to wall you up at the rim, they’re going to bust through screens,” Medved moaned.

Sounds like material for a recruiting pitch for the Gaels: “We’re physical on drives. We wall you up at the rim. We bust through screens. Come play with us.”

Colorado State unprepared

The Rams’ poor performance was partly a result of he craziness of this Covid-infected season. Their first three games were “postponed” — make that cancelled — and they finally got in a game against D-II Colorado State-Pueblo (W89-77), followed by a 91-52 romp over Northern Arizona before heading to Moraga.

Waiting for them was Randy Bennett’s squad that has managed to complete — and usually win — nine games despite the pandemic. It was no contest despite the fact that Colorado is considered a talented offensive side and a respectable member of the strong Mountain West Conference. Coming off a 20-12 record in 2019-20 and sniffing an NCAA bid this year, the Rams were picked fifth in the Mountain West behind good-to-excellent competitors San Diego State, Boise State, Utah State and UNLV.

Three of their projected stars, however, were stymied by the Gaels’ defense. Roddy averaged 11.4 PPG as a true freshman last year, coming off a high school career that saw him named Minnesota’s Male Athlete of the Year for his prowess in basketball and football. On the basketball side, Roddy averaged 29.7 PPG and 16 RPG for the Breck School in Minneapolis. He managed six points against the Gaels on 2-6 shooting.

Stevens, who led the Rams with 23 points against Northern Arizona, also tallied just six against the Gaels, and the Rams’ third expected high-scorer, guard Kendle Moore, totaled just five points. That’s how you manage only 33 points in a game.

Gaels stumble on offense

It was a good thing Bennett’s boys laced up their sneakers on defense since they struggled offensively, shooting a miserable 7-31 on three-point attempts, less than 23%. Point guard Tommy Kuhse, coming off an otherworldly 34-point explosion last Tuesday against Eastern Washington, led the Gaels with 14 points on 5-14 shooting. Only one other Gael managed to score in double digits, as Fotu had one of his strongest games with 10 points on 4-5 shooting, including two of three from three-point distance. Fotu also pulled down a team-high seven rebounds, had that block on Roddy and garnered two steals in 23 minutes of play.

Ducas, who had managed only 15 points in his previous two games against Eastern Washington and San Jose State, started as if he were out to redeem himself against Colorado. He launched the scoring with a drive across the lane, finishing with a soft hook shot, and followed with a three-pointer to put the Gaels on top quickly by a 5-0 margin. He then drove down the middle of the lane for a lay-up and seven of the Gaels’ first nine points.

In a scramble near the end line on the Gaels’ end of the court, however, Ducas sustained an injury that sent him first to the locker room, and eventually, according to Fotu in a post-game interview, to a nearby hospital. The murkiness and limited camera angles afforded by the streaming video of the Colorado State game made it impossible to determine just how Ducas was injured, much less how serious it might be.

With San Diego State next on the Gaels’ schedule — Tuesday, Dec. 22 in San Luis Obispo — the thought of losing Ducas is troubling. As poorly as Colorado played on offense, they did stifle the Saint Mary’s offense, specifically by closing off the lane to Kuhse’s drives, which have netted him the majority of his points this season.

Gaels’ outside scoring in question

Without Ducas in the lineup against San Diego — if that is the result of his injury — the Gaels will be limited in their ability to loosen up things inside by scoring from distance. Ducas’s back-up in the early going, freshman Leemet Bockler, was spotted wearing an ankle boot on the bench during the Colorado game, eliminating another outside threat. Clinton remains the Gaels’ only consistent outside threat, and he missed five straight three-pointers against Colorado before closing out the scoring with his second trey against seven attempts.

San Diego State was jolted on Saturday by a 72-62 defeat at the hands of BYU on the Aztecs’ home court, leaving them at 5-1 heading into the showdown with the Gaels. The Aztecs have beaten UCLA and Arizona State of the Pac-12, along with Saint Katherine (?), UC Irvine and Pepperdine — although the latter was close (65-60) and the Waves led for most of the game. So, they’re 2-0 against the Pac-12 and 1-1 against he WCC, so what does that mean for the Gaels’ chances?

The biggest negative for SDSU this season is the loss of sensational guard Malachi Flynn, who was gobbled up early in the recent NBA draft by the Toronto Raptors. The Aztecs ran their offense through Flynn for the past two years and he came through, as the Gaels witnessed when Flynn led an upset over Saint Mary’s when he was a freshman at Washington State. Flynn was unstoppable against the Gaels on that day and on several others throughout his career.

Without Flynn, the go-to guy for San Diego against BYU was forward Matt Mitchell, a 6’6″, 235-lb senior who scored 35 of SDSU’s 62 points. The Gaels are well-positioned to defend Mitchell with their combo at the power forward position, Fotu and Kyle Bowen, but the game against a seasoned, highly-skilled player the likes of Mitchell will represent a stern test for them.

The San Diego game will be broadcast over a legitimate national outlet, CBS Sports, at 6 p.m. Tuesday, so at least fans will be able to witness the contest clearly. Here’s hoping they like what they see.

Dan Fotu, shown above scoring against Colorado State, had one of his most productive games against the Rams, with 10 points, seven rebounds and two steals. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Gutting one out

by Michael Vernetti

It took a late-game defensive stand and a miracle night by Tommy Kuhse for Saint Mary’s to edge a tough, experienced Eastern Washington squad by 80-75 Tuesday night in Moraga.

It wasn’t as easy as that sounds.

The Eagles had clearly had enough of narrow losses to superior teams, after scaring the Pac-12’s Washington State (L71-68) and Arizona (L70-67) on the road, then losing more expectedly to Oregon (L69-52). A veteran team led by a veteran coach, Shantay Legans, EW came into Cardboard Cut-Out Court — er, University Credit Union Pavilion — with a solid game plan: swarm Gael Center Matthias Tass whenever he touched the ball and run the legs off Gael defenders with a supercharged motion offense.

Both strategies worked, sort of. EW held Tass to 10 points on 5-12 shooting, and forced the Gaels into uncomfortable defensive positions often enough to carve out a nine-point lead, 55-46, less than five minutes into the second half. The EW offense looks like a mad scramble, with each player running around the court, cutting, passing and taking shots when defenders get slightly out of position.

They have the perfect guard to run the show, redshirt senior Jacob Davison from Montebello, just outside Los Angeles. Davison has been at EW for four years after sitting out his freshman season, and has averaged a rock-steady 13+ PPG over 88 games ( he had 15 against the Gaels). He is joined at the core of Legans’ offense by Tanner Groves, a 6’9″ redshirt junior center, who has played 60 games, and another redshirt junior, 6’7″ Kim Aikens Jr., who has logged 62 games.

Get the picture? Legans not only lures these bright prospects to Cheney in lovely Eastern Washington, just 14 miles down the road from another institution known for hoops success, he also convinces them to redshirt their freshman seasons to better learn his complicated offense. Not for nothing was Legans named Coach of the Year in the Big Sky Conference in 2019-20, his third year at the helm after serving as an assistant for eight years. They value longevity in Cheney.

Aussie spices up the mix

Added to this solid foundation, Legans calls on sophomore forward Tyler Robertson from Melbourne, Australia, who played on the same Australian junior national team that participated in the FIBA World Cup in Greece three summers ago with Gael stalwarts Alex Ducas and Kyle Bowen. Ducas and Bowen were more highly regarded than Robertson, and he played as if that fact were etched into his psyche Tuesday night, sinking 5-7 three-pointers en route to 17 points, tied for team high with Graves.

This combination of swarming defense, speeded-up offense and deadly outside shooting flummoxed most of the Gaels, not including Mr. Kuhse. While his teammates served mostly as spectators — only one other player scored in double digits besides Tass (Bowen with 10) — Kuhse put of an offensive show reminiscent of Patty Mills (37 points against Oregon in his freshman season), taking an unheard-of 23 shots and making 14 of them for 34 points.

Kuhse also handed out six assists against zero turnovers, snagged a team-high seven rebounds and swiped the ball twice from Eagle guards who rarely give up turnovers. Kuhse also did a post-game TV interview, but he was not asked to sweep the gym floor.

Help when needed

To say Kuhse carried the Gaels is an understatement, but he did have some help in key moments. Bowen, for instance, who is evolving into an offensive threat, scored 10 first-half points, including two three-pointers that seemed most improbable in his freshman year. Bowen has now made 5-14 three-pointers, a respectable 36%, and fans are learning not to squirm when he launches one with his unconventional, lurching style.

And freshman center Mitchell Saxen took only one shot in his four minutes on the floor — Gael Coach Randy Bennett seemed to forget about him as Tass battled Groves throughout the night — but it was a doozy. Following a sequence when Saxen challenged Groves more forcefully than Tass had been doing — he actually blocked Groves’s shot but was called for a foul — Saxen took a pass in the low post. Surrounded as Tass had been, Saxen kept his cool, maneuvered Groves into a favorable position and then sank a soft left-handed hook shot to put the Gaels ahead for the first time in the second half, 65-64.

Bennett rewarded Saxen by putting Tass back into the game, but the Saxen effect showed itself when Tass blocked a Davison lay-up shortly thereafter, a stop that led to a corner three-pointer by Ducas that pushed the Gael lead to 68-66. The Gaels then forced a turnover by Groves by cutting off his path to the basket, converting that into a flagrant foul call on Kuhse, who sank both free throws to extend the lead to 70-66.

Tass blocked Davison once again, leading to another Kuhse drive and score that pushed the lead to 72-66 with five minutes left and gave the Gaels their first sense of controlling their fate. Another timely contribution came following an EW make that cut the margin to 72-68, when Logan Johnson sank a corner trey off an assist by Bowen. As was Saxen’s key bucket a few minutes earlier, the basket by Johnson was his only one of the game, but was far from his only contribution.

Johnson drove into the teeth of the Eagle defense three times, missing all three shots but drawing fouls each time. He sank 6-8 free throws down the stretch, extending the Gael lead at crucial moments. Johnson is fearless when he drives the lane to either score or draw fouls. As he continues his recovery from an ankle injury suffered in the second game of the season, Johnson is becoming more of an asset for the Gaels.

Final thrust

Gaining a measure of Aussie revenge, Bowen made another key play a minute or so later, blocking a three-point attempt by Robertson. That led to another bucket in the paint by Kuhse and what looked to be a comfortable lead, 77-70, with 3:17 left in the game. Somebody forget to tell EW they were supposed to fold, however, and Aiken converted a three-point play with a lay-up and free throw to bring his team with four points at 77-73. That was narrowed further when Groves sank two free throws, and the Gaels headed into the final 1:37 leading only by 77-75.

Cue Mr. Kuhse

Kuhse left no doubt that he was taking things into his own hands following the Groves free throws. He controlled the dribble for nearly 30 seconds, weaving in and out of the paint and around the perimeter until he settled on his final thrust at the right elbow. Cutting across the paint, Kuhse pulled out his most dramatic of a host of circus shots, switching the ball to his left hand for a delicate three-footer that pushed the Gael lead to four points (79-75) with a minute left.

Bowen recorded another block on a Davison jumper in the paint, Johnson sank one of two free throws for the final margin and Saint Mary’s had survived to live another day. On a night when the EW offense seemed to discombobulate them, the Gaels came up with blocks and turnovers in the game’s closing minutes to avert an upset and move their record to 7-1.

Colorado State, coming to Moraga Saturday afternoon, will not be easier than was EW, and San Diego State next Tuesday in San Luis Obispo, will be a magnitude of difficulty greater. A final out-of-conference game with Sacramento State on Dec. 30 will close out the year and set the stage for the beginning of WCC play on Jan. 2 against Pepperdine in Moraga.

The Gaels are hoping for a happy new year and, perhaps, a farewell to the most serious effects of Covid-19. Time will tell.

Tommy Kuhse, shown above making a floater in the paint against Eastern Washington, had a heroic evening, scoring 34 points, grabbing seven rebounds and handing out six assists. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Gaels team up on San Jose State

by Michael Vernetti

Everything you needed to know about Saint Mary’s 96-61 rout of San Jose State Friday night in Moraga was revealed with about eight minutes left in the first half: all Gael starters were on the bench after having exploded to a 36-17 lead.

It didn’t get any better for the hapless Spartans, who were facing their first D-I competition following three Covid-related game cancellations and an unimpressive 87-79 win over D-II Fresno Pacific two nights ago. Saint Mary’s finished the first half shooting 69% from the floor, including 50% from three-point range, en route to a 30-point bulge, 57-27. In the second half the Gaels increased their winning margin to 35 points, although San Jose State did increase its shooting percentage from 29% to 40%.

The Spartans, who managed just seven wins against 24 losses a year ago, don’t look to be headed for improvement in the tough Mountain West Conference. With a bushel basket full of weaknesses, they are particularly vulnerable in the back line, which Gael starters Matthias Tass and Dan Fotu shredded for 28 points on 12-16 shooting.

Tass barely broke a sweat after a fast start that saw him make four straight shots in the paint over freshman Spartan 7-footer Hugo Clarkin by the 12-minute mark. Fotu mixed a variety of drives and post moves — along with one three-pointer in three tries — to post his first double-double as a Gael — 15 points and 10 rebounds.

Subs keep up the pace

With freshman Mitchell Saxen subbing for Tass — Saxen logged 14 minutes to Tass’s 19 — and sophomore Kyle Bowen filling in for Fotu, the Gaels barely missed a beat. Saxen had six points on 3-3 shooting and pulled down six rebounds, while Bowen danced through the paint for nine points on 4-7 shooting, and grabbed four boards as well.

Even Utah transfer Matt Van Komen, who has seen sparse playing time after being slowed by mid-summer ankle surgery, logged nine minutes of productive action: six points, four rebounds and three blocked shots. Van Komen gave Gael fans their first look at how disruptive a 7’4″ center can be, as he altered several San Jose shots with his extra-long reach. When Van Komen bends at the waist and extends his arm to assume a defensive position, he already has his opponent about 10 feet from the basket.

Johnson bounces back

Another pleasant surprise for Gael fans was the return of Logan Johnson after suffering an ankle injury in the Nov. 26 game against Northern Iowa. Johnson gave iron man Tommy Kuhse a respite from his 36 minutes-a-game average, running the point for 18 minutes and showing no signs of lingering pain from his injury.

Johnson, who is the most athletic of the Gael regulars, repeatedly beat his man off the dribble and got to the rack for 15 points on 4-7 shooting. He brought down the house — composed of cut-outs and piped-in applause — with one 360-degree spin in the paint that left him alone for a soft lay-in.

More important than Johnson’s stats is what his presence means for Gael depth. Although he began the season as the starting two-guard alongside Kuhse, his extended minutes at the point may mean Gael Coach Randy Bennett is considering using Johnson to give Kuhse some regular rest. Freshman Jabe Mullins and redshirt sophomore Quinn Clinton have emerged as solid contenders for playing time as two-guards, so Bennett can experiment with the best way to involve Johnson. Whichever way the coach goes, Johnson’s presence makes the Gaels a deeper, more dangerous team.

As satisfying as it was, the rout of San Jose State will be the last easy contest for Saint Mary’s until, perhaps, Sacramento State on Dec. 30. In between come tough games against Eastern Washington, who has played three Pac-12 teams close, Colorado State and San Diego State, a true nightmare, even though the game is on a neutral court in San Luis Obispo.

Laughers only make you feel good for a short time, but the Gaels may look back on this one as their last break in a tough road ahead.

Dan Fotu, shown above outfoxing San Jose center Hugo Clarkin, scored the first double-double of his career with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Ups and downs

by Michael Vernetti

Quinn Clinton was up — again.

Up, as in a tidy 3-4 from the floor in 18 minutes of play, including two late-second-half three pointers that pushed Saint Mary’s ahead of the dangerous Texas-El Paso Miners by 13 (58-45) at one point and by 14 (63-49) at another. His eight points — he also made his first drive of the season — were crucial in the Gaels’ 73-61 win over UTEP Tuesday night in Moraga.

Since cracking the ice in the Gaels’ third game against South Dakota State with a modest 1-4 on three-point attempts, Clinton has gone 6-11 from distance to give Saint Mary’s a reliable scorer off the bench. The preternaturally-composed Clinton — he resembles those handsome lads in 1920s-era Arrow Shirt ads — provides a steadying hand as these Gaels find themselves in 2020-21.

Conversely, Jabe Mullins, who has started ahead of Clinton since Logan Johnson suffered an ankle injury in the second game of the season, was down against the Miners. Mullins, the lanky red-headed freshman from Snowqualmie, WA, had a night to forget, turning over the ball twice on a lazy pass and a dribbling miscue and scoring just two points on 1-2 shooting in 22 minutes of play.

Mullins’s trajectory over the last few games has been the opposite of Clinton’s, although he did register a steal against UTEP, and his one basket was a beauty, a reverse lay-up off his steal to give the Gaels an early 25-12 lead. This is not to say that Mullins is on the brink of being replaced by Clinton in the starting lineup, as Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett is aware that ups and downs are going to be a part of a Covid-interrupted season that features six new players on the Gaels’ bench.

Bennett prizes Mullins for his length — he’s 6’5″ and has long arms — which makes him a forbidding defensive presence, and for his passing game. Despite a proclivity for lazy passes which opposing players have gobbled up, Mullins is excellent with the ball in his hands, and has shown some scoring punch as well. He just needs to adjust to the heightened quickness and long arms of D-1 competitors.

Bockler comes down to earth

Another up and down drama at a key spot in the Gaels’ rotation — the wing — is playing out between sophomore Alex Ducas and freshman Leemet Bockler. As Ducas struggled against Texas Southern last Thursday, going 0-5 on three-point attempts, Bockler was sensational, sinking 6-7 three-pointers en route to a 20-point game.

UTEP must have seen a tape of that game, however, as they were glued to all Gael shooters throughout the night. Compared with 34 treys attempted against Texas Southern, Saint Mary’s got off just 11 against UTEP, making five. Bockler got off nothing, except perhaps a resolution to tighten up his handle, as he was blanked from the field and coughed up two turnovers in a brief five minutes of action.

Countering a down night for Bockler was Ducas, who showed he is not going to be pigeon-holed as a three-point specialist. Noting the Miners’ tight defense on the perimeter, Ducas attacked the basket on two early possessions, drawing fouls on both drives and sinking three of four resulting free throws. Ducas also got loose for two three-pointers, and ended the night with 11 points.

Kuhse ├╝ber alles

Amidst these ups and downs, senior guard Tommy Kuhse has been a rock of steadiness. With a career-high 24 points against UTEP, Kuhse has taken over the scoring lead from Ducas at 13.7 PPG (Ducas is at 12.7 PPG and Matthias Tass at 10.8 PPG), and has dished out 44 assists against 12 turnovers. He also has 10 steals and three blocks so far.

Kuhse usually doesn’t look to score, enjoying the role of distributor and offense-igniter, as in his 13-assist, three-steal night against Texas Southern. As Bennett has noted, Kuhse seems to sense when his scoring will be necessary, as it was against UTEP. The Gaels’ early offense was all Kuhse and Tass, who has been a paragon of steadiness himself.

Tass scored the Gaels’ first two buckets, and he and Kuhse combined for all points in an early 8-6 lead, including a fast break lay-up by Tass. Time and again, Kuhse stared down UTEP’s top scorer, former San Francisco Don Souley Boum, and took the taller (6’3″ to 6″1″) and longer Boum to the rack.

Boum was no slouch himself, as the former Oakland Tech star scored 21 points on 7-16 shooting. Boum and former Fresno State forward Bryson Williams are the heart of UTEP’s hopes to climb the crowded — 14 teams — and talented — Western Kentucky is among its competitors — Conference USA. A third piece of the Miners’ puzzle, Oklahoma transfer Jamal Bieniemy, was on the court against the Gaels, but overcoming a Covid-related setback, Bieniemy was only 1-10 in 31 minutes.

Assessing the Gaels

Already on the downward path of their out-of-conference schedule, with just five games left before opening WCC play on January 2 against Pepperdine in Moraga, the Gaels are probably pleased with their progress. Just the fact that they have completed six games so far ranks as an accomplishment — plus a touch of luck — in this Year of the Plague. Nicholls State, the Gaels’ fourth opponent, recently shut down its season after several team members tested positive for the virus.

Tass has shown that he has fully recovered from the torn ACL that sidelined him from about this point on last season, emphasized by his 28 minutes and 14 points against UTEP. The Gaels’ outstanding recruiting class has brought them strong back-ups in Mitchell Saxen in the post, Mullins at the off-guard and Bockler at the wing, while returnees Dan Fotu, Kyle Bowen and Clinton have been outstanding.

Saint Mary’s hoped to have a quality road game this Saturday against Utah State in Logan, but the Utes cancelled. The Gaels have substituted a Friday game against San Jose State to stay active, but have only San Diego State Dec. 22 on a neutral court in San Luis Obispo in the way of resume-building contests.

The WCC is stronger throughout this year, and the Gaels will be hard-pressed in games against BYU, San Francisco, Pepperdine and Santa Clara along with the fearsome Gonzaga Bulldogs, who may well be ranked no. 1 in the country when the Gaels face them for the first time on Jan. 16 in Moraga.

Ups and downs have been part of their story so far, and Gael fans are hopeful that the ups keep coming as the season progresses.

Quinn Clinton, shown above scoring for the first time this season on a drive to the hoop, has been an excellent three-point scorer off the bench for the Gaels. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Bench bail-out

by Michael Vernetti

If you asked 100 Gael fans at the start of the 2020-21 season who they would pick as surprise stars in this Covid-infused year, I doubt any of them would have answered Leemet Bockler or Quinn Clinton.

Meet the Estonian Fireman and the New Zealand Flash!

Bockler, the 6’6″, 215-lb wing who grew up playing hoops with Gael center Matthias Tass in Tallinn, Estonia, was the stealthiest of many stealth recruits Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett has landed during his 20 years in Moraga. Although Bockler’s decision to come to Saint Mary’s was known to the coaching staff way back in the fall of 2019, they managed to keep him under wraps until they announced the entire four-man recruiting class in mid-2020 (others being Jabe Mullins, Judah Brown and Mitchell Saxen).

Bockler went into pro basketball instead of college upon graduating from high school, joining Tal Tech/Kalev in the PAF Latvian Estonian League. He became the highest scoring 18-year-old in the league, averaging 13.5 PPG and shooting 40% from three-point range. He was comfortable at the free throw line as well, making 44 of 46 attempts.

Unknown to the American hoops scene, but not unknown to his buddy, Tass, and to the Gael coaching staff. After Thursday night’s 82-70 Saint Mary’s win over Texas Southern University, his cover may be blown.

Bockler entered the game with about 14 minutes left in the first half, replacing Alex Ducas who had opened the game by missing his first three three-point attempts and turning over the ball against the wily Texas Southern guard, Michael Weathers. Bockler promptly sank a three-pointer, only the second Gael score of the game, and brought his team to a 15-5 deficit.

He was just getting warmed up.

Bennett gave Ducas a chance to redeem himself, but the streak-shooting Aussie clanked another two attempts from distance, and the call again went to Bockler with about two-and-a-half minutes left in the half.

The explosion

Bockler proceeded to make four three-point shots in the ensuing two minutes, taking the Gaels from a 30-27 deficit to a 39-35 halftime lead. In some six minutes of play, Bockler had scored 15 points and erased from his teammates’ minds the memory of a sluggish start that gave heart to the gritty Texas Southern Tigers from Houston.

Bockler cooled off somewhat in the second half, adding one more three-pointer and a sensational drive and reverse lay-up for a game total of 20 points in 15 minutes of playing time. But Bennett had another bench surprise up his sleeve.

Clinton is one of the most unsung of Gael players who has been on the roster for more than a year. He came to Moraga in 2018 with fellow New Zealander Dan Fotu, after a sensational high school career that cumulated in winning Male Junior Player of the Year honors. He participated in 2017 FIBA under-19 World Championship in Cairo, Egypt, averaging 12.1 PPG, and was named Most Valuable Player in 2016 FIBA under-18 Oceania Championship, leading his junior national team, the All-Blacks, to a 5-0 record and a Gold Medal.

Although Clinton appeared in 22 games in his freshman year, he did not make much of an impression on Gael fans. That situation was heightened by having to sit out his sophomore season with a foot injury, although intrepid fans might have noticed Clinton during warm-ups when his injury allowed him to suit up toward the end of the year. He could be seen taking shot-after-shot from the short corner, as if he had determined that if he ever got a chance to play regularly he wouldn’t blow the opportunity.

That opportunity came with less than 15 minutes left in the second half, when Texas Southern was trailing by only five points, 47-42. Clinton had sunk one three-pointer and a two-pointer in the first half, along with an assist on one of Bockler’s three-pointers. He showed his playmaking ability once again by feeding Tommy Kuhse on a back-cut that Kuhse converted to push the Gael lead to 49-42.

The Clinton dagger

On the Gaels’ next possession, Clinton hit his second three-pointer of the night, pushing the lead to 10 points, then sank another three-pointer a few minutes later to extend the lead to 13 at 68-55. Feeling the hot hand, Clinton made another three-pointer a minute or so later, pushing the lead to 71-57. His game total: 15 points (on 5-9 shooting), three assists and four rebounds. On any other night not marked by Bockler’s spectacular play, Clinton would have been the talk of the town.

There are plenty of other topics to talk about, however. Although only five games into the season, the Gaels have experienced three roster evolutions. First, starting off-guard Logan Johnson went down in the second game with an ankle injury, replaced by freshman Mullins. Mullins showed great promise as a playmaker, defender and shooter, scoring 15 points in a win over South Dakota State.

Mullins made a number of careless passes in the early going, however, allowing Clinton to emerge as Bennett’s main option at the off-guard, and the Kiwi started edging out Mullins in minutes played during the Nicholls State game. Against Texas Southern, Clinton was on the floor for 30 minutes compared to Mullins’s nine.

The same scenario has played out concerning the Ducas/Bockler tandem at wing. Ducas has emerged as an undeniable team leader, averaging more than 15 PPG and seven RPG entering the Texas southern contest. His abysmal night shooting (1-7, including 0-5 on three-pointers) against Texas Southern, however, opened the door for Bockler, who wasn’t shy about taking advantage.

Every Gael fan knows Bennett enjoys altering his starting five about as much as he enjoys root canal, so no one expects Bockler and Clinton to start Tuesday (Dec. 8) against UTEP in Moraga over Ducas and Mullins. But the bench players have served notice to the starters: screw up and we’ll be breathing down your necks.

That’s a situation Bennett can live with.

Leemet Bockler, shown above making one his six three-pointers against Texas Southern, has been a pleasant surprise for the Gaels in the early season. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Progress

by Michael Vernetti

They stumbled out of the gate against an explosive Memphis team, losing 73-56 before they even got to explore the charms of Sioux Falls, SD; battled back from the brink to edge Missouri Valley Conference power Northern Iowa 66-64; and gained separation against South Dakota State, pre-season picks to win the Summit League, for a 72-59 win in which every player in uniform got on the floor.

Then, on Tuesday night, the Saint Mary’s Gaels returned to Moraga for their first home game of the 2020-21 season and demonstrated the offensive explosiveness, defensive grit and roster depth that their most loyal fans felt they possessed: a 73-50 romp over the Nicholls State Colonels from Thibodaux, LA.

Nicholls, as it prefers to be known, had done a deep dive into Bay Area hoops before finishing a five-game visit against the Gaels. They opened Santa Clara’s Bronco Classic strong, topping UC Davis — picked to finish third in the Big West Conference — 101-93, followed that up with a win over lowly Idaho State, then fell to Santa Clara 73-57 and to Cal by a 60-49 margin.

Perhaps exhausted, perhaps missing some Creole cooking, the Colonels never got untracked against the Gaels. Behind the sizzling three-point shooting of Alex Ducas, Saint Mary’s leapt to an early 18-6 lead, expanded that to 39-25 at the half and moved ahead by 30 points, 61-31, with eleven minutes left. At that point, Gael Coach Randy Bennett began clearing the bench for the second game in a row.

Ducas remains hot

Ducas, who is leading all Gael players in scoring (15.8 PPG) and rebounding (7.8 RPG), has been on a tear since opening with a 1-10 three-point performance in the first two games. Since then, he has sunk 9-16 three-pointers to bring his overall average from distance to 38% and, Gael fans hope, still rising.

The impact of Ducas and other hot-shooting Gaels was manifested in a closing stretch of the first half, with the Gaels ahead comfortably, but not overwhelmingly, at 36-23. Ducas canned his third three-pointer at the 2:14 mark, then Kyle Bowen, the sophomore from Australia who backs up Dan Fotu at strong forward, hit his second three-pointer of the game and season, reserve guard Quinn Clinton followed with his second trey and Ducas struck again from distance at the 36-second mark.

Scoring 12 points in under two minutes, the Gaels rolled into the halftime break with momentum and confidence.

Saint Mary’s continues a three-game homestead Thursday night against Texas Southern of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, where it was picked to finish first ahead of rivals Prairie View A&M, Jackson State and Alcorn State, among others. Texas Southern raised some eyebrows in the West by opening with a narrow 56-52 loss to Kyle Smith’s Washington State Cougars in Pullman, followed by a 20-point loss to Oklahoma State (85-65) and a 76-74 win over Wyoming on Monday. Put them closer to the Northern Iowa level than to Nicholls.

What about these Gaels?

What have we learned about the Gaels before the fifth game of this Covid-impacted season?

Perhaps most comforting to Gael fans is the return of an assist-heavy, rapid-passing offense. Last season, the Gael offense became bogged down at two points in the rotation — when Jordan Ford had the ball in his hands and when Malik Fitts received a pass. Because the offense was seriously hampered without Matthias Tass anchoring the post with scoring, rebounding and, perhaps most importantly, passing, Saint Mary’s relied almost exclusively on Ford and Fitts to carry the offensive load.

Ford was given free rein to dribble until he found a crack in the defense, which he did with excellent results, although it kept the ball from moving. Fitts, with his jab-stepping, three-point ambivalence, likewise gummed up the works. Thus, the Gaels were potent when Ford and Fitts were cooking, but defensible when others had to make baskets.

The return of Tass from ACL surgery has returned fluidity to the Gael offense, and front court steel to its defense. Tass has not pressed on offense, and has compiled a respectable 9.3 PPG despite taking only 28 shots in four games. Against Nicholls, for instance, Tass took only three shots, making one and totaling four points. He also pulled down six rebounds, handed out two assists, made two steals and blocked a shot — all in 23 minutes.

As play-by-play man Alex Jensen struggled to keep up with the ricocheting passes by the Gael offense, Tass accounted for perhaps the prettiest assist of the Nicholls game. As a pass came to him in the paint, he didn’t try to corral it and force a shot, but simply tapped it to a closing Bowen for an easy lay-up. Tass is second on the team in assists with seven, trailing point guard Tommy Kuhse, who tied a career record with 10 assists against Nicholls and has 26 for the year against eight turnovers.

Supporting cast stepping up

Perhaps as important as the offensive flow has been the contributions from numerous Gael subs, several of them new to the team this year. Jabe Mullins, the all-everything combo guard from Snoqualmie, WA east of Seattle, has stepped into the starting off-guard spot in place of Logan Johnson, who sprained his ankle against Northern Iowa. Mullins contributed 10 points against UNI, followed that up with 15 points against South Dakota State and settled for five points against Nicholls because, well, everyone else was scoring.

More importantly than his scoring, Mullins has carried himself like an experienced veteran instead of a raw freshman, settling down the Gael lineup when it could have come unravelled with Johnson’s injury. His height, 6’5″, and long arms make him a threatening presence on defense, and he has performed well in the phase of the game that Bennett prizes even more than gaudy offensive stats.

Just as impressive as Mullins has been Mitchell Saxen, the chiseled 6’10” center/forward also from the Seattle area. Saxen and Mullins played for different high schools, but were both considered prime prospects in Washington State, with Mullins receiving Player of the Year plaudits from the AP.

Saxen has not scorched the nets in his first four starts, taking only 12 shots (making six), but has pulled down 16 rebounds in limited minutes, and has shown a nose for the ball (four steals) and a deft passing ability out of the post. While Gael fans might have thought Utah transfer Matt Van Komen, all 7’4″ of him, would be Tass’s primary back-up, Saxen has been the story in the early going.

Other less-heralded Gael subs have made their marks along with Mullins and Saxen. Clinton, who played only sparingly as a freshman and sat out last season with an ankle injury, has showed himself to be an additional three-point threat. Playing in all four games, Clinton has made three of seven shots — all three-pointers — for a 43% average.

Also making himself known is Tass’s buddy from Estonia, guard/wing Leemet Bockler. Standing an imposing 6’6″ and weighing in at 215 lbs, Bockler does not go unnoticed on the floor. He has been used, like Clinton, almost exclusively as a three-point threat in backing up Ducas, and has sunk 3-9 from distance so far. Clinton and Bockler have proved themselves valuable pieces of an expanding offensive mosaic.

You might have to search to find these Gaels in the early weeks of the season — the Nicholls game was carried by Stadium TV — but it is worth the effort. They are playing unselfishly on offense, have kept their last three opponents near or under 60 points (64, 59 and 50) and have the capacity to get better as the season progresses. Stay tuned.

A team photo, shown above, is fitting for these Gaels because every player has contributed so far. Alex Ducas and Matthias Tass may be emerging stars, but the rest of the squad has also shown promise. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.