by Michael Vernetti
ESPN announcer/analyst Sean Farnham had it all figured out. With just 10.2 seconds left, trailing BYU by one point, 56-55, Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett would want the ball in the hands of super-senior Logan Johnson, who had made two crucial, high-difficulty shots in the game’s waning minutes.
As an alternative, three-point specialist Alex Ducas would be available on the wing.
As happens often with the loquacious-if-not-insightful Farnham, he had it all wrong. Bennett, who virtually raised freshman guard Aidan Mahaney as a childhood friend of his two sons, Chase and Cade, knew how Mahaney responded to high-pressure situations. Forget that Mahaney was having an off night offensively — only seven points scored at that point — and defensively — watching as BYU guard Dallin Hall repeatedly burned him on drives to the hoop and three-pointers.
Having set up his team’s final possession during a timeout when Hall was at the free throw line following one of his many drives, Bennett didn’t use his final timeout when Hall sank one of two shots to put BYU up by that one point. The ball was inbounded to Mahaney, not Johnson, and Mahaney headed up court guarded by BYU’s Gideon George, a battle-tested senior forward standing 6’6″ to Mahaney’s 6’3″ and outweighing the spindly freshman by 30 pounds.
On a switch, an even more imposing BYU player, sophomore forward Fousseyni Traore, also 6’6″ but carrying 240 pounds of bulk, picked up Mahaney at the top of the key. Mahaney, who specializes in befuddling opposing big men, went to work on Fousseyni, who had been battling Saint Mary’s center Mitchell Saxen under the hoop all night long.
Mahaney drove hard to his right, then stopped abruptly as Fousseyni’s momentum carried him several steps further. Mahaney then pivoted and launched a 16-footer as Fousseyni scrambled to make up the distance between them. He couldn’t do it, as Mahaney’s shot arched perfectly toward and through the basket to put his team ahead 57-56 with just 0.4 seconds left on the clock. Game over.
It was the latest of many knives to the heart of BYU players and fans during their team’s 11-year membership in the WCC, ending with the current season: Matthew Dellavedova’s half-court heave in 2013 to give Saint Mary’s a 70-69 win in Provo, and Jordan Ford’s pull-up jumper with 1.4 seconds left in the 2020 WCC semifinal game to give Saint Mary’s a 51-50 win being other examples.
Was it the best? That will be discussed by pundits and fans for years to come, but it certainly matched all other tightly-contested games between the rival programs in drama. That Saint Mary’s found itself trailing BYU 55-53 on a three-point shot by BYU’s Spencer Johnson with a little more than two minutes left was the result of BYU’s refusal to crumble despite playing with one starter, Jaxson Robinson, and two rotation players, Noah Waterman and Atiki Ally Atiki, disallowed from competition because of undisclosed violations of team policies.
The Gaels led early — 19-8 with eight minutes left in the first half — and late — 51-43 with fewer than six minutes left in the game, but couldn’t put away the stubborn Cougars. Much of the credit went to the freshman Hall, who had a career game with 23 points despite missing the first shots of three two-point free-throw opportunities down the stretch.
Swallowing their own medicine
Hall and Traore exposed the Gaels’ usually formidable defense with a simple play taken from their own playbook: Hall would run Mahaney into a screen set by the wide-bodied Traore and beat Saxen on driving lay-ups. Or, when Mahaney dodged under the screen to save his body from another collision, Hall hit two open three-pointers.
The tough night didn’t get easier for Mahaney when Bennett switched Johnson onto Hall, giving Mahaney responsibility for Spencer Johnson, who had not troubled the Gaels since a three-pointer early in the contest. Johnson beat Mahaney for a three-pointer at the three-minute mark to put BYU ahead, 52-51, for the first time in 32 minutes.
When Mahaney gambled on a steal a few seconds later, Johnson found himself free for another three-pointer — and nailed it. The second one was particularly brutal for Gael fans, as it gave BYU a two-point lead, 55-53, with a little more than two minutes left, and capped a 12-2 run by the Cougars.
As he did after Johnson’s first three-pointer, the Gaels’ own Johnson bailed out his team with the second of two difficult floaters in the paint over Traore to set up the 55-55 tie. The Gaels’ Johnson, who led all Saint Mary’s scorers with 14 points, had Hall for one more possession, and he seemed to handle it perfectly.
As BYU ran its umpteenth pick and roll, Johnson wasn’t scraped off Hall as Mahaney had been, and both Johnson and Saxen picked up the driving Cougar as he neared the basket. The Gael defenders appeared to have acquitted themselves well, but a referee called a foul on Saxen, whose body slightly brushed against Hall as he threw up a desperation shot that came nowhere near the net.
That set up the scenario for Hall that he had lived through on two previous occasions: missing the first free throw, making the second one. It gives him something to practice going forward.
For Saint Mary’s, the BYU win was the fourth win in a five-game gauntlet they will face before a showdown with Gonzaga in Moraga next Saturday, Feb. 4. The Gaels play San Francisco at home on Thursday night, and must not lose concentration if they want to head into the Gonzaga game with their one-game lead in the WCC conference race intact at 9-0.
Aidan Mahaney, shown above making a tough shot against Loyola Marymount earlier this season, made an even more crucial one in the final seconds of the Gaels’ 57-56 win over BYU Saturday night. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.