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Ducas again

by Michael Vernetti

With 17 points in a narrow win over Santa Clara last Thursday, Gael forward Alex Ducas was outstanding.

With 22 points in 25 minutes of playing time against Loyola Marymount Saturday night in Los Angeles, the 6’7″ Aussie was transcendent.

By posting his best back-to-back performances in three years in Moraga, Ducas announced he is ready to take the offensive leadership of this Saint Mary’s team. Ducas sliced and diced LMU in so many ways, so many times, that by the time Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett benched him with nearly 11 minutes left in the second half, the Gaels were up 60-34 and on their way to a suffocating 83-51 win over LMU.

Ducas took control of the game with the Gaels’ first possession, driving to the hoop and finishing over his shoulder to tie the game for the first and last time at 2-2. He followed with another drive and score to put the early lead at 12-4, scored a back-down basket the next time he touched the ball, then hit the first of three three-pointers to accelerate the burgeoning rout by putting his team up by the score of 24-6.

Bennett gave Ducas a blow at the 9:46 mark, then put him back in a few minutes later and watched him steal the ball and finish a run-out with a lay-up to put he Gaels up 28-12. Although LMU made a run that ultimately cut the Gael lead to six points, 32-26, in the final minute, Ducas then applied the coup-de-grace by matching an LMU three-pointer with one of his own to restore the Gael lead at 35-26. Gael guard Logan Johnson, having an excellent bounce-back game himself after a sub-par performance against Santa Clara, added a final bucket of his own to put the halftime score at 37-26 in favor of the Gaels.

They were just getting started.

Upping the pressure

Saint Mary’s has occasionally followed a superior first-half performance with a lethargic start to the second, but not Saturday. With Kyle Bowen picking up his third foul just as the half started, Bennett subbed in Dan Fotu, who rewarded the move with a put-back basket for a 39-26 lead. Johnson then followed with his second three-pointer of the game to push the margin to 42-26, then Ducas showed his versatility to increase he lead to 44-28.

Capitalizing on LMU’s awareness of his three-point prowess, Ducas faked a shot, then drove by his defender for a lay-up. When LMU answered the early Saint Mary’s outburst with a zone defense, the Gaels didn’t hesitate. Fotu immediately went to the middle of the zone, received a pass, then found Tass on the baseline for a jump hook and a 46-29 lead.

Then Ducas showed still another side of his game by dribbling along the baseline, taking advantage of a Tass screen to move laterally into the paint and finishing with a left-handed hook shot that drew a foul. Sinking the free throw, Ducas increased the Gael lead to 49-29.

He wasn’t finished, but LMU was. Climaxing a tour de force that was reminiscent of Patty Mills’s 37-point outburst over Oregon in Mills’s freshman year, Ducas sank a three-pointer at the 14:30 mark for a 52-29 Gael lead and the unofficial end of competition for the evening. Bennett waited a few minutes before sending Ducas to the bench at the 10:56 mark, allowing him to spend the rest of the game cheering on his teammates, who did not slacken the pace of the Saint Mary’s effort.

The subs shine

The rest of the game was basically a highlight reel for some of the Gael starters and all of their subs — everyone but the recently returned-from-injury Quinn Clinton got in the act. A few standout moments: Tass and Johnson executed a pretty give-and-go play on the baseline, finishing with a Tass lay-up; Fotu scored on a power drive; Johnson stole the ball from LMU’s befuddled star player, Eli Scott, and flushed it on the other end. Johnson came up game after the dunk, but it did not look like he had seriously stressed his ankle or knee, and he was seen laughing with the regulars on the bench in the final minutes.

Neither starting point guard Augustas Marciulionis nor veteran Tommy Kuhse added much to the stat sheet against LMU — Kuhse did not attempt a shot — but Marciulionis nevertheless put his stamp on the highlight reel. LMU was successful in foiling Saint Mary’s pick-and-roll attack by aggressively double-teaming the Gael guards and preventing them from passing to Tass for most of the game. But not one time with Goose pressing the attack.

Marciulionis whipped a bullet to Tass after the initial pressure at the top of the key, and the pass just cleared the outstretched hand of the LMU defender. Tass calmly received the missile and made a lay-up to push the Saint Mary’s advantage to 26 points, at 60-34.

Adding to the reel: Jabe Mullins, Ducas’s replacement, hit back-to-back three-pointers to follow up on his excellent effort against Santa Clara, then found Mitchell Saxen, subbing for Tass, under the basket. Saxen made the basket, was fouled, then sank the free throw; Leemet Bockler entered the game at the 6:30 mark, corralled a rebound and fed a fast-breaking Judah Brown on a run-out and flush; Bockler himself scored on a put-back, and even walk-on Luke Garrett got into the act with a driving scoop and score to put the advantage at 81-48; Bockler completed the Saint Mary’s scoring barrage with another put-back off a rebound for the final 83-51 margin.

All of this will be forgotten when Saint Mary’s crosses the Bay Bridge Thursday night for a showdown with the team that all the “experts” are promoting as heir to the Gaels’ standing as Gonzaga’s chief rival, San Francisco. Saint Mary’s held on to third place in the WCC at 3-1, behind Gonzaga and BYU, with the win over LMU, while San Francisco rests in fifth at 3-2 with its home win over Pepperdine.

This will be a game for the ages.

Alex Ducas, shown above sinking a free throw against Santa Clara Thursday night, had a spectacular game against Loyola Marymount on Saturday, scoring 22 points in 25 minutes of play. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Ups and downs

by Michael Vernetti

In Saint Mary’s 77-62 win over Pepperdine a week ago in Malibu, the Gaels welcomed a three-point barrage from an unlikely duo: Logan Johnson and Kyle Bowen were a combined 5-8 from distance to mightily aid their team’s cause.

In last night’s 73-65 squeaker win over Santa Clara in Moraga — don’t let that final score fool you, it was 67-65 Saint Mary’s with 1:46 to go — Bowen and Johnson contributed zero points from three-point range — Bowen going 0-5 and Johnson 0-1. Together, they scored a total of eight points against the Broncos versus 26 against the Waves.

And, yet, the Gaels won their second WCC game in a row to move into third place in the conference behind Gonzaga and BYU. So, do Gael fans feel comforted to know that different players might pick them up at any time, or depressed to think that no one can be counted on for consistent excellence?

That’s a glass half-full or glass half-empty question, but a good question nevertheless. Of the two differing contributions, Johnson’s was certainly the most troubling. Not only did he prove unable to guard Santa Clara’s outstanding guard Jalen Williams, who scored 18 points on 8-14 shooting, but he never found a comfort level on offense after sinking his first two attempts in the game’s opening minutes. He was 0-6 the rest of the way in 24 minutes on the floor.

Coming after he scored 20 points or more in two of his last three games — forget BYU, that was a black hole for the entire team — the Santa Clara performance was an anomaly for Johnson, who has been inspirational to fans and teammates several times this season. One can imagine he will have much to brood about on the team flight to Los Angeles for Saturday’s match-up with Loyola Marymount.

As for Bowen

Gael fans have learned not to count on anything offensively from Bowen, despite the atypical success against Pepperdine. He was certainly not shy against Santa Clara, hoisting five shots from distance throughout the game, and missing all five. It has been noted that Bowen has worked to improve his three-point shooting from last season, and that he has had occasional success. But no one in the stands does anything but shudder when he launches his one-handed, rump-extended three-point shot. If only the Gaels had a more suitable offensive weapon to man the power forward spot.

Remember Dan Fotu, the 6’7″ senior from Auckland, NZ, who was sensational during the Gaels’ excellent performance in the Maui Invitational Tournament in November? Not only did Fotu make the five-man all-tournament team, he would have probably been voted the event’s outstanding player if Saint Mary’s had held on to defeat Wisconsin for the championship (L61-55).

That Fotu has all but disappeared from the Gaels’ offense in the weeks since the Maui-Las Vegas tournament. No one except Saint Mary’s players and coaches can devine the reasons some players log major minutes and some ride the pine, but suffice it to say that Gael Coach Randy Bennett prefers Bowen’s excellent defense and rebounding to Fotu’s offensive chops. The Santa Clara was an excellent prism into Bennett’s thoughts.

Differing from recent practice, Bennett subbed in Fotu for Bowen with about eight minutes gone in the first half, after Bowen had shown unusual laxity in corralling Santa Clara’s excellent forward, Josip Vrankic. Bowen went to the bench after fouling Vrankic, leading to two free throws and a 14-11 Santa Clara lead.

Fotu was immediately more active on offense, in contrast to Bowen’s dread of attempting anything offensively other than the oft-misfired three-point shot. Alas, Fotu missed his original attempts and went back to the bench minutes later. It was as if Bennett wanted to reassure himself that Bowen was the better choice after all.

Fotu seemed to redeem himself in the final minutes of the first half, as he hit a three-pointer with about three minutes left to give Saint Mary’s a 30-27 lead. He lost Vrankic along the base line on a succeeding Santa Clara possession, however, and only Vrankic’s stepping over the end line erased a nifty reverse lay-up that left Fotu with egg on his face.

Another chance

Fotu got the call again with 12 minutes left in the second half, and again was more active attacking the basket than Bowen. He drew a foul on one drive, but missed both free throws, then dropped off a dime to Gael center Matthias Tass after drawing two defenders on another drive. Tass converted the pass for a lay-up and a 53-50 Saint Mary’s lead. After another miss on an aggressive drive to the hoop, Fotu again went back to the bench after fewer than three minutes of action.

The final stats showed Fotu with three points on 1-5 shooting in eight minutes of play. Bowen scored four points in 31 minutes, and had mixed success guarding Vrankic. My guess is that Gael fans would prefer Fotu’s activity and threat of scoring over Bowen’s almost complete lack of offensive chops. Fotu’s missed free throws, 1-5 shooting and one defensive lapse could reasonably be chalked up to game rustiness, while fans wonder if Bowen will ever score enough to loosen up opposing defenses.

The rest of the story

If Johnson and Bowen were the dark side of Gael performance against Santa Clara, Alex Ducas and Tommy Kuhse were the shining opposite. It would be inaccurate to describe Ducas’s game — 17 points on 4-7 shooting, including 3-4 on three-point attempts — as a breakout performance, as he showed bursts of excellence last year before going down early in the season with a high-ankle sprain that effectively ended his season.

But it was the first time this season that Ducas lived up to fan expectations that he would be a consistent 15-20 PPG scorer and hold his own defensively and on the boards. Moreover, he was active and confident while on the floor, contributing four rebounds and three steals in addition to his scoring. This was the Ducas that could serve as a much-needed offensive leader for the Gaels.

As for Kuhse, he has a record of success over five years that makes talk of a “breakout” sound silly. Yet, in scoring 17 points of his own and besting Ducas with six rebounds, Kuhse wrote another chapter in a long Gael story. His three three-pointers in the first half steadied the Gaels when they fell behind Santa Clara 18-11 in the early going, and his text-book pick-and-roll basket with Mitchell Saxen at the first-half buzzer was a highlight reel topper.

Yet, as he has so often, Kuhse saved the best for last. As an obviously laboring Tass missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw in the closing minutes with Santa Clara hanging within two points at 65-63, Kuhse lofted a floater over the Broncos’s 6’10” junior forward Parker Braun for a four-point advantage. Santa Clara’s Keshawn Justice answered with a driving lay-up over Ducas to cut the lead back to two, but Kuhse knew what his next move was going to be.

Directing traffic to get the matchups he wanted, Kuhse headed into the lane for a second time with the 6’6″ Williams guarding him. Shedding Williams with a screen, Kuhse challenged Braun again and scored another lay-up to give the Gaels a 69-65 cushion. To drive the dagger further into Braun and the Broncos, Kuhse took on Braun for a third time and scored his third straight lay-up to put the game out of reach at 71-65.

That, my friends, was a clutch performance for a player who has defined the term for Saint Mary’s over the past two seasons.

Tommy Kuhse, shown above in last night’s 73-65 win over Santa Clara, scored three clutch baskets down the stretch to seal the Gael victory. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

All’s well?

by Michael Vernetti

One is tempted to look at Saint Mary’s 77-62 win over Pepperdine Thursday night in Malibu as evidence the Gaels have rebounded from a terrible performance last Saturday in Provo when they were undressed by BYU to the tune of 52-43.

A 15-point win on the road against a Pepperdine team that, although struggling early in the season, always has talented athletes and is coached by a former Pac-12 star, Lorenzo Romar? We’ll take that any day, right?

Of course the Gaels will take it, considering the option would have been to open WCC play at 0-2 with four games ahead against Gonzaga and San Francisco, plus a rematch against BYU. But should Gael fans relax in the belief that “their Gaels” are ready to contend for a high finish in conference play and an NCAA bid in March?

I’m not so sure.

First of all, Pepperdine fell to 6-12 and 0-3 on the season with the loss, following a 117-83 thrashing by Gonzaga and a 77-62 loss to a Covid-altered San Diego. And they faced the Gaels without one of their biggest additions in the off-season, former Winchester High School (Los Angeles) star Keith Fisher III, who had been averaging nearly 9 PPG. Fisher was an unexplained scratch, and a rebuilding team can ill afford to lose its leader.

Romar still has top recruits Maxwell Lewis, a Compass Prep (AZ) graduate who took off his senior year to prepare for the NBA, then thought he’d better give college ball a chance — read that as “no palpable interest from the NBA” — and Houston Mallette, the Pacifica Christian teammate of Gael sophomore forward Judah Brown.

Combined with holdovers Jade Smith from Alameda, possessor one of the deadliest jumpers in the paint in D-1, and hulking Czech forward Jan Zidek, currently leading the Waves in scoring at nearly 13 PPG, and Romar has a respectable squad. So, what was troubling about the Gaels’ win?

Errors keep on coming

First of all, they didn’t look like a team that had been humbled by the BYU loss and made up its mind it was going to correct all the faults exposed by the Cougars. They ended the first half leading 39-30, after being up by as much as 14 (24-10) in the early going, and had committed eight turnovers against nine assists.

The end of the half was emblematic of the on again-off again play by the Gaels: Jabe Mullins, subbing for Alex Ducas, hit a three-pointer to put his team ahead 39-27, then the Gaels let their guard down in the final seconds of the half, allowing the Waves’ reserve guard Darryl Polk, Jr. loose for a three-pointer of his own. Momentum switch from Saint Mary’s to Pepperdine.

Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett took a circle-the-wagons approach to the second half, perhaps seeing in Polk’s bucket the portent of an oncoming disaster. There were virtually no substitutions, as Logan Johnson played all 40 minutes of the game, Matthias Tass 39 and Kyle Bowen 34. Bennett even reverted to his pre-revolution guard tandem of Johnson and Tommy Kuhse, benching freshman Augustas Marciulionis — who had supplanted Kuhse in the starting lineup — just a few minutes into the second half and going with his veteran the rest of the way.

It proved a wise decision, even though Marciulionis scored twice in the first half on a nifty drive down the lane and a floater. He also committed two of those eight first-half turnovers, however, and Bennett had clearly run out of patience with sloppy ball-handling. The Gaels committed only two turnovers in the second half, a charge by Tass and a ludicrous charge by Ducas that evaded the view of all TV cameras and professional observers.

Kuhse to the rescue

Following upon a first half that belonged to Johnson — he scored 16 points on three made three-pointers and several lane-penetrating drives — Kuhse led down the stretch. After Ducas drove Gael fans crazy by missing three three-pointers in a row, then making one, then missing another, Kuhse hit a gutsy three-pointer of his own with a little more than six minutes left. That solidified a Gael lead at 64-53 that had at one point shrunk to five points, 57-52.

A little later, following two missed bunnies by Tass, Kuhse was fouled on a drive and made one of two free throws to give the Gaels a 10-point lead at 67-57 with a little more than two minutes left. He followed that with another late-game three-pointer to allow Gael fans to breathe easier with a 13-point lead, 70-57.

Given a gift after a second flop call on Mallette, Ducas missed a free throw and the Waves rolled back within 10 points on a three-pointer by Zidek. As if to show Ducas how clutch basketball is played, Kuhse drew a foul on a drive down the lane, and sank both free throws for a 72-60 Gael lead. Johnson followed with two made free throws of his own, and Mullins made his second three-pointer of the game to ice things at 77-60, alleviating any angst from a last-minute Pepperdine bucket.

The schedule stays in the Gaels’ favor with a Saturday match-up against a weak Pacific team in Moraga, followed by a contest against a more formidable opponent, Santa Clara, on January 20, also at home. The Gaels had better have ironed out their ball-control and defensive lapses by then, because they then head out for two road games against Loyola Marymount and San Francisco.

Those WCC and NCAA hoops will be thoroughly tested by two teams who feel they have surpassed Saint Mary’s in the conference hierarchy.

Logan Johnson, shown above in action from earlier this season, led all Gael scorers with 20 points against Pepperdine. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Gut punch

by Michael Vernetti

Saint Mary’s Saturday night 52-43 loss to BYU in Provo, in addition to setting back the advance of college basketball by a couple of years, proved one thing: the way to beat the Gaels is to match their defensive intensity early, then make hay when that defense withers a bit and the Saint Mary’s offense sinks to new levels of ineptitude.

This has been the pattern in three of the Gaels’ four losses — to Colorado State, San Diego State and BYU. I don’t count the early 61-55 loss to Wisconsin because that was in a tournament setting when neither team had the opportunity of scouting its opponent or formulating a specific game plan to beat them.

The other three losses were against teams that had plenty of opportunity — and incentive. Colorado State knew exactly what the Gael defense could do, having suffered a stunning 53-33 loss to Saint Mary’s last December in Moraga. They prepared themselves for a maximum defensive effort, and cooked up a strong response: hit the Gaels in the chops early, and take advantage of their offensive weaknesses. It worked, to the tune of a 78-54 rout of their own in this year’s rematch in Ft. Collins.

San Diego State had more than a week off doing finals break to prepare for the Gaels, and compiled a punch-in-the-mouth strategy of its own to fashion a 63-53 win. Ditto BYU, which faced a paralyzing Gael defense in the early going last night, fell behind 7-0 but didn’t panic. It was if the Cougars knew the Gaels can be had if opponents match their defense possession-by-possession and wait for them to blink offensively.

Killer stretch

That’s exactly what happened, and the game was decided in one stretch of the first half beginning at roughly the three-minute mark and lasting through the first four minutes or so of the second half. During that time, BYU made six straight buckets to close out the half with a 12-point lead, 28-16, and opened the second half with four more baskets without a miss to stretch the halftime lead to 15 points at 36-21. There were more than 15 minutes of basketball to play, but the game was essentially over at that point.

That stretch was a combination of opportunistic offense by BYU and incompetent offense/sagging defense by the Gaels. It began after Alex Ducas hit the first three-pointer of the game for Saint Mary’s to pull his team within a point at 15-14. In response, BYU’s excellent point guard, Alex Barcello, made his third bucket of the night to put his team up 17-14. Barcello would score only one more basket on the night, finishing with eight points against a 17+ PPG average coming into the game. He also whiffed on all five three-point attempts.

To counter, the Gaels found Matthias Tass loose in the paint for a dunk, and…Tass clanked it off the back of the rim. BYU’s Spencer Johnson rebounded a miss on the other end and put it back for BYU’s second straight goal. The Gaels’ Tommy Kuhse interrupted the run with a bucket of his own, but then BYU’s Seneca Knight scored over Ducas in the paint, and sank a free throw after Ducas was called for attacking Knight’s shoulder with his mouth. Ducas was not pleased with the foul, and was replaced in the lineup with Jabe Mullins.

Following a missed lay-up by Logan Johnson — one of seven misses out of 10 tries by Johnson — BYU’s Gideon George made his only bucket of the night over Kyle Bowen to push the lead to 24-16. Matching Tass’s miscue on an earlier possession, Kuhse missed the front end of a one-and-one, giving Knight another chance to score — and he did, extending the lead to 26-16.

Matching BYU’s surge with continued incompetence, Johnson fumbled his dribble and turned the ball over as the clock ticked down to end the first half — but not before a final dose of humiliation for the Gaels to take with them into the locker room. BYU’s Fousseyni Traore grabbed a rebound, and, surrounded by Bowen and Mullins, muscled in a putback at the buzzer for that 28-16 lead.

The Gaels ended the half shooting 27 per cent from the floor, going 1-9 on three-point attempts and committing 10 turnovers, including four steals. There’s a half of basketball to put in the ol’ time capsule.

More of the same

The script was much the same to open the second half, although the Gaels switched things up by actually scoring a little of their own. Augustas Marciulionis highlighted a mediocre performance with his first and only three-pointer of the night, and Ducas followed with his second three-pointer to prove the Gaels had a beating offensive heart. Unfortunately, BYU didn’t blink during this “eruption” by Saint Mary’s, sinking another four straight buckets before Marciulionis fouled BYU’s Te’Jon Lucas hard enough to cause him to miss a lay-up. Lucas converted both free throws, however, to extend the BYU lead to 38-24 before Ducas scored inside to cut the lead to 38-26. That was exactly the halftime margin, which means the Gaels had gained nothing from their most successful offensive burst of the game.

Shooting themselves in the foot

To emphasize their inability to sustain an offensive threat long enough to actually scare BYU, the Gaels made two boneheaded plays that took away any chance they had of pulling even. Following Ducas’s bucket that put the score at 38-26, Bowen took an unwise three-point attempt — part of an evening of going 0-4 from distance — and then Ducas betrayed some fatigue after scoring on a tough drive in the lane for a personal seven-point run and creating an actual decrease in BYU’s halftime lead to 10 points at 38-28.

On the Gaels’ next possession, Ducas was stripped of the ball by Knight as he attempted to drive again, and Knight scored on a run-out to put the lead back to 12. After Tass scored inside and BYU failed to score on its next possession, the Gaels seemed to perk up over the prospect off cutting the lead to under 10 points. Inspired by who-knows-what, Johnson rushed a three-point attempt that didn’t come near the basket and BYU was safe.

Still holding BYU in check defensively, Saint Mary’s continued its maddening turnover spree in the next several minutes to eliminate any chance of a rally. Mullins traveled on a routine dribble, Bowen had the ball stolen from him, Marciulionis threw away a pass and Tass was picked clean underneath the Gael basket. Four possessions in a 10-point game and not a single opportunity to cut the deficit. The game couldn’t end quickly enough for Saint Mary’s to get on a plane and forget all about this one before facing Pepperdine on the road next Thursday.

Matthias Tass, shown above in an earlier game against Missouri State, recorded the first double-double of his career against BYU, grabbing 15 rebounds to go with 13 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Boola, boola

by Michael Vernetti

One can imagine the Gaels’ Logan Johnson thinking to himself before last night’s game against Yale: “This guy Swain is averaging more than 19 PPG, so he’ll probably put up some numbers. I’d better step up my offense to counteract his.”

Right and right. Azar Swain, Yale’s 6’1″ senior three-point phenom, did, indeed, make his numbers, 21 points, including 5-6 three-point attempts. Not for nothing has the former Massachusetts prep star become Yale’s all-time three-point shooter.

But Johnson was not swept away by Swain’s brilliant play. He scored 26 points himself, going 10-14 from the floor and adding a perfect night at the free throw line (3-3), a place that has not been comfortable to him at times this season. To add an exclamation point to a dominating performance, Johnson cashed in on 3-4 three-point attempts, another area where he has often struggled.

Johnson’s mastery over Swain, and other Yale defenders who attempted to stop him, was so complete that at one stretch in the second half the 6’1″ scrapper with the flamboyant hair and whisker array completed a 9-0 run all by himself. As a team, Yale lacked the physical speed and agility to stay with Johnson operating with his afterburners ignited.

This is not surprising given Yale’s history with the Covid-19 virus. The team’s entire 20-21 season was eliminated by an Ivy League decision to hunker down rather than stumble through, as the Gaels and their fellow WCC teams did. The loss to Saint Mary’s, in which they gave up a jaw-dropping 15 steals among 23 turnovers, was emblematic of a team re-acclimating itself to the speed of D-1 college hoops.

Nevertheless, Yale has had some good, even dominating, wins in compiling a 6-8 record, including 91-71 over U-Mass (John Calipari, where have you gone?), 82-54 over Siena and 82-73 over Lehigh. With Swain to lead them, they will probably compete for an Ivy League championship.

Saint Mary’s in control

But Tuesday night belonged to Saint Mary’s, which led wire-to-wire for one of the few times in this choppy pre-conference season. The Gaels had three other players besides Johnson in double figures — Alex Ducas with 12, Tommy Kuhse with 11 and Matthias Tass with 10 — and two others putting up nine points — Kyle Bowen and Mitchell Saxen.

All starters logged season lows in minutes — no one with more than 30! — as Coach Randy Bennett emptied his bench with more than eight minutes left in the game. For the second game in a row, freshman Augustas Marciulionis was ineffective at the point in place of super-veteran Kuhse, scoring zero points and accounting for as many turnovers as assists, three of each.

Marciulionis has looked uncomfortable leading the Gaels’ attack in those two games, while Kuhse has played the role of savvy veteran, coming off the bench to steady things and lend an offensive boost. Kuhse scored 16 points with five assists against Missouri State last Wednesday, and accounted for 11 points on 5-8 shooting, plus a team-high four assists, against Yale. The minutes split between Kuhse and Marciulionis was almost even, 23 for Goose and 21 for Kuhse.

With an imposing San Francisco squad looming in the WCC debut this Saturday, it would surprise no one if Bennett leaned on Kuhse to make the start instead of Marciulionis.

As for the rest

Tass did not replicate his dominating, 27-point performance against Missouri State, even though he had inexperienced 6’7″ junior Isaiah Kelly guarding him. As is his nature, Tass noticed Yale’s decision to double-team him from the start, and shifted to point-center mode, distributing to the Gael shooters, who did their job effectively.

Ducas had the second game in a row with multiple three-pointers (2-5), which is a good sign, and could have conceivably added to that total if he played more than 23 minutes. Kyle Bowen continued to show offensive chops, leading the Gaels in scoring in the early going with eight quick points, and did his damage inside instead of from the three-point line, where he attempted only one shot (miss).

Dan Fotu did not shake the offensive slump that has engulfed him lately, going 1-7 from the floor and 4-6 from the free throw line, but he was a mighty pain in Yale’s offense with four steals and three assists. Fotu so quickly off-loaded one of his steals to Kuhse that the Gael guard had something like a 35-foot lead on two defenders. Kuhse’s lay-up looked like pre-game practice where there are no defenders to interfere.

Saxen surging

Also continuing to shine off the bench for Saint Mary’s was Saxen, the 6’10 sophomore post player, who has apparently overcome back troubles that hobbled him early this season. Saxen scored his nine points on 4-6 shooting, but more important than the point total was his aggressiveness. In sports parlance, he seems to be hunting baskets lately, including the second-chance variety.

Saxen’s ball-hawking ability was exemplified at the end of the first half, when Marciulionis lofted a floater as the clock wore down. Goose’s shot went awry, but Saxen tipped in the miss just before the horn sounded to give the Gaels a 46-25 lead heading into the locker room. His rebounding, he had four against Yale in just 13 minutes of play, is as much a factor of situational awareness and tenacity as physical prowess. He doesn’t outleap opponents, but out-positions and out-fights them for rebounds.

Alas, the injury bug has apparently again bitten the Gaels, as Leemet Bockler was in civvies and not in the bright new red uniforms the Gaels debuted against Yale. As usual, there was no word as to what ails Bockler, who has already been hobbled by a stress fracture in his foot occurring last season and a turned ankle from this one. Gael fans begin to wonder if Bockler will be able to contribute this season, or put off his return to the lineup in a meaningful way until next year.

Bockler aside, Saint Mary’s must consider its pre-conference performance — they went 12-3 with no “bad” losses — a success. They have incorporated Marciulionis into the rotation to deepen guard depth, seen Ducas recover his three-point stroke and watched Tass become a sometimes-dominating force in the paint. Johnson has demonstrated periods of brilliance, while Kuhse continues to capably steer the ship and score when necessary.

All Coach Bennett needs to bring him a good night’s sleep is Fotu’s return to early-season form. Bennett would be glad to see him display that return in Saturday’s crucial match-up with San Francisco.

Logan Johnson, shown above in the Gaels’ new red uniform, was unstoppable against Yale, scoring 26 points, handing out three assists and garnering four steals. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

The ol’ rope-a-dope

by Michael Vernetti

Gael fans are often puzzled by the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of their team — look awful in the first half of games, then roar back in the second half to post wins. Take last night in Moraga against a tough Missouri State squad, for instance.

Unable to stop — or even slow down — high-scoring Missouri guard Isiaih Mosley, Saint Mary’s trailed at half by a count of 36-33. Mosley accounted for 19 of his team’s points, a nifty 53 per cent of the total, by sinking 3-3 three pointers and all five of his two-point attempts. He was 8-8 for the half, which contributed mightily to a team shooting average of 61.5 per cent.

Second half? Not so much for Mr. Mosley — 1-7 for two points, as his team’s shooting percentage shrank to 35 per cent and Saint Mary’s eased to a 20-point second half differential and a 75-58 win. What’s the secret? Intelligent half-time adjustments, rousing exhortations from Coach Randy Bennett, giant gulps of Gatorade?

How about the Muhammad Ali theory of rope-a-dope, a phrase the former heavyweight champ coined after defeating George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974 — a theory of allowing Foreman to pummel him in his rock-hard mid-section for large portions of the bout, which weakened Foreman and allowed Ali to triumph in the end.

The Saint Mary’s approach

Are the Gaels modern-day masters of the rope-a-dope? Maybe, but I think the performance against Missouri State — and the Gaels recent overall success, skipping that unpleasant affair in Phoenix against San Diego State — can be attributed to more conventional causes. The Gaels do seem to have a feel-’em-out approach to games against unfamiliar opponents, a willingness to take opponents’ best shots while figuring out ways to counteract as the game goes on.

Saint Mary’s is, of course, a very experienced squad that has stayed together through the highs of defeating then-number-one Gonzaga in the 2019 WCC Tournament championship to the lows of a 14-10 season under the clouds of Covid in 20-21. They simply don’t panic when an opponent takes a lead over them, even a seemingly commanding lead.

For all the ignominy of the 63-53 San Diego State loss, the Gaels fought back from an 11-point second half deficit to close within a single point, 49-48, with more than seven minutes left. They gave themselves a chance to win.

The Saint Mary’s approach is not uniformly applied. Against D-2 opponent Stanislaus State last week, the Gaels seemed guilty of underestimating their opponent and the extent of that opponent’s desire to upset a strong D-1 program. After a sloppy, poor-shooting, turnover-prone first half, Saint Mary’s managed to go into the locker room behind Stan State 28-27. After regrouping at halftime, the Gaels roared to a 49-11 second-half rout and a 76-39 win.

The Missouri State game was another story. Saint Mary’s did not play poorly against the visitors from Springfield, MO, shooting a respectable 46 per cent themselves and defending everyone not named Mosley pretty well. Indeed, they had taken a step to slow down Mr. Mosley even before the half, assigning Logan Johnson to defend him instead of Alex Ducas. Ducas wasn’t embarrassed by Mosley, and contested his shots competently, but clearly it wasn’t working. Sicking the terrier-like Johnson on the 6’5″ Mosley, even though it was a height mismatch of several inches, proved to be effective.

The rest of the story

But there was more to the takedown of Missouri State than defending its hot-shooting guard. The Gaels had noticed a softness in Missouri’s interior defense, and exploited it ruthlessly. Center Matthias Tass, continuing his string of impressive performances in the post, established an early edge on his counterpart, the 6’9″ senior forward Gaige Prim, who joined Mosley on the all-Missouri Valley Conference team last year.

But Tass was the finisher, and the Gaels’ trio of guards were the instigators of a masterful attack on the heart of Missouri’s defense. Coach Bennett made an almost unprecedented change before last night’s game, replacing longtime starting point guard Tommy Kuhse with rising freshman Augustas Marciulionis. This was an acknowledgment that his guard corps — usually a Saint Mary’s strength — had proved ineffective against San Diego State, managing a total of only two assists the entire game.

Marciulionis was okay in the early going against Missouri State, making a nifty floater in the paint and finding Tass for one of his 12 field goals (out of 15 attempts). But when Kuhse entered the game at the 14:24 mark in place of Johnson, he seemed to be a man on a mission. He was almost dismissive of Missouri’s sophomore guard Lu’Cye Patterson, going around him easily to probe the lane for a lay-up attempt or a pass to the eager Tass.

Kuhse had one of his finest games as a Gael, and that’s saying a lot given his six-year history in the program. He finished with 16 points and five assists in 25 minutes of play, eclipsing the starting Marciulionis, who logged 23 minutes. Marciulionis did make some hay late in the first half, stealing the ball from Mosley and drawing a foul at the other end of the court, which led to two free throws and the rest of his four points on the night.

Mr. Johnson’s contribution

As brilliant as Kuhse was, Gael fans could be excused for thinking they had seen that movie before. Not so with Johnson, who has proved as puzzling as any Gael in this pre-season. After moving into prominence last year by averaging more than 15 PPG in WCC play, Johnson has been a picture of inconsistency this year. He has not found his three-point stroke, was whistled repeatedly for charges in early games, and even lost the ability to sink free throws.

Against Missouri State he not only shut down Mosley in the second half, he found his scoring ability in the paint, torturing the guard assigned to him, another sophomore, Ja’Monta Black, as thoroughly as Kuhse handled Patterson. While Kuhse scored on a variety of drives, dinks and dunks, Johnson staked out a position in the post and seemingly willed in a number of difficult shots, to the tune of 13 points on 5-11 shooting. He even brought the crowd to its feet by sinking a corner three-pointer as the Gaels mounted their second-half charge.

The rebound of Kuhse and Johnson, assisted in no small measure by Tass’s dominance inside — 27 points, six rebounds and two assists — was the story of this game. As for that other wrinkle, starting Marciulionis over Kuhse, we’ll have to wait and see. There’s no question that having three accomplished guards, Marciulionis, Kuhse and Johnson, is a far better situation than relying on just two guards to play 37 minutes or more each game, a la Naar and Rohan.

Will Bennett continue to start the freshman over the veteran? We’ll find out next Tuesday when Yale visits Moraga, but that is a sidebar to the Gaels overall play. Since losing badly to Colorado State on Dec. 4, the Gaels have played well in three out of four games. They have scored 80 points against UCSB and 75 last night against Missouri State, to go with 76 against Stan State.

They’re in a good rhythm, and fans are content to ride the vibe no matter who the starting point guard is.

Matthias Tass, shown above backing down Missouri State forward Gaige Prim, led the Gaels with 27 points in the 75-58 win. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Giant step backwards

by Michael Vernetti

You’d think that a team coming off its most complete game of the season, an 80-59 throttling of a good UC Santa Barbara team, and seeking revenge for a 74-49 loss to San Diego State last Dec. 22, would be primed for a major effort in a rematch with San Diego State Friday night in Phoenix, AZ.

You’d be wrong.

In its most disheartening effort of an up-and-down season, Saint Mary’s reverted to Missing Offense Mode in clanking and tanking its way to a mere 53 points, 10 fewer than the other guys. True, they held this year’s version of the Aztecs — missing graduated stars Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel — to 63 points instead of 74, and managed to crack 50 points themselves, but the effect was the same: the Gaels whiffed against one of the top teams in the Mountain West Conference, just as they did in a 74-58 loss to Colorado State two weeks ago.

Picking through the ashes of last night’s game reveals a few gems: six assists against 14 turnovers, five made three-pointers in 20 attempts (25 per cent for non-math majors) and a 28-point second half. Although the Gaels have stumbled to some weak first-halves this season, they usually bounce back to post a decent score in the second. Not last night.

Breaking it down

As bad as the night ended for Saint Mary’s, it didn’t start out that way. After righting themselves from a slow start, the Gaels battled SDSU even until the halftime break, leaving the floor behind by a single point, 26-25, and having good reason to feel positive about their chances. They might as well have stayed in the locker room.

In an inexplicable five-minute stretch, Saint Mary’s deepened the deficit to 11 points, 44-33, by a combination of poor defense and poorer offense. Although Saint Mary’s defensive specialist, Kyle Bowen, had done a good job against Cal transfer Matt Bradley in the first half, Bradley got loose for an easy lay-up to start the second half.

That was small potatoes, however, compared to the damage caused by sometime starter Adam Seiko, a burly 6’3″ senior guard who has averaged only around 5 PPG in his career. Just as they did in last year’s game with reserve Terrell Gomez, the Gaels seemingly forgot about Seiko, and he sank back-to-back three-pointers following Gael Alex Ducas’s only three-pointer of the night, to push the Aztecs’ lead to 34-28.

Logan Johnson scored on a driving lay-up to get two points back for Saint Mary’s, but SDSU countered with a bucket in the paint by center Nathan Mensah and another lay-up by the Aztecs’ Trey Pulliam, another thorn in the Gaels’ side from last year. Pulliam’s bucket moved SDSU ahead by 38-31, and it set up a play that was emblematic of the Saint Mary’s offense all night long.

Gael center Matthias Tass, who battled Mensah evenly throughout the game, scored inside to cut the margin to 38-33, and the Gaels had a chance to stem the bleeding. Pulliam hit another three-pointer, however, to increase the deficit to 41-33 and set the stage for the telling blow. Receiving the ball inside once again, Tass coughed it up and Bradley was off to the races on a breakaway, sinking a lay-up and a free throw to push the lead to 44-33.

Tass’s turnover was one of eight — yes, he said eight — turnovers by Gael bigs, split evenly by Tass and Dan Fotu, who has gone from surprise star to forgotten man in a three-week stretch since the Maui Invitational Tournament where he was a member of the five-man all-conference team. The Aztecs never let Tass or Fotu get comfortable in the paint, combining Mensah’s shot-blocking ability — he blocked three — with Aquek Arop’s physicality to befuddle any consistent offense from the paint. Tass managed 12 points on 4-7 shooting, but Fotu scored only two free throws in 13 minutes.

Last gasp

The Gaels never fully recovered from that five-minute burst off defensive laxity and offensive passivity, although they did mount one last heroic effort. Still trailing by 11 points, 46-35, with 14:23 left in the game, the Gaels toughened up on defense and held SDSU to a single free throw until the 11:29 mark, shrinking the deficit to six points at 47-41. Bradley got two points back with another score inside, but then the Gaels got serious.

As he has so often in his six years in Moraga, point guard Tommy Kuhse brought his teammates back from the dead with one of his patented lay-ups to cut the deficit to six points, 49-43. Then Jabe Mullins, pushing to supplant Ducas as the Gaels’ primary outside threat, hit a three-pointer to cut the margin to three points. Cue freshman Augustas Marciulionis for the most stirring play of the game for Saint Mary’s.

“Goose,” as he is called, stripped an Aztec guard for one of his four steals on the night, and sped downcourt for a lay-up. Except there was an Aztec defender in the way, and Goose proceeded to 1) lose control of the ball, 2) double-clutch a clumsy jumper that 3) went in, of course. Suddenly the Gaels were right back where they were at the end of the first half, trailing by one point, 49-48, with more than seven minutes left.

Unfortunately, their offensive ineptitude took over once again, and they didn’t score again for more than four minutes, when another three-pointer from an unlikely source, Bowen, brought them to 57-51. Saint Mary’s scored only one more time, on a lay-up by Kuhse, for the rest of the game, and lost by 10 points, 63-53.

The prognosis

Unfortunately, in many ways Saint Mary’s is in the same position this year as they were at the time of the SDSU loss last year. Then, the problem was an ankle injury to Ducas, which sidelined him for most of the rest of the season. Without Ducas’ outside shooting, and with Bowen barely contributing on offense, the Gael attack withered.

With Ducas back and healthy, with super-sub Leemet Bockler nearly recovered from a stress fracture in his foot, the Gaels were seemingly set to recover their offensive power and put up some points to complement their consistently strong defense. On many occasions, notably against strong opponents like Colorado State and San Diego State, it hasn’t happened, however.

As it did last year, Saint Mary’s is struggling on offense as the West Coast Conference season looms, and no one can say with confidence that they will overcome those struggles. All we can do is watch and hope.

Gael point guard Tommy Kuhse, shown above in action from a previous season, was the Gaels’ top scorer against San Diego State with 13 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Finally

by Michael Vernetti

Finally an 80-point game, the first since an opening-season 87-point outburst against Prairie View.

Finally a 20-point-or-more win, the first of the 2021-22 season.

Finally a potent three-point attack that did the things logic would dictate that it would — give the Gaels separation from an opponent and open up the paint for Center Matthias Tass to operate with reasonable freedom.

Those were the satisfying results of Saturday’s 80-59 win by Saint Mary’s over UC Santa Barbara, Big West Conference defending champion — and 2021 NCAA Tournament participant — and unanimous choice to repeat those honors in the current campaign.

Finally, the Gaels could shake the memory of a rocky road trip last week to Logan, UT and Ft. Collins, CO, during which they impressed few with a 60-58 squeaker win over Utah State and distressed many with a 74-58 thrashing at the hands of Colorado State.

They could once again count on occasional sharp-shooter Alex Ducas to sink three-point shots, 2-4 to go along with two other field goals and a perfect 2-2 from the free throw line for 11 points, an assist, a block and a steal. They could point to four players scoring in double figures, including Dan Fotu, who was the epitome of effeciency with 11 points and five rebounds in 18 minutes off the bench.

Tass, who has emerged as a model of stability amidst the Gaels’ early-season ups and downs, notched a four-game stretch of averaging 15 points an outing by scoring 22 points in 23 minutes of action against Santa Barbara and its all-conference center, Amadou Sow. With Tass, Ducas, Fotu and Augustus Marciulionis accounting for 55 points, the Gaels presented a solid front of offensive firepower to give fans a break from wondering where the next basket was going to come from.

Overall lineup solidifying

Along with a welcome display of offense, the Gaels seemed to be displaying a coherent lineup as the start of West Coast Conference play looms on January 1 against San Francisco. Coach Randy Bennett is growing ever more ready to drop Marciulionis in the lineup to replace either of his starters, Tommy Kuhse or Logan Johnson, if they struggle.

That pair started well against Santa Barbara, notching five assists in the first eight minutes that allowed the Gaels to shake off an annoying habit of falling behind opponents early. But Johnson committed his second turnover a little while later, and Bennett didn’t hesitate to sub in Marciulionis. A sample of the versatility afforded by rotating the three guards came with just a little more than a minute left in the first half when Kuhse assisted Marciulionis on a corner three-pointer.

The Gaels continue to utilize Fotu off the bench, sometimes subbing for Tass and sometimes — when Tass is playing well as he did against Santa Barbara — for starting power forward Kyle Bowen. That was the case Saturday, even though Bowen had one of his strongest games in a Saint Mary’s uniform, scoring eight points, grabbing five rebounds and stealing the ball twice — among 10 Gael steals for the game.

Bowen nailed two of four three-point attempts, and brought Gael fans to their feet by driving the baseline and powering in a lay-up that may have been his first such offensive move in three years in Moraga.

Mitchell Saxen continued his rebound from early-season back troubles by scoring six points and grabbing four rebounds in just eight minutes in relief of Tass. And, in a sign that another of the Gael walking wounded is getting closer to logging major minutes, Leemet Bockler entered the game with a little more than six minutes remaining and stayed on the floor until the end.

Bockler wasn’t just an observer, as he nailed a corner three-pointer, added a finger roll in the paint and completed a nifty pick-and-roll with Saxen by tossing the sophomore center a close-in pass that Saxen converted with his left hand. Don’t hold your breath, Gael fans, but with Fotu, Marciulionis, Saxen, Bockler and Jabe Mullins notching consistent minutes in relief of the starters, Saint Mary’s might be toying with a 10-man rotation.

The Gaels will have four more opportunities to display their depth before the WCC opener, against Stanislaus State — a late addition to the schedule — next Tuesday in Moraga, against San Diego State Friday in Phoenix (the Jerry Colangelo Classic), against Missouri State Dec. 22 in Moraga and against Yale Dec. 28, also in Moraga.

Will the liberalized lineup survive Bennett’s famous conservative tendencies as these games unwind? As with most things this season, you’ll have to watch to learn that answer.

Matthias Tass, shown above scoring two of his 22 points against UC Santa Barbara, has averaged 15 PPG over the last four games, the longest stretch of such offensive power in his four-year career. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Not there yet

by Michael Vernetti

The train wreck that was Saint Mary’s 74-58 loss to Colorado State Saturday in Ft. Collins, CO was replete with lessons.

No, the lessons had nothing to do with the Gaels’ Kenpom rating, Joe Lunardi’s NCAA bracket projections or potential top 25 national rankings. Those are ephemeral and have little or no bearing on the team’s immediate agenda.

The important lessons are deteriorating point guard play, shrinking offensive output and narrow margins of victory.

Veteran point guard Tommy Kuhse and fellow back court starter Logan Johnson have turned into turnover machines instead of assist and/or scoring machines. The two combined for six turnovers and two assists against Colorado State, contributing greatly to an assist-to-turnover ratio of eight to 15.

No team with post-season aspirations can long continue playing so inefficiently, especially when the chief offenders are providing anemic offensive stats such as the combined 16 points from Kuhse and Johnson against Colorado State.

Kuhse’s recent inattention to dribbling and passing accurately is particularly galling to Gael fans since he seemed to have fought off a potential challenge to his starting role from freshman Augustas Marciulionis with outstanding play in the Maui Invitational — a tournament which saw Johnson named to the five-man all-tournament team. Johnson has long been a double-edged sword for the Gaels, providing inspiration and scoring boosts with his head-long attacks on the basket that overshadowed his occasional ball-control errors and charging calls.

Gael Coach Randy Bennett now must seriously examine whether the Kuhse-Johnson implosion against Colorado State was a temporary setback or a problem warranting serious consideration. Ironically, after Marciulionis seemed to have settled into a background role to the starting duo, his promising play in a disastrous team display against Colorado State has rekindled thoughts of his ascension.

Marciulionis logged his highest minute total of the season in Colorado, 24, matching Kuhse and trailing Johnson by only four. He also hit double-digit scoring for the first time, 10 points on two made field goals and a 6-6 showing from the free throw line. That 10 points matched center Matthias Tass for the team lead in an otherwise anemic offensive showing that netted only 12 points from putative scoring leaders Alex Ducas and Dan Fotu.

Alas, complicating Bennett’s decision-making in the week before the Gaels play UC Santa Barbara next Saturday in Moraga is the defensive side of things. Johnson is a superb defender, and Kuhse is only a little behind him. Marciulionis is improving defensively every game, but still lags either of the starters.

Merely inserting Marciulionis into the starting lineup in place of either Kuhse or Johnson is no sure solution. The Lithuanian son of a former NBA all-time great is more effective with the ball in his hands rather than as an off-guard. That would argue for Kuhse to step aside, but after counting on Kuhse since the 2018-19 season, Bennett will be loathe to take such a step precipitously. Bennett faces a week of tough decisions.

The rest of the story

“Fixing” the guard problem is only part of what ails the current Gael lineup. Simply put, they can’t score worth a damn. Only in the season opener against Prairie View have the Gaels exceeded 80 points, and since logging a season-low 55 points in the Maui loss to Wisconsin, they have scored 67, 60 and 58 points. To say that’s heading in the wrong direction is a bit of an understatement. The Gaels could be excused for looking back wistfully at their “outbursts” of 73 points against Bellarmine and 70 against Southern Utah.

What’s the problem? Like the guard situation, it’s not easy to rectify. The Gaels are committed to running their offense through Tass in the post, where he serves as a point-center, looking for cutters in the lane or three-point shooters on the fringe. Tass will never be an offensive powerhouse in the vein of Jock Landale, but he has consistently scored in the lower double-digits while recording 5-9 rebounds, a couple of assists and a block or two on a regular basis. Center is not the Gaels’ problem.

It’s what happens when the ball goes to the wings that holds down team scoring. Kyle Bowen is a staunch defender and rebounder, and keeps the offense running with his total mastery of its ins and outs and aversion to turning the ball over. The offense does consistently find him lightly guarded, or unguarded, on the perimeter, and Bowen has worked hard to make the three-point shoot a dependable part of his repertoire.

He is anything but automatic, however, and the Gaels simply cannot count on him to provide consistent double-digit scoring. That’s a bargain Bennett is probably happy to strike as long as Bowen locks down his opposite number and crashes the boards effectively. The small forward, or 3 position, is where the Gaels are lagging.

Ducas seems poised to assume the scoring leadership, but he has lagged behind the 14-points-a-game pace of Fotu, who is essentially a substitute for Tass. Ducas has a lightning-quick release and an effortless shooting stroke, but he can’t seem to score regularly. His performance in the Colorado State was indicative of his season-long pattern: struggles early, then a late-game outburst, or at least a ripple.

Ducas ended up scoring eight points against the Rams on two made three-pointers and two free throws. He didn’t sink a three-pointer until late in the second half when the Gaels were making a lukewarm effort to claw back from a 19-point deficit, and even then could not run off a string of buckets that might have energized his teammates and unnerved the opposition.

Indeed, Ducas seemed uncertain of both his shooting and his handle during the Colorado State game, harkening back to his lukewarm performance last week against UC Riverside when he was apparently fighting sickness. Which leads us to the same question as that concerning the back court: if not Ducas, who?

Bennett has turned to sophomore guard Jabe Mullins as back-up to Ducas, and used him almost as much against Colorado State — 18 minutes — as Ducas — 24 minutes. Unfortunately, Mullins went 0-4 against the Rams, and has not become a reliable threat from three-point range or elsewhere on the court.

Gael fans who stuck out the Colorado State until the end undoubtedly noticed that Leemet Bockler, the once and future shooting genius, got in the game for two minutes. Bockler tantalized the Gael fan base with a brief spurt of three-point brilliance early last season, only to be sidelined with a stress fracture in his foot.

Bennett said early this season that he did not figure Bockler would be ready to provide a steady complement to Ducas at the wing until January, and his brief appearances in garbage time have held true to that analysis. But, just as with Marciulionis, fans are looking for a white knight during a time of gloom, and Bockler is an appealing candidate.

Don’t look for Bennett to come out with a revised lineup featuring Marciulionis in place of Kuhse and Bockler in place of Ducas in the Santa Barbara game, but those are the kind of ripples that course through a team struggling to find its way. The Gaels are nowhere near where they want to be at present, and Bennett knows better than anyone where they have to improve.

Augustas Marciulionis, shown above in an earlier game, scored a season-high 10 points against Colorado State, and a season-high 24 minutes of action. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

From the doghouse to the penthouse

by Michael Vernetti

Alex Ducas’s play mirrored the ragged effort of his Gael teammates Thursday night in Logan, UT.

Struggling all night with his three-point shot — 1-5 to go with an 0-2 effort the previous game — Ducas found himself with the ball in his hands and his team holding a precious 58-56 lead over the Utah State Aggies with 1:02 left in the game. It was a lead that he himself had created with a gritty drive to the hoop just a few seconds earlier.

Every one of the 9,000 or so screaming Aggie fans, plus their five stalwarts on the floor, knew the play at that moment was to feed Gael scoring leader Dan Fotu, who had mounted a personal 5-0 run to pull Saint Mary’s even at 56-56 just before Ducas’s drive. Fotu’s spin move and bucket, followed by a free throw, was the most inspiring play of a second half full of inspiration for the Gaels.

So what did Ducas do in that crucial moment with his team in the lead? He dribbled the ball off his foot, of course, taking a precarious end-line attack on the basket that allowed the Aggies to tie the game at 58-all behind two clutch free throws by star forward Brandon Horvath. After Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett called time out with 49.1 seconds left, the Gaels did the smart thing and tossed the ball in to Fotu to retake the lead.

And Fotu was picked clean by aggressive Aggie guard AJ Eytle-Rock, the last of an incredible 12 steals Utah State pulled off in the game, setting up a finish in which the basketball gods smiled on Ducas and the Gaels. Utah State tried for the win by going to their 22.6 PPG scoring machine, Justin Bean, but Bean was effectively defended by the Gaels’ Kyle Bowen.

As Bean hurtled his body after a rebound, he crashed into Ducas, sending the Aussie sprawling to the floor. Utah State fans screamed over the foul, but it was as obvious a foul as any called in the game. Ducas walked the length of the floor and stood at the free throw line with 0.9 seconds left and a shot at redemption.

And swished both ends of a one-and-one for a 60-58 lead that held up in spite of another desperation attempt by Utah State at the buzzer.

Tale of two halves

That Ducas would shrug off his turnover that almost cost the Gaels the game, then win it with a cold-blooded conversion of a free throw opportunity seemed appropriate considering how wildly uneven Saint Mary’s play was throughout the game. Let’s not dwell too long on the ugly first-half travails of our heroes struggling through their first true road game of the season.

Just consider this: the Gaels had 35 first-half possessions, and scored only seven field goals and two free throws for a paltry 16 points. They missed 19 shots, including all 12 of their three-point attempts, coughed up two steals and committed another five turnovers. Really.

It says something about the make-up of this team that it could shrug off that debacle and open the second half by sinking four three-pointers en route to clawing to a 32-29 lead. Other heroics followed: Augustas Marciulionis, struggling like his teammates to sink a three-pointer (o-4), broke free into the paint and threw down a thunderous dunk with 8:16 left in the game.

Matthias Tass, following up his 18-point, 8-14 effort against UC Riverside on Monday, bullied his way to two crucial buckets in the final seven minutes, one of them over Utah State’s 6’11”, 240-pound center, Szymon Zapala, that gave the Gaels a 51-48 lead with 5:35 left.

Jabe Mullins, fighting to dent the lineup in a meaningful way, swished a corner three-pointer immediately after coming off the bench in the second half. It all counted, it all was necessary to pull this one out. For the record, Saint Mary’s countered that horrid first-half effort with a 65 per cent field goal percentage in the second half, including 64 per cent (7-11) from three-point range. Talk about amnesia when you need it.

What did Bennett say?

Unless someone corners him in a dark room and injects him with truth serum, Bennett will probably never reveal what he said during a post-game exchange with Utah State Coach Ryan Odom. It’s fair to say that Bennett was frustrated over several aspects of the game, including two egregious clock failures, the second of which came after officials had generously restored the clock to 0.6 seconds left instead of 0.3 as initially indicated on the scoreboard.

Then the Utah State clock brain trust resorted to the most basic homer move in hoops history — they simply failed to start the clock when the Aggies inbounded the ball with that 0.6 left. That resulted in some unneeded drama until the referees resorted to logic instead of relying on the Utah State officials and called the game over. This was after a lob to Bean, defense of the lob by Bowen and Tass and the ball careening out of bounds. According to the clock crew, all that took up 0.1 second, but the refs were having nothing of it.

So, if Odom said something along the lines of, “Good game, coach, too bad it had to be decided by a questionable call,” one can understand Bennett going ballistic. After demonstrably disagreeing with whatever Odom said, Bennett trotted off the court by waving jauntily at the Aggie fans.

Don’t look for a Saint Mary’s-Utah State rematch in Logan anytime soon.

Alex Ducas, despite struggling from three-point distance, led the Gaels in scoring with 13 points, including the game-winning free throws. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.