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Hail Mahaney!

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.

The shot

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.

A win, then a WIN!

by Michael Vernetti

With two dominating wins against Pepperdine in Malibu, 73-44 (29 points) on Thursday, and Santa Clara, 77-58 (19 points) in Moraga yesterday, Saint Mary’s moved into sole possession of first place in the WCC following a shocking mid-week loss by Gonzaga to Loyola Marymount in Spokane. The Gaels swept to their eighth straight win by beating Santa Clara, and now look down from their 7-0 perch in the WCC on second-place Gonzaga at 6-1 and Santa Clara and LMU tied for third at 4-3.

Dropping quicker than the drink tab at a campus party, BYU has fallen four games behind Saint Mary’s (4-4) with consecutive losses to Santa Clara and San Francisco, and must regroup for a maximum effort against the Gaels next Saturday in Provo. As things look now, the WCC could end up with Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga battling it out for the conference title and Santa Clara and LMU fighting for third and fourth places. It is not inconceivable that they all could be vying for NCAA bids as well.

The Gaels absolutely, positively had to beat Pepperdine to start the week, as the talented-but-undisciplined Waves were on life support at 0-5 in league play. Would unconcern about their overall record and hope for a season-justifying upset propel Pepperdine into a maximum effort against Saint Mary’s? Hardly.

Mahaney off

Pepperdine benefited from an unprecedented so-so effort from the Gaels’ Aidan Mahaney, who was coming off a spectacular 21-point performance in his team’s shellacking of San Francisco, 78-61, in which Mahaney stifled the Dons’ superstar, Khalil Shabazz (1-7 on three-pointers), en route to sinking 5-7 three-pointers of his own.

After having played 34 minutes of tough offense and defense against San Francisco, Mahaney logged only 24 minutes against the Waves, scored only six points on 2-9 shooting and committed two first-half turnovers that seemed to test Coach Randy Bennett’s patience. After re-entering the game at the eight-minute mark of the half, Mahaney made an unforced bad pass that was intercepted by the Waves, and Bennett immediately replaced him on the floor with Augustus Marciulionis.

In what became a pattern for the week’s two games, Marciulionis took advantage of Mahaney’s misfortune by driving the lane and scoring to push the Gaels’ lead to 29-13. The Gaels’ carelessness with the ball continued, however, as first Logan Johnson, then Joshua Jefferson then Johnson again coughed up the ball, fueling a Pepperdine 9-0 run to end the half down by only 33-24.

That was it for drama in Malibu, however, as the Gaels regrouped under no-doubt loving words of encouragement from Bennett during the halftime break, and ran up a 40-point second half to cruise to a 29-point win. The most memorable moment of the game was Johnson’s connecting on one-of-three three-point attempts, his first successful three-pointer since making 1-3 against San Diego in the conference opener on Dec. 29.

The argument could be made that three-point baskets are superfluous to Johnson’s drive-the-basket approach to scoring, but that is not true. In going 0-9 from distance against Santa Clara, Portland and LMU and attempting not a single three-pointer against San Francisco, Johnson shuttered one of his most potent weapons. Every three-pointer he makes gives defenders something to worry about besides being taken to the rack, which makes it even more likely that they will, indeed, be taken to the rack.

Enter Santa Clara

Santa Clara entered the Gaels’ playground yesterday afternoon looking like a team on a mission — to revenge the Gaels’ 67-64 win over them on New Years Eve and inch closer to second place in the WCC by giving Saint Mary’s its first loss. At 16-5 overall to the Gaels’ 17-4 and 4-2 in conference play to the Gaels’ 6-0, the Broncos no doubt often told themselves how close they were to the Gaels. What a difference a game makes.

Under veteran Coach Herb Sendek, Santa Clara has assembled an impressive roster of not-so-gentle giants. Manning the post are 6’10”, 245-lb senior Jaden Bediako or 7’0″ freshman Christoph Tilly from Berlin (Germany, not New Hampshire); at strong forward is 6’10” Parker Braun; at small forward is 6’7″ grad student Keshawn Justice; at shooting guard is one of the best transfer portal pick-ups in the country, 6’5″ sharpshooter Brandin Podziemski formerly of the Illinois Fighting Illini; and at the point is the only not-huge member of its rotation, the 6’1″ Carlos Stewart, who makes up in speed and determination what he lacks in giantism.

They are not only big, but they can shoot, as Podziemski and Justice are genuine three-point threats, and Braun and Stewart are not far behind them. Turns out, size and three-point shooting are no match for a smooth-operating outfit like the Gaels, who are seemingly improving game by game since a disheartening loss to Colorado State on Dec. 18.

And the Gaels had Mahaney, who undoubtedly chafed under his lengthy benching against Pepperdine and was determined not to let that happen again. Mahaney made his presence felt toward the end of the first half after the Broncos had closed to within one point, 23-22, following two questionable three-point attempts by Johnson that missed badly.

On the possession following Santa Clara’s creeping to within one point, Mahaney immediately sank a three-pointer to erase any ideas of falling behind at the half. He repeated again on the next possession, pushing the Gaels’ lead to 29-22, and sank his third in a row a little later after the Broncos had scored twice themselves. Mahaney’s sharp-shooting lifted Saint Mary’s from a precarious one-point lead, 23-22, to a more comfortable 32-27, and set up the Gaels to close the half with a seven-point lead at 36-29.

Foot not off the pedal

One of the hallmarks of the Gaels’ success following the Colorado State loss is coming out strong after the halftime break. Gael fans used to wince at the beginning of second halves, fearing their team would stumble around for a few minutes before regaining its composure. Not so the renewed Gaels, as Santa Clara learned to its chagrin.

Mahaney kept up the pressure, driving Bediako to start the half, then giving Saint Mary’s its first double-digit lead with a corner three-pointer and a 45-34 advantage. Alex Ducas matched Mahaney with a corner three-pointer of his own, and the Gaels were up 48-34 in the opening minutes of the second half.

During the second half surge, Johnson forgot about regaining his three-point stroke and drove the Broncos’ inner defense with with two patented power moves. Ducas continued the onslaught with two more three-pointers, and before the second half was eight minutes old Saint Mary’ led by 54-36. So much for second-half letdowns.

They then unleashed a potent additional weapon.

Mahaney was not in Bennett’s doghouse, but after his three-pointer gave him 20 points for the night, he went to the bench in place of Marciulionis. Gael fans have noticed that Goose, or Gus, or whatever you want to call him, has slowly grown in confidence and scoring ability over the course of this season. It’s as if he has stopped worrying about regaining his starting position from Mahaney, and has accepted his role as a valuable fill-in for Mahaney or Johnson.

The Marciulionis show

He showcased the importance off that role with about nine-and-a-half minutes left against Santa Clara and his team up comfortably at 56-38. Using a tactic he has perfected with repeated use, Marciulionis drove hard into the paint from the right side. Reacting to his obvious intent to attack the basket, the Bronco defenders rotated to cut him off, but Gus was waiting for them. He rifiled a short bullet to the crashing Gael center Mitchell Saxen, who caught it and finished for a 20-point Gael lead, 58-38.

A little later, operating at the head of the key, Marciulionis blew past his defender and took on the imposing, 6’10” Braun, who was coming toward him with evil intent. Marciulionis arched a left-handed hook shot high off the backboard to thwart Braun’s reach, and it fell through the net for the score.

Marciulionis then repeated a hard charge into the paint, but this time passed out to the right corner where Johnson was waiting with little choice but to hoist a three-pointer. Forgetting his three-point drought that had ended against Pepperdine, plus his two errant three-point attempts from the first half, Johnson confidently lifted a high-arching beauty that drew, you guessed it, nothing but net.

Marciulionis was having fun now. He soon found himself at the head of the key again, this time with Bediako between him and the bucket. As he did against Braun earlier, Marciulionis bested Bediako easily for another score, then took his part in one of the prettiest sequences of this year’s Gael offense.

Watching the never-stagnant Gael offense go through its patterns, Marciulionis noticed Saxen moving up to the high pick-and-roll position with Johnson poised to Saxen’s right. Without a pause, Marciulionis passed to Saxen just as Johnson broke for the basket. Mimicking the Golden State Warriors, who utilize the same play with Draymond Green in Saxen’s role, Saxen handed off the ball to the streaking Johnson, who crashed through one of the Bronco bigs for yet another driving lay-up to put the Gaels up by 69-45.

It was all over but the shouting, as the Gaels eventually ran up a 28-point led, then turned things over to the second team and settled for a 19-point rout of the Broncos, whose day started so promisingly.

The Gaels continue their countdown to a showdown with Gonzaga in Moraga on Feb. 4 by traveling to Provo to face the reeling BYU Cougars next Saturday (Jan. 28). Despite BYU’s recent problems, this will be no picnic for the Gaels, who will be facing a desperate team backed by its rabid fans. The Gael defense has proved impervious to spirited attacks whether at home or on the road, and it will be tested mightily against BYU.

Logan Johnson, show above shooting against Santa Clara, scored 13 points, dished out four assists and registered a steal in the Gaels’ crucial 77-58 win over the Broncos. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

The guards have it

by Michael Vernetti

In both Saint Mary’s wins last week — 76-62 over Loyola Marymount in Moraga on Thursday and 78-61 over San Francisco in the City on Saturday, Gael guards Logan Johnson and Aidan Mahaney were dominant.

Dominant as in 44 points against LMU and 45 against San Francisco.

But lest fans become bored with consistent excellence, Johnson and Mahaney switched the script in each game. Johnson, the dogged defender who routinely draws the opponent’s most dangerous guard, had his hands full with LMU’s super-senior Cam Shelton. Shelton scored near his average with 18 points, but had to take 16 shots to get there, making six for a shooting percentage of 37 per cent.

Despite running down the lightning-quick Shelton for 31 minutes, Johnson scored 19 points himself with an efficient 7-12 shooting percentage, dished out a team-high five assists, grabbed six rebounds, and had a block and a steal for good measure. Not a bad night’s work.

Mahaney, the unflappable freshman, went through his full bag of offensive moves against LMU, scoring on three-pointers, mid-range jumpers and runners in the paint for 15 points at the half — Saint Mary’s up 35-21 — and 25 for the night, matching his career-opening total for the second time this year.

Mahaney’s defensive assignment looked daunting on paper — 6’6″ fifth-year guard Justin Ahrens who transferred to LMU after four years at Ohio State. In his last season at OSU, Ahrens went 54 of 127 on three-point attempts for a 42 per cent success rate from distance. Mahaney would be over-matched on defense, right?

Except Ahrens attempted only two shots on the night, none from distance, and finished with a tame four points against Mahaney’s 25. Hmmm, can Mahaney defend as well as score?

On to San Francisco

Gael coach Randy Bennett obviously thinks well of Mahaney’s defensive chops, as he indicated by matching Mahaney instead of Johnson on San Francisco’s leading scorer, the electric Khalil Shabazz, who was coming off a 25-point effort in the Dons’ loss to Portland on Thursday. Shabazz moved to the top of San Francisco’s all-time three-point shooting chart with the effort in Portland, and was averaging 15.2 PPG coming into the Saint Mary’s game.

Johnson’s assignment was no cupcake, as he drew Washington State transfer Tyrell Roberts, who has matched offensive stats with Shabazz all season, averaging 15 PPG and specializing in three-point proficiency. Roberts, who is only 5’11” and very quick, seemed to flummox Johnson early, hitting two quick three-pointers and beating Johnson off the dribble for a jumper in the paint as the Dons led the Gaels by 22-20 with seven minutes left in the half.

Let’s hope he enjoyed that moment in the sun. Not only did Saint Mary’s shift into high gear after Roberts’s jumper, going on a 17-3 tear behind three buckets by Mahaney to lead 39-25 at the half, but Roberts scored only one more basket in the game, ending with 10 points on 4-12 shooting. Johnson figured him out, while Roberts proved no match for Johnson’s physicality, as the Gaels’ super senior punished Roberts and San Francisco with 24 points on 10-15 shooting.

Johnson’s dominance — all of his baskets came off driving lay-ups — contributed to the Gaels’ 34-22 advantage in points in the paint.

What about Mahaney?

Unlike Johnson, Mahaney didn’t suffer even a hiccup in his defense of Shabazz, shutting down the Dons’ star from the opening tip. Shabazz, who shot 1-11 on the night, didn’t score a single point until he sank two free throws with 4:18 left in the game. He later sank a three-pointer in garbage time, shrinking the Gaels’ edge to 14 points at 65-51.

Stopping Shabazz didn’t tire Mahaney, who played 34 minutes in the game, as he scored early and often to finish with 21 points on 8-15 shooting. A snapshot of his production on offense and defense highlights his overall contribution. Near the end of the first half, with Saint Mary’s leading by just 24-22, Mahaney sank a corner three-pointer off an out-of-bounds play that Shabazz complained loudly about because, Shabazz said, the referee allowed the Gaels to start before he was ready. Really.

Mahaney then blocked a Shabazz jumper in the paint and hit a jumper of his own to push the Saint Mary’s lead to 29-22. Following a three-pointer by the Dons’ Isaiah Hawthorne, Mahaney answered with a three-pointer of his own, then sank a two-pointer to increase the lead to nine points, 34-25. Just another night’s work for the sensational freshman.

Let it not be said that the two wins last week — which left Saint Mary’s tied for first-place in the WCC with Gonzaga at 5-0 — came solely through the efforts of Johnson and Mahaney. Remember the rampage initiated by senior power forward Kyle Bowen when he feared his teammates weren’t playing with enough passion to propel them into the NCAA Tournament?

The Bowen effect

The rampage that saw him capture 28 rebounds in crucial wins over Santa Clara and San Diego, slow down a bit with only four boards against Portland and seem to Peter out with a seven-rebound game against LMU in which he scored zero points and fouled out? Bowen came back with a vengeance against San Francisco, keeping the Gaels alive during a slumping start to the game with four first-half three-pointers en route to 14 points, seven rebounds, four assists, a block and a steal.

To see how important Bowen’s three-point output was to the Gaels’s success, note that Alex Ducas, the team leader in three-point shooting, made only 1-5 from distance in a generally subpar game which saw him total only three points. Although the Gaels ended up with an impressive win over San Francisco, fans might not want to think too hard about how the result may have been different without Bowen’s surprising burst of three-point accuracy.

The Gaels head to Malibu on Thursday to take on the slumping but dangerous Pepperdine Waves, then return to Moraga for a return match with Santa Clara next Saturday. Santa Clara seemed to be on a mission in its 92-81 victory over a scrappy Pacific squad on Saturday, and will be itching to pay back Saint Mary’s for its 67-64 win at the Leavey Center on New Year’s Eve.

The Broncos were without sensational sophomore transfer guard Brandin Podziemski against Pacific and still racked up 92 points. Podziemski was scratched for unexplained reasons, but seemed fine on the sidelines in sweats. One can expect he will not lightly miss the rematch in Moraga next Saturday.

Aidan Mahaney, shown above scoring against LMU on Thursday, scored 46 points in two games last week. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Bowen keeps goin’

by Michael Vernetti

Tyler Robertson, a 6’6″ guard-forward from Melbourne, Australia, is Portland’s best player — leading scorer (14.1 PPG this year, 15.3 PPG last year) and top assist-maker (5.4 APG). He initiates their offense and keeps it flowing with excellent ball distribution skills. He was injured half-way through Portland’s 92-72 loss to Loyola-Marymount and also sat out their 71-58 loss to BYU.

He was back for Saturday’s game against Saint Mary’s, won by the Gaels by an outlandish 42 points, 85-43, and a reunion with two of his former Aussie pals, Kyle Bowen and Alex Ducas who play for the Gaels (new Gael Aussies Harry Wessels and Rory Hawke have come aboard after Robinson’s time in Oz.) He may wish he had rested his twisted ankle for another game.

To say that Bowen, Saint Mary’s senior defensive star, shut down Robertson is a gross understatement. Following up on his two previous WCC games against San Diego and Santa Clara, in which he dominated the boards for 28 rebounds, Bowen had his defensive chops ready for Robinson.

Bowen held Robertson without a score until halfway through the second half, when he scored on a put-back while Bowen sat on the bench, bringing Portland to within 30 points of the Gaels at 58-28. Robertson added two more free throws to bring his total for the evening to four.

Bowen hounded Robertson from the opening tip-off, stripping him twice on entry passes in the early going, and harassing him into six turnovers by halftime, when Portland had scored four field goals in falling behind by 41-14. That’s right, Saint Mary’s scored 41 points and Portland scored 14, six of them from the free-throw line.

Bowen on a roll

The Portland game was Bowen’s third dominating performance since the Gaels opened WCC play with a 27-point rout of San Diego and followed that up with a gritty three-point win over Santa Clara on the Broncos’ court. It was remarked here that Bowen seemed to take it upon himself to ensure that his teammates don’t suffer the same letdown that led them to four avoidable losses in the pre-conference season.

The shaggy-haired Aussie from Western Australia showed his versatility against Portland, conceding the rebounding edge to center Mitchell Saxen after the two double-digit efforts against San Diego and Santa Clara, and a similar 15-rebound effort against D-2 opponent Academy of Art last Tuesday. Bowen corralled only four rebounds against Portland against Saxen’s 14 boards and 15 points, as Saxen counted his fourth double-double of the season.

Bowen upped his offense against Portland, scoring nine points including a three-pointer, and adding a signature high-emotion moment off a miss under the basket. Misfiring on a bunny, Bowen battled the Portland bigs for the rebound, snatched it from them and put the ball back in the bucket to push the Gaels’ early lead to 14-2. He reacted in his usual calm, reflective manner, screaming and thrusting his chest into a teammates’.

Bowen, of course, didn’t defeat Portland single-handedly, as five Gaels scored in double figures, led by Saxen and Aidan Mahaney with 15 each, freshman big man Wessels with a (short) career-best 12 points, the emerging Augustus Marciulionis with 11 points and Ducas with 10 points in a breezy 21-minute appearance.

The Gaels shot a mediocre 10-29 (34.5 per cent) on three-pointers, but that reflected a comeback after an early drought led by Ducas, Bowen and Logan Johnson. Ducas bounced back to sink 2-6 from distance, Mahaney was the sole of consistency at 3-6, and Marciulionis gave the Gaels a big second-half boost by sinking three-three-pointers in the last seven minutes of the game. By gaining confidence in his distance shooting, Marciulionis is continuing to build his game into a source of power for the Gaels.

Defense shines again

Defense was the watchword against Portland, however, as the Gaels battled every possession fiercely, grabbing 11 steals and forcing the Pilots into 16 turnovers. On the efficiency side, Saint Mary’s suffered only seven turnovers against 13 assists, and shot a tidy 9-12 from the free-throw line. Irritated Gael fans do not need reminding that turnovers and shoddy free-throw shooting were the main culprits in several of their four losses.

Defense will undoubtedly continue to be the key as Saint Mary’s takes on Loyola Marymount at home next Thursday (Jan. 12) and San Francisco on the road next Saturday. Both teams have been the souls of inconsistency, as LMU sits at 2-2 in the WCC and San Francisco at 1-3. LMU raised eyebrows among WCC followers by beating Georgetown and Wake Forest in a pre-conference tournament in Jamaica, then opened WCC play with a 92-72 win over a weakened Portland squad playing with out Robertson and fellow high-flyer Moses Wood.

The Lions then lost to a supposedly rebuilding Pacific, beat BYU at home and lost to San Francisco Saturday in a game the Dons desperately needed. After notching impressive pre-conference victories itself over Wichita State, UNLV and Arizona State, San Francisco lost its first three WCC games to Santa Clara, San Diego and Gonzaga by one point, 77-76, in a game that it led all the way until it didn’t.

Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga sit atop the WCC at 3-0, followed by BYU and Pacific at 3-1, and LMU and San Francisco see beating the Gaels as the way to get back on track for the ’22-23 season. All they have to do is get by Bowen and the rest of the Gael defense.

Kyle Bowen, shown above from a game last year, has become a demon for the Gaels on the boards and in the trenches, and has been a major factor in their 3-0 WCC start. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

The Gaels today

by Michael Vernetti

This is the new normal for Saint Mary’s as evidenced by Saturday’s 67-64 win over Santa Clara in Broncoland:

— defense that ruthlessly stifles the opposition

— ferocious rebounding, especially on the offensive end

— dogged adherence to the offensive plan despite early problems

What’s new about that, you say? It’s a matter of degree, as if the sleepwalking effort against Colorado State stuck in the collective throats of the Gaels and they decided they didn’t like the taste of it. For three games since then — wins against Wyoming, San Diego and Santa Clara — Saint Mary’s has held opponents to an average of 58 PPG and out-rebounded them on the offensive end by a margin of 43-27.

Kyle Bowen has been the avatar of the Gael resurgence, upping his game from stalwart defender to super-rebounder and spiritual leader. His two-game total of 28 rebounds against San Diego and Santa Clara was the hallmark of those two wins. It is as if in his senior year Bowen is refusing to accept mediocrity, and has taken it upon himself to lead his teammates back to the NCAA Tournament.

Turning point

A huge play by Bowen at the 15-minute mark of the second half against Santa Clara epitomized what the shaggy-haired Aussie has become for the Gaels. After trailing most of the game, Saint Mary’s took the lead 37-36 on a lay-up by the brilliant Aidan Mahaney. They followed that up with one of only two pick-and-roll successes (by my count) in the game, a nifty dime from Logan Johnson to Mitchell Saxen that pushed the lead to 39-36.

On their next possession, they stumbled into a desperation three-point attempt by Johnson to avoid a shot-clock violation. As with nearly everything he tossed up yesterday (2-13), Johnson missed badly, but an alert Alex Ducas swatted the miss back to Bowen, who stormed the rim for a dramatic follow-up bucket that increased the Saint Mary’s lead to 41-36 — and he was fouled.

Bowen sank the and-one to give saint Mary’s a six-point lead, 42-36, which they quickly increased to 14 points, 55-41, with a little less than eight minutes left in the game. Bowen’s put-back was the emotional and actual turning point of the game. Santa Clara Coach Herb Sendek, looking glum during a post-game interview, lamented the second-chance points manufactured by Saint Mary’s, and it wouldn’t be a wild guess that he had the Bowen play in mind.

Offense follows defense

Except for an 85-point explosion against a defensively-challenged San Diego squad, Saint Mary’s has not shown indications that it has overcome a season-long malaise on offense. The beginning of the Santa Clara game looked like a contest between grade school teams — the score at the first media time out was 2-2!

But it seems as if Gael Coach Randy Bennett has convinced his charges not to let early lapses diminish their adherence to the game plan. Can’t get the ball into Saxen in the post? Keep churning and someone else will pop open. Can’t hit three-pointers? Same advice. The Gaels don’t seem to care that Saxen has up and down games (I know, I know, 20 points against San Diego, but it was San Diego) and that the pick-and-roll is an anomaly these days.

Mahaney, who led all scorers yesterday with 18 points on 8-16 shooting, doesn’t even look at Saxen as the big man begins the roll part of the P&R. He uses Saxen’s rolling to the hoop as a distraction for the defense to worry about and heads elsewhere to find weaknesses to exploit.

The overall offensive plan is attrition: Bennett seems convinced — and his team has bought in to the idea — that if the Gaels continue to pound the ball inside when they can, continue to keep the ball moving, continue to look for driving lanes for Johnson, Mahaney and the improving Augustus Marciulionis, they will take control of games sometime in the second half. Their opponents, weary from competing against the Gaels’ ruthless defense, inevitably tire as the game wears on and loosen up their guarding of Gael shooters.

The road ahead

The WCC season is only two games old and already has produced a bunch of surprises. Portland, showing signs of resurgence last year under Shantay Legans, was the darling of prognosticators tired of the Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s dominance of league play. To the prognosticators’ chagrin, the Pilots limped to two losses against Loyola Marymount and BYU in the first week of conference play after a pre-season highlighted by a win over Villanova and a one-point loss to Michigan State.

San Francisco, another alternative choice for Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s haters, joined Portland at the bottom of league standings after losing to Santa Clara and a revenge-seeking San Diego Torero squad that didn’t take well to a 27-point loss handed it by the Gaels on Thursday. It helped that San Diego had one of its two starters back who didn’t play against Saint Mary’s, guard Jase Townsend who went for 22 points against San Francisco.

LMU was a brief darling after upsetting Portland in the league-opener, but gave way to Pacific as the Tigers took them down in the second game. So, WCC standings look eerily familiar after the first week, with Saint Mary’s and BYU in front with 2-0 marks, Gonzaga in third only because it played just one game — beating Pepperdine handily — and Santa Clara, LMU, San Diego and Pacific tied at 1-1. The more things change…

The Gaels have a mid-week practice game against Academy of Art Institute — no, they aren’t expecting a draw — before returning to WCC play against Portland on Jan.7, followed by LMU on the 12th, both in Moraga. The grind continues.

Aidan Mahaney, shown above in an earlier game this season, continues to have a freshman season for the record books, leading the Gaels in scoring against Santa Clara with 18 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Good start

by Michael Vernetti

The San Diego Torreros who lost to Saint Mary’s by 27 points (85-58) Thursday in Moraga were not the team new coach Steve Lavin envisioned when he took over the Torreros in April.

Lavin, a well-respected former coach at UCLA and St. John’s, hit the ground running, rescuing prize guard Wayne McKinney III from the transfer portal, and landing Pac-12 standouts Jaiden DeLaire from Stanford and Eric Williams Jr. from Oregon. With that nucleus joining holdover Torreros Jase Townsend, Marcellus Earlington and Sigu Sisal Jawara, Lavin was set to compete in the constantly-improving West Coast Conference.

The Toreros started strong, winning four of five against so-so competition — Sonoma State and San Diego Christian included — before the wheels fell off with a disastrous trip to Las Vegas and losses to New Mexico State and Nicholls. Blowout losses to UNLV and Arizona State followed, and that was before San Diego lost DeLaire and Townsend to injuries. Without those two starters, Lavin’s lads limped into Moraga to face a well-rested and motivated Saint Mary’s squad, which has suffered its own ups and downs in an 11-4 season.

Mystery team

The Gaels have been a mystery throughout the non-conference portion of their season, disposing of well-respected opponents such as Oral Roberts, North Texas State and Vermont with ease, but stumbling over Washington of the Pac-12 and New Mexico of the Mountain West Conference.

After reassuring their fans that they were, indeed, a potential NCAA Tournament team by beating nemesis San Diego State on a neutral court and handling New Mexico State easily at home, the Gaels sleep-walked to a 62-60 loss to a good-but-not-great Colorado State squad in Moraga to rekindle the doubts. An up-and-down win over Wyoming (66-54) last Wednesday didn’t answer all questions about the Gaels, so last night’s opener of the West Coast Conference season was a crucial test.

And Saint Mary’s passed, holding a high-scoring but defensively challenged Torero squad to its lowest point total of the year and posting 85 points of its own — the highest total so far this season. So, is it Easy Street from here on in for the Gaels? Hardly.

On the plus side was a dominating effort from center Mitchell Saxen. the junior who has faced the challenge of replacing rock-solid Matthias Tass in the post with checkered success. Saxen went 8-11 from the field against a smallish San Diego front line, cashing in on a barrage of drop-off buckets supplied by his teammates, who tallied 16 assists on 32 made baskets.

Saxen, who had fallen below 50 per cent shooting from the free-throw line, managed to sink 4-7 of his free throw attempts, and added 10 rebounds for his third double-double of the year, along with three assists, two blocks and two steals. A solid night’s work, following a similar effort against Wyoming — 19 points and nine rebounds. The Gaels need a stellar effort from Saxen every night to make their in-and-out offense work .

Ducas is back

The game also featured the return of Alex Ducas, the sometimes magnificent wing man with the silky-smooth three-point shot, who managed to score not a single point against Wyoming. Ducas was one of the main recipients of the Toreros’ casual approach to defense, finding himself so alone on two of his three-pointers that he couldn’t find anyone to chat with. He finished with 13 points on 5-10 shooting, and seemingly could have had many more if Gael Coach Randy Bennett hadn’t emptied his bench.

The Gael guard threesome, Aidan Mahaney, Logan Johnson and Augustus Marciulionis was efficient, totaling 33 points on 13-28 shooting. Marciulionis started out as if he were going to have a scoring breakthrough, racking up eight points by halftime on aggressive drives to the rock and his now-patented stop-and-twist floater, but made just one free throw in the second half to end up with nine.

Johnson also had nine points, but he can be forgiven after his 28-points against Wyoming saved the Gaels’s bacon in that one. Mahaney played only seven minutes in the first half after picking up two quick fouls, but returned with a 10-point flourish in the second half to finish with 15. Mahaney made only one of two there-point attempts, penetrating to the rim on several occasions and hitting his unstoppable, 15-foot jumper seemingly as he wished.

Bowen is everywhere

Kyle Bowen, the Gaels’s defensive lockdown artist, made only one bucket against San Diego — a three-pointer at the game’s outset — but may have been the most dominating force on the floor. Bowen began the game by blocking Earlington’s first shot of the game, made two more blocks on the evening and grabbed 13 rebounds to go along with a steal. He even led a fast-break, finding Saxen out front after a long rebound and feeding the big man perfectly for a lay-up and score.

Bowen may have excited Gael fans by his 16-point outburst against New Mexico State two games ago, but that is not his strength. He has worked his way to respectable three-point shooting success, which he demonstrates occasionally, but does not try to be an offensive threat. He proves his worth by defending the opponents’ best front-line weapon and grabbing every rebound in his vicinity. If Ducas, Mahaney and Johnson are doing their jobs offensively, the Gaels don’t need double-digit scoring from Bowen to be successful

Reserves shine

Saint Mary’s has not ben universally successful inserting reserves during comfortable wins, as the second-teamers have shown themselves prone to turnovers and defensive lapses. Coach Bennett, who has only 10 players available, has doggedly stuck to his plans to get everyone involved, however, and did so against San Diego as the Gael lead ballooned to 30 points in the second half. And the reserves did well!

Most impressive was Joshua Jefferson, the chiseled 6’8″ freshman power forward from Henderson, NV. Jefferson has shone for moments — his two jump shots against Washington were rare examples of the Gaels handling Washington’s zone defense — but has seemed often on the brink of showing himself to be a star of the future. He had his best game of the season against San Diego, dishing off two sweet assists to Saxen and sinking two three-pointers in two attempts — his first long-range goals of the year.

Almost anyone would pale in comparison to Bowen’s defensive prowess, but Jefferson is working hard to become an acceptable replacement even in non-blowout situations. Bowen is a senior and Australian players don’t often stick around after four years even given Covid allowances, so Jefferson may be the heir apparent at power forward. His obvious offensive abilities compared to Bowen are intriguing, and if he continues to improve defensively he could prove to ba a worthy successor.

Saint Mary’s travels down 680-880 on New Year’s Eve (Saturday) to play the 13-3 Santa Clara Broncos, who opened their WCC season by handling a strong San Francisco team by 79-67. If any Bronco-haters among the Gael faithful think Herb Sendek’s Broncos are quavering over the prospect of facing the hot-and-cold Gaels, they haven’t been paying attention to the new WCC. This will be the test Saint Mary’s did not receive from San Diego.

Mitchell Saxen, shown above shooting a free throw against San Diego, led all scorers with 20 points and added 10 rebounds for his third double-double of the year. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Monkey off back

by Michael Vernetti

It was not only the satisfaction of beating 22nd-ranked San Diego State, as Saint Mary’s did Saturday afternoon in Phoenix, AZ, by 69-61, but it was also the relief of breaking a two-game losing streak to the Aztecs that made it a particularly satisfying day.

After losing to SDSU by 10 points last year in the same tournament as this (63-53), and losing by a much greater margin, 74-49, the year before, Saint Mary’s had had enough of the defensive-minded, hard-nosed team from the Mountain West Conference. Moreover, after three straight losses to strong teams in Washington, New Mexico and Houston, the Gaels needed a signature win to keep the NCAA Tournament watchdogs in a positive frame of mind.

They accomplished that objective by forging nine-point leads in each half and then watching their opponent scratch and claw to make up the difference, instead of coming from behind in spirited but unsuccessful bids as happened in the three losses. The Gaels will gladly attest that it is better to be in the driver’s seat against a talented foe than hanging from the side door.

This year’s SDSU team is similar to the one Saint Mary’s played last year, with a nucleus of Matt Bradley, the former Cal standout and all-Mountain West selection, Nathan Mensah, the 6’10” shot-blocking ace who has particularly plagued the Gaels, and Keshad Johnson, the rugged forward who has played four years for the Aztecs. The biggest change is at guard, where Lamont Butler replaced the departed Trey Pulliam and Adam Seiko has been replaced as a starter by transfer Darrion Trammell.

It should be noted that Pulliam scorched the Gaels for 15 points last year, and Seiko sank 4-4 three-pointers to add 12. Butler and Trammell totaled 18 points between them Saturday, while Seiko, playing only 16 minutes, took only two shots and missed them both for a goose egg on the day.

Coming out firing

It was refreshing to see the Gaels come out of the blocks firing against San Diego, instead of tip-toeing into the game as has been its wont against talented opponents. Senior forward Alex Ducas was particularly aggressive, stripping San Diego’s Micah Parrish and making a lay-up and free throw to bring Saint Mary’s into a 12-12 tie early on. Ducas then sank a step-back three-pointer — not something he has done often in his career in Moraga — and capped an 8-0 run of his own with a runner in the lane and a 24-16 Saint Mary’s lead.

Super-senior guard Logan Johnson then took over, scoring on two successive blow-by drives, drawing fouls on each and sinking one of two free throws for the Gaels’ largest lead of the half, 30-21. A little later, after San Diego had scored four straight points, guard Augustus Marciulionis sank a three-pointer to put the Gaels up by eight at 33-25. Marciulionis, sharing guard duties with freshman sensation Aidan Mahaney, has made it a point to add three-point scoring to his repertoire in recent games.

The Gaels lost a bit of their lead to two free throws by Butler and a drive by Aquek Arop, and then watched in stunned silence as Parrish launched a half-court shot as the clock wound down that brought the Aztecs even at 35-all for the half. Momentum lost, but the Gaels were not daunted.

Pitched battle

The second half was akin to hand-to-hand combat, but the Gaels were not saddled with the burden of coming from behind. They and the Aztecs traded baskets and the lead until center Mitchell Saxen scored his first bucket of the day for a 44-44 tie, then matched that effort with another lay-up off a nifty pass from Johnson for another tie at 46-46. The Gaels were energized by Saxen’s outburst, but he soon picked up his third foul and went to the bench.

As he has on several occasions, Aussie freshman Harry Wessels performed solidly in Saxen’s place. He defended Jaedon LeDee, a highly-rated transfer forward from TCU, on an inside move, then drew a charge from LeDee that gave the Gaels a precious possession. When Ducas was blocked on a drive of his own, Wessels swept in and put the missed shot back in the bucket for a 50-46 Gael lead. He later grabbed a crucial rebound and made one of two free throws to push the Gael lead to five points, 51-46. Saxen came back in at the 9:17 mark.

The Gaels thought they had salted the game away over the next few possessions, as first Mahaney sank a three-pointer, Johnson scored on another power drive and Ducas added a three-pointer for what looked like a solid 59-50 lead with 5:30 left. But San Diego fought back to pull within three points at 59-56, and Gael defensive stalwart Kyle Bowen fouled out with 2:13 left.

Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett went small by subbing in 6’6″ guard/forward Chris Howell for the 6’8″ Bowen, but the coach’s brainstorm was upstaged by the play of the day. Saxen, who had struggled against rugged defense as he did against Houston and scored just four points, outsmarted San Diego on an inbounds play.

Receiving the ball in the left corner of the court, Saxen pulled a Draymond Green by faking a hand-off to Mahaney, spinning toward the bucket and catching the San Diego defender by surprise for a tough inside shot. He missed a subsequent free throw, but his bucket pushed the Gael lead to five points at 61-56 and left San Diego little choice but to foul and hope for misses.

Unfortunately for them, the player they fouled was the unflappable Mahaney, who sank six straight free throws down the stretch to push the lead to 67-61, leaving it to Howell to make the final free throw and seal the 68-61 win. Mahaney’s perfect turn at the free throw line raised his game total to a team-leading 20 points, followed by 17 for Ducas and 15 for Johnson.

Aidan Mahaney, shown above from a game earlier this season, led all Gael players against San Diego with 20 points, including 6-6 from the free throw line. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Missions accomplished

by Michael Vernetti

You could look at the first half of Saint Mary’s 66-46 win over Missouri State Wednesday in Moraga in a couple of ways.

One would be that the Gaels were feeling their way against Mo State, even though the two teams met last year at Saint Mary’s and the Gaels won 75-58. However, this year’s edition of the Bears from the Missouri Valley Conference is almost completely different from last year’s scrappy crew that went 23-11 and earned a berth in the NIT. Mo State has 14 new players, including eight transfers, so some caution was to be expected.

Caution as in a 26-21 halftime lead.

An alternate view was that Saint Mary’s had an additional mission last night besides ending a three-game losing streak against Washington, New Mexico and top-ranked Houston: get Mitchell Saxen back to his usual position of dominance in the paint that suffered a big blow against the ultra-athletic Houston Cougars. After a game spent trying to pass out of an aggressive double-team and dodging leaping Cougars on every shot he attempted — netting just four points and coughing up four turnovers — Saxen was a prime focus of Randy Bennett’s offense from the opening tip.

Operating with confidence and crispness, Saxen scored the Gaels’ first six points on both right-and-left-handed short hooks, and eight of their first 12 points. He ended the half with 15 of the Gaels’ 26 points and no turnovers, giving the Bears’ 6’11”, 260-pound Dawson Carper fits. It was vintage Saxen, and just what the Gaels needed to re-establish their post-oriented, in-and-out offense.

So concentrated were the Gaels on featuring Saxen that two of its leading scorers, Alex Ducas and Aidan Mahaney, were scoreless at the half. That would soon end.

Second-half explosion

Where the Gaels were careful and precise in the first half — only four turnovers following 16 or 17 turnovers per game during their three-game losing streak — they were loose and deadly following the break. Mahaney single-handedly ended his scoring drought by stripping a Missouri State guard and sprinting the length of the floor for a thundering dunk to announce his presence.

After another steal — Saint Mary’s forced Mo State into 13 turnovers and swiped the ball five times — Ducas sank a three-pointer and suddenly the Gaels were up by 10 points, 33-23. Mo State called time-out at the 17:55 mark as if to ask, “What is going on here?”

It was a full-scale Saint Mary’s blitz, as in rapid succession Logan Johnson fired a dart to Ducas under the basket and he scored, Mahaney drove the paint for a lay-up, Ducas scored again from under the bucket and Mahaney hit a three-pointer. Presto-chango, the Gaels were up 44-31.

While the emphasis on Saxen waned — he finished the night with 19 points, six rebounds, two blocks and two steals — the Gaels’ up-and-down guard corps also staged a resurgence from the losing streak. The trio of Mahaney, Johnson and Augustus Marciulionis were slapped in the face by New Mexico’s talented guards, and even though Johnson and Mahaney were brilliant in the Houston loss, Marciulionis fired a goose egg in just 11 minutes on the floor.

Mahaney’s first start

Seemingly acknowledging a changing of the guard, actually and metaphorically, Bennett started Mahaney at the point in place of Marciulionis, the freshman’s first start of his short college career. What effect did that change have on Marciulionis or the Gael chemistry in general? No apparent change, as Marciulionis posted a sharp, eight-point effort in 17 minutes — including a three-pointer that he has struggled to master — and Mahaney and Johnson operated smoothly in their time together.

Although scoring just six points following his team-leading 17 against Houston, Johnson offered his usual hard-nosed defense and survived a jolt to his surgically-repaired shoulder in a second-half rebound collision. Mahaney, following his first-half shutout, almost matched Saxen’s numbers for the game, scoring 13 points on 6-11 shooting against Saxen’s 8-12 posting.

Gael fans have enjoyed dual point guards in the past — the combo of Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon comes immediately to mind — but got used to the Tommy Kuhse-dominated offense of the past few years. The three-man rotation on display this season may prove just as effective, and will have the added benefit of keeping all three guards fresher than if they each played 38-40 minutes per game.

All three delivered NBA-caliber assists against Mo State, with Johnson kicking things off with the bullet he fired to Ducas at the start of the second half, and with a delicate pocket-pass to the rolling Saxen later on. Marciulionis delivered a brilliant look-away pass to Saxen in the second half, and Mahaney dropped a no-look dime on Saxen just before his second steal-and-dunk of the game for a 58-40 lead near the end of the second half.

The trio accounted for seven assists against four turnovers , which will probably stand the Gaels in good stead as the season progresses. With Saxen back in the scoring saddle, and with the guard rotation seemingly in good shape, Saint Mary’s seems ready to take on the rest of its tough non-conference schedule.

Next up is a ranked San Diego State squad on Saturday in Phoenix, AZ, followed by New Mexico State and Colorado State at home before meeting Wyoming back in Phoenix on Dec. 21. The Gaels will be tested — and maybe well-prepared — when the first WCC game of the season takes place at home against an improved San Diego squad on Dec. 29.

Logan Johnson, shown above scoring against Missouri State last night, anchors a three-man guard rotation for Saint Mary’s. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Toe to toe

by Michael Vernetti

To say the Saint Mary’s Gaels had a lot to prove against the nation’s number one team, the Houston Cougars, Saturday in Ft. Worth, TX, was a bit of an understatement.

Following two successive losses to good but not invincible teams — Washington and New Mexico — many questions were floating in the air respecting the Gaels: were they as good as advertised in the pre-season and during a strong six-game wining streak to open the season?

Could they score consistently to back up a stout defense? Was their three-man back court of Logan Johnson, Augustus Marciulionis and freshman Aidan Mahaney up to the high standards of previous Randy Bennett-coached teams?

That last question arose primarily because of lackluster efforts by Johnson in the Washington and New Mexico games — five points against UW and four against UNM. One cheeky commentator even went so far as to theorize that perhaps Johnson should be replaced as a starter by Mahaney, who would team with Marciulionis as the point guard. Johnson, this commentator opined, might put his energy and defensive chops to better use coming off the bench than logging starter minutes.

As the lawyers like to say, those questions were asked and answered by the Houston game. Johnson revived his leadership status with a daring, often brilliant offensive outburst — team-leading 17 points — and a stifling defensive effort against Houston’s leading scorer, Marcus Sasser — 13 points on 4-12 shooting.

Johnson’s heroic performance was the shining light in the Gaels’ 53-48 loss to Houston.

That other guard spot

As for Mahaney, his performance was perhaps even more noteworthy than Johnson’s since he is a freshman. Mahaney had also sagged somewhat in the two losses, scoring a respectable 11 points in each, but misfiring badly from long-distance and making a combined 4-19 shots from three-point range.

He went 4-8 from distance against Houston on the way to 14 points, but the mere numbers don’t tell the whole story. Four times in the second half when the Gaels were mounting an improbable comeback against the Cougars, Mahaney nailed three-pointers that kept their slim hopes alive.

None was more crucial than the one he made with a little than 13 minutes left and Houston seemingly on a roll toward a convincing victory. Another Gael freshman, forward Joshua Jefferson, had a shot blocked by Houston’s J’Wan Roberts, then Roberts scored on the other end to put his team up by 12 points, 39-27.

Mahaney’s answering three-pointer cut that margin to 39-30, and the Gaels had a new lease on life. Forward Alex Ducas matched Mahaney’s three-pointer a few minutes later to cut the margin to 41-33 with 11:3 left in the game, and then it was time for still another freshman, Chris Howell, to provide a huge lift to his team.

Howell, a defensive standout from San Diego who red-shirted last year, saved Johnson’s pride after Johnson was stripped by a Houston defender. The Gaels survived Johnson’s gaffe, one of only two turnovers he suffered under intense pressure from the Houston ball hawks, and then Howell scored in the paint to bring them within eight points at 43-35.

Howell then stripped a Houston guard and scored again on a floater in the paint to bring the Gaels within six points, 43-37 with nine minutes left in the game. The impossible was within sight, as Saint Mary’s had held Houston to just 12 points in the second half. Feeling the momentum shift, Mahaney drained his second three-pointer to bring his team to within three points, 43-40.

Another Houston stalwart, forward Truman Mark, answered with a stinging three-pointer to put the margin at 46-40, but Mahaney again answered a Houston advance with his third three-pointer of the half and a 46-43 deficit with plenty of time left, more than six minutes. It was then that the Gaels’ weakness in the paint emerged again to derail the comeback effort.

Junior center Mitchell Saxen struggled mightily against Houston’s swarming defense, scoring just four points at that point and coughing up the ball numerous times. Saxen gave up a close-in bucket by the pesky Roberts — who hurt the Gaels more than Sasser — then failed to convert a bunny when the Gaels got the ball back. He was fouled, but missed both three throws to continue a trend that was magnified in the Washington game when he went 5-12 from the line in a four-point loss.

Disaster strikes

Up by five points, 48-43, Houston showed the moxie that has carried them to an unbeaten 8-0 record and the number one ranking among college teams. Sasser, Houston’s scoring and emotional leader, took things into his own hands. Dribbling to his right, Sasser floated toward the end line with three Gaels in close proximity. Kyle Bowen, the closest to him, bumped him slightly, but it didn’t seem to matter as Sasser tossed up what looked like a prayer as he fell out of bounds.

Incredibly, it went in. Even more incredibly, Bowen was called for a foul, which gave Sasser a bonus free throw. He sank that for a 51-43 lead at the 3:14 mark, and the Gael hopes seemed doomed.

Someone forgot to tell Mahaney.

After the teams traded points over the next few possessions, Mahaney sank another three-pointer — his fourth of the half — and gave the Gaels new fight at 53-48. Unfortunately, it failed to ignite a closing charge, and the game ended on that score.

There are no moral victories, as any coach will tell you, but the Gaels salvaged several important accomplishments which should stand them in good stead for the rest of the season. For one, they showed the world that they have a first class back court in Mahaney and Johnson, with Marciulionis in reserve. Mahaney is not a conventional point guard, but he and Johnson proved to be a formidable duo against the nation’s number one team, and will attempt to carry momentum from the Houston game into the future.

Saint Mary’s might also have resolved a question of back-up small forward through the play of Howell, who logged 10 minutes in his longest stint to date. Sandbagged by the departure of Jabe Mullins for Washington State and Leemet Bockler to his home country of Estonia. Bennett turned to former walk-on Luke Barrett to back up Ducas. Although proving himself a solid defender, Barrett did not give the Gaels much scoring off the bench.

Not only did Howell shine on defense against Houston, the two buckets he scored in a second-half burst were instrumental in the Gaels’ comeback. Although a guard, Howell stands 6’6″ and seems capable of filling the small forward position.

It will also not be lost on many observers that the Gaels — despite scoring just 48 points — outshot Houston both from conventional range, 37 per cent versus 36.8 per cent, but also from three-point range, 41 per cent versus 27 per cent. They out-rebounded the athletic Cougars 36-27, and registered 14 assists on 17 made shots.

Troubling for Bennett was the continuing issue with turnovers, as the Gaels coughed up the ball 17 times compared to only five turnovers for the Cougars. That will have to improve if the Gaels are to reach the lofty goals they set for themselves for this season.

Aidan Mahaney, shown above in a game from earlier this season, scored 14 points and accounted for five assists in a spectacular game against Houston. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Outplayed

by Michael Vernetti

After Saint Mary’s lost to Washington by 68-64 on Thanksgiving, Gael fans could find some…rationalizations (never excuses):

How often would distance shooters Alex Ducas and Aidan Mahaney go 4-20 on three-point attempts?

How often would the Gaels compile 15 assists against 16 turnovers?

How often would they be out rebounded by eight boards (40-32)?

After a similar loss last night to the dynamic New Mexico Lobos by 69-65, the answer seems to be, “Whenever they play a strong team.”

Ugly patterns

The same woeful patterns that emerged from nowhere in a shining 6-0 season before facing Washington reared their ugly heads against a noticeably better Lobo team. Although Ducas redeemed himself with a 25-point beauty against New Mexico, his teammates apparently failed to get the memo for the second game in a row: “This isn’t Vermont, guys, this is a real team.”

The assist-to-turnover ratio worsened from 0.93 against Washington to 0.67 (10 assists, 16 turnovers) against New Mexico. The offense sputtered to almost a complete halt in the first half after the Gaels came out tenacious on defense to run up a 13-2 lead on the Lobos. After that mark was posted with 12:41 left in the half, New Mexico outscored Saint Mary’s 25-10 the rest of the way to take a 27-23 lead and a giant boost in confidence into the locker room.

And, just like in the Washington game, Saint Mary’s failed to maintain control of the game on several occasions when it looked like they had shuffled off the blahs and were back to being last year’s efficient bunch of over-achievers. To wit:

Even with a dearth of scoring, the Gaels managed to forge a 22-17 lead over New Mexico with 2:08 left in the half. Time to put the pedal down and gain separation before halftime. As if.

Lobo guards rise

One of New Mexico’s trio of outstanding guards, 6’2″ Donovan Dent of Centennial High school in Riverside, CA — only California’s Mr. Basketball and John Wooden High school Player of the Year as a senior — drove Luke Barrett (Barrett, the Gaels’ former walk-on who has earned a scholarship and a rotation spot backing up Ducas, picked him up on a switch) for a bucket to cut the Gael lead to 22-19.

The Gaels’ Augustus Marciulionis, who had made two strong buckets in the paint earlier in the half, misfired on a drive, and another Lobo guard, Jamal Mashburn Jr., drove Gael center Mitchell Saxen — who also drew the guard on a switch — for another basket, plus a free throw, for a 22-22 tie. After Saxen converted one free throw — he was only 5-12 for the line for the night — the third Lobo guard tormenter, Jaelen House, hit a three-pointer to put his team ahead for the first time at 25-23. Saxen then was called for a moving screen and another Gael turnover, setting the stage for a halftime nightmare for the Gaels.

After successfully defending a Dent drive — a rarity, as he went 5-8 from the floor — the Gaels watched in horror as Lobo forward Josiah Allick stuffed the miss to send his teammates bouncing into halftime with a 27-23 lead. The Gaels had turned a 22-17 advantage into a 27-23 deficit in just two minutes.

Patino’s juggernaut

New Mexico is coached for the second year by Rick Pitino Jr., son of the peripatetic former Kentucky, Boston Celtics and Louisville (among other stops) coach who has moved on to the Iona Gaels in his 70th year. Pitino Jr. is carefully assembling the pieces needed to build a deep NCAA competitor at New Mexico. He coaxed House, son of all-time Arizona State and NBA great Eddie, from Arizona State, and House blossomed into a 16.9 PPG star last year.

Mashburn Jr., son of another college and pro great, followed Pitino from his former position as head coach of Minnesota, and led the Lobos in scoring last year at 18.2 PPG. Pitino scored a recruiting coup to lure Dent to Las Cruces. These three form the nucleus of a team that should challenge for a Mountain West title and at least begin Pitino’s quest for NCAA stardom.

The three guards scored a combined 42 points against Saint Mary’s, led by House’s 17, compared to 22 points put up by Gael guards Mahaney (11), Marciulionis (7) and Logan Johnson (4). That stark differential only scratches the surface of the Gaels’ offensive woes. After back-to-back dispiriting losses, the question arises, “Who is the leader of these Gaels?”

Gaels future

It was around this time last year that Gael Coach Randy Bennett decided to replace Marciulionis at point guard with sixth-year legend Tommy Kuhse. Kuhse solidified the Gael attack and became a scoring leader at the same time, and Saint Mary’s soared to one of its greatest seasons in history.

Marciulionis remained an active and involved member of the team, didn’t drop his head and mope, and seemed to dedicate his off-season to eradicating weaknesses that showed up in his freshman year. To these eyes he has done so, providing a toughness at the point that is noticeable in his time on the court, which has been limited. Just as Kuhse drifted off to the sunset — and the NBA G-league — another promising guard enrolled at Saint Mary’s — Mr. Mahaney of nearby Campolinda High School and a lifetime of buddy ship with Bennett’s two sons, Chase and Cade.

Mahaney has ben sensational overall, and provides scoring punch that Marciulonis doesn’t have — especially from three-point range. But, he is erratic, went 3-13 from three-point range against Washington and managed to make only 1-6 three-pointers against New Mexico. Johnson, the third wheel of the Gael guard contingent, has been up and down in his fifth-year, providing defensive grit and hustle, but spotty scoring. His four points against New Mexico — none in the second half — was a case in point.

So, what should Bennett do to provide some stability to his team that faces the daunting prospect of playing number-one ranked Houston on Saturday in Ft. Worth, TX? Shuffle the deck? Here’s one option: keep Marciulionis at the point and replace Johnson at the starting off-guard spot with Mahaney. This will give Marciulionis undiluted charge of running the offense, take the ball out of Mahaney’s hands — including bringing the ball up court after possession changes — and give Johnson a charter that might suit his talents better: off-the-bench sparkplug.

It is no knock on Mahaney to note that he made two of the crucial four turnovers committed by the Gaels in the closing moments against New Mexico. He is a freshman and not a natural point guard, and would seem to be more effective as off-guard under a strong court leader. Something to think about as the Gael coaching staff pores through the ashes of the New Mexico game.

Alex Ducas, shown above in a game from last year, was the only bright spot for the Gael offense against New Mexico, scoring 25 points on 7-10 shooting. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.