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Rolling tide

by Michael Vernetti

The Gaels were in trouble, trailing UC Riverside 28-16 with little more than five minutes left in the first half. At that point, Saint Mary’s had committed more turnovers, four, than it had sunk three-point baskets, one.

Bring on the shooters, right? You know, tried and true bombers Alex Ducas, Dan Fotu or Tommy Kuhse. How about Kyle Bowen and Matthias Tass?

The unlikeliest of Gaels, Bowen and Tass, came to the rescue when their teammates were struggling against an energized UCR squad that had already taken down a Pac-12 opponent, Arizona State, and was smelling upset against Saint Mary’s. The Gaels had just completed a major tournament with wins against teams from the ACC and Pac-12 and might have been feeling cocky.

Bowen, the rugged defender but spotty shooter, had started the unexpected onslaught early on, sinking his first three-pointer with fewer than three minutes gone to give the Gaels a short-lived 5-3 lead. As UCR continued to sag off him, Bowen connected for another three-pointer at the most opportune time, when UCR had surged to that 12-point lead at the 5:36 mark. That eased the tension and moved the Gaels within nine points at 28-19.

Following a bucket in the paint from Kuhse which cut the score to 28-21, Tass took a cue from Bowen. Also left alone outside the three-point line, the Gael center launched his own bomb at the 3:54 mark — nothing but net!

Still not attracting any defenders, Tass doubled down with another three-pointer 40 seconds later to cut the UCR lead to 28-27. Channeling an NBA telecast featuring an announcer proclaiming that someone was having a “heat check” moment with superfluous long bombs, Tass went for a trifecta on the next possession — and missed.

Not to worry, as Bowen saved the best for last, sinking his third three-pointer with a little more than a minute left in the half, giving Saint Mary’s its first lead of the night, 30-28. Talk about a flair for the dramatic.

Turn out the lights

It would be an over-simplification to say that the Bowen and Tass three-point barrage broke the back of UCR, as it was mainly a stifling Gael defense that did the trick. But there is no gainsaying the fact that the 30-28 halftime bulge buoyed by their 15 unexpected points set up their teammates for a successful night.

UCR would score only 22 more points in the second half, while the Gaels would surge to 37 to run up a 67-50 victory that seemed anything but certain in the early going. Gael fans are hardly surprised by such a development, learning to trust their team’s defense much more than its spotty offense.

That unpredictable offense produced anomalous first-half results such as zero points for Ducas and Fotu, a result that Fotu pointedly reversed in the second half but which Ducas couldn’t shake. Courtside medical experts among the Gael fan base detected signs that Ducas might have been feeling poorly throughout the game, and Coach Randy Bennett did limit his minutes to 17 when he had been averaging almost twice that.

In Fotu’s case, it was figuring out that UCR was vulnerable down low that allowed the Kiwi star to rack up 14 second-half points against Riverside’s lumbering 7’1″ center, Cullen McRae, and jumping jack forward J.P. Moorman II. Tass, who had been shut down by Wisconsin’s talented front court duo of Tyler Wahl and Steven Crowl last Wednesday, also found easier pickings against McRae, finishing with a team-high 18 points on 8-14 shooting.

Additional bright points

Gael fans have become so used to steady production from Kuhse that they probably shrugged off his 11-point, six-rebound, two-assist line score. Kuhse did something to raise their awareness of his special abilities early in the second half, however. Making up his mind that it was time to get Fotu involved in the offense, Kuhse went on one of his seemingly unplanned excursions into the paint.

Except it wasn’t unplanned. Close observers would have noticed that Kuhse kept one of his eyes — he sometimes seems to have at least three — on Fotu as the point guard drifted to the left of the paint. As often happens to defenders who have scouted Kuhse’s acrobatic buckets in the paint, several UCR players dogged Kuhse’s tracks. When he had the attention of the defense, and when Fotu had moved into place near the bucket, Kuhse dropped a behind-the-back dime on Fotu that the Gael forward easily converted to one of the prettiest baskets in recent Gael history. All in a night’s work.

Kuhse’s excellence notwithstanding, Bennett continued the development of Augustas Marciulionis as the Gaels’ future point guard, playing the Lithuanian for 19 minutes. He accounted for three of the Gaels’ 15 assists in that time, and did something he hasn’t accomplished in several games — hit a three-point bucket.

There is nothing in Marciulionis’s form to suggest that he will be anything but successful from three-point range, but so far he has ben the consummate pass-first guard. Every baby step toward developing his offensive arsenal is important.

Also encouraging to Gael fans was the play of second-year wing man Leemet Bockler, who went down with a stress fracture in his foot last year and has been mending slowly. Bockler resembled a young colt during warm-ups, trading thunderous dunks with Judah Brown and cavorting about with seemingly no concern for his foot.

Thus, the crowd erupted when Bockler sank a corner three-pointer in the game’s final minute, a sign that he may be near earning consistent minutes. The memory of him coming off the bench in the early portion of last season and relieving Ducas with a deadly three-point stroke of his own still burns with many of them.

And, finally, sophomore center Mitchell Saxen posted his first point of the season by sinking a free-throw. Saxen, who provides stellar back-up to Tass in the post when healthy, looks ready to play major minutes as he continues recovery from a tight back. The more the merrier.

Matthias Tass, shown above sinking one of his two three-pointers against UC Riverside, led the Gaels in scoring with 18 points, grabbed six rebounds, handed out two assists and had a block and a steal. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Glass half full

by Michael Vernetti

Considering all the good things Saint Mary’s took away from this week’s Maui Invitational Tournament in Las Vegas, it is hard to believe they lost the championship game to Wisconsin Wednesday afternoon by a score of 61-55.

To wit: they defeated two teams from the nation’s leading conferences — Norte Dame of the Atlantic Coast Conference — and Oregon of the Pacific-12 Conference;

They dramatically improved their performance between game one — a 62-59 squeaker over Norte Dame — and game two — a 62-50 shellacking of Oregon.

They expanded their cast of major offensive contributors from two in the Notre Dame game, Dan Fotu and Tommy Kuhse, to four against Oregon, Fotu, Kuhse, Logan Johnson and Alex Ducas, and almost five against Wisconsin, with Kuhse and Matthias Tass checking in with eight points each to join Ducas (13), Johnson (12) and Fotu (11).

They welcomed sophomore center Mitchell Saxen to his first action of the season, and he provided a lift on defense and on the boards that bodes well for greater contributions down the road. Saxen had been kept out of action until the Oregon game because of nagging back problems that plagued him in his senior season in high school but didn’t materialize during a productive freshman season.

Ducas bounces back

That’s a lot of positive accomplishments for one three-day stretch against tough competition, and one could make the case that the emergence of Ducas as an offensive star was the biggest one. The junior from Western Australia had been slumping since a 22-point outburst in the season-opening game against Prairie View that featured six three-point baskets. He averaged only 6.7 PPG leading up to the Oregon game, when he scored 12 points on four three-pointers.

He followed that up with a team-high 13 points in the Wisconsin loss that included one of his biggest shots as a Gael. With the Badgers putting on a late-game rally that put them ahead of Saint Mary’s by four points at 54-50 with 1:47 left in the game, Ducas drilled a three-pointer that brought his team back within one point of the lead. It was the definition of clutch shooting.

Alas, after a free throw by Wisconsin, Kuhse was fouled with the score 55-53. Gael fans were already calculating their team’s strategy after Kuhse made both ends of the one-and-one opportunity. Instead, Kuhse, who was heroic throughout the tournament, making big shot after big shot, clanked the front end of the one-and-one and the Gaels wouldn’t get another opportunity to retake the lead.

Rotation stabilized

The addition of Saxen to the Gael rotation stabilized the lineup that Gael Coach Randy Bennett seems ready to stick with for the foreseeable future. Saxen is almost certain to see significant minutes in relief of Tass as the 6’10” sophomore rounds into game condition following his lay-off. Gael fans are hopeful that Saxen might prove a more consistent scorer in the low blocks following Tass’s 3-10 shooting performance against Wisconsin.

Tass is an easy target for critical fans who bemoan his penchant for working into good position under the basket only to miss one-and-two-foot bunnies. Will Saxen sharpen Tass’s concentration? Can Saxen match Tass’s comfort in Bennett’s offense, passing to cutters or to open shooters? Gael fans are anxious to find out.

The prospect of more minutes for Saxen also impacts the role of Fotu going forward. The senior from Auckland, NZ was the Gaels leading light throughout the tournament, and seemed destined for heavy consideration as the tournament’s outstanding player until a minor fall-off in scoring against Wisconsin — 11 points after 22 against Notre Dame and 16 against Oregon.

But Fotu is no longer in the Gaels’ starting lineup, giving way to defensive/rebounding demon Kyle Bowen. During the Maui tournament, Fotu successfully came off the bench to substitute for Tass in the post instead of assuming his normal spot at strong forward, but played only 26, 27 and 22 minutes.

If Saxen also subs in for Tass, how is Bennett going to carve out significant time for Fotu, who is emerging as an all-conference performer? Time will tell.

Guard position also clearer

The Gaels’ excellent showing in Las Vegas also seems to have quieted some fan speculation over Kuhse’s hold on the starting point guard position. Kuhse, with 35 points in the tournament and seven assists against Oregon, was the undoubted team leader, relegating promising freshman Augustus Marciulionis to back-up duty. Unless fans envision starting a Marciulionis Fan Club, they will recognize this as a positive step.

Marciulionis, who will eventually become an excellent point guard, gives Saint Mary’s something they have not enjoyed in recent memory — a reliable sub for Kuhse. This will make Kuhse stronger as the season rolls on and he gets regular breathers, plus preserve his energy for post-season tournament duty. It’s a win-win.

Saint Mary’s returns to action next Monday night with a 7 p.m. home game against UC Riverside.

Alex Ducas, shown above from an earlier season, provided added punch to the Gaels’ lineup in the Maui tournament, making six three-pointers in the final two games. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Two for the money

by Michael Vernetti

“Grindy” was the term Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett coined to describe his team’s shooting woes last year, a season in which the Gaels fell from being one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country to one of the least productive.

Grindy is what you get when your two best outside shooters, Alex Ducas and Leemet Bockler, go down with injuries in December, when defenses pack the paint to prevent drives by Gael guards Tommy Kuhse and Logan Johnson, and when the Gaels play with only four scoring threats because of the inability of power forward Kyle Bowen to contribute virtually anything to the offense (34 baskets in 24 games, 4 PPG).

Underneath the exhilaration of beating Notre Dame 62-59 in the opening round of the Maui Invitational in Las Vegas Monday night lay the specter of grindiness affecting this year’s Gael team. Senior forward Dan Fotu had a career game with 22 points in 22 minutes, including the game-winning corner three-pointer in the closing seconds, but only one other Gael, perennial senior Kuhse, scored in double figures — 14 points.

Ducas is back, and played a team-high 34 minutes, but he scored only four points on two early-game buckets in the paint. Continuing a three-point famine that saw him make only 5-19 long-distance shots in the three games before Norte Dame, Ducas went 0-3 on three-pointers against the Irish. Not that Ducas has failed to make his presence felt, as he has become one of the team’s leading rebounders, grabbing a game-high eight boards against Notre Dame. He has also improved his defense to the point that Bennett feels comfortable keeping him on the court for major minutes.

But with Ducas scoring only four points, Johnson only six on 2-7 shooting and center Matthias Tass attempting only six shots in 27 minutes, making three, the Gael offense against Notre Dame was basically a two-man affair — Fotu and Kuhse against the world. And that’s before you take Bowen’s offensive vacuum into consideration.

Goose egg for Bowen

Bowen played 31 minutes and attempted not a single shot, scoring one point on one of two made free throws. As usual Bowen worked tirelessly on defense, shutting down Irish forward Nate Laszewski (two points) and helping defend Notre Dame’s star post man, Paul Atkinson, while pulling down seven rebounds.

Bennett faces a real conundrum in the Bowen situation, because Bowen plays the same position as Fotu, who has become the Gaels’ offensive star. Fotu got his minutes against Notre Dame in relief of Tass, not at forward. That’s okay for the present, and underlines Fotu’s versatility, gained while skipping around the floor in his four-year career: small forward, power forward and center.

But what happens when Tass’s expected back-up, sophomore Mitchell Saxen, returns from a lingering back problem that has kept him off the floor so far this season? Saxen had a promising freshman campaign, ably spelling Tass and giving the Gaels twin 6’10” towers in the post. Not only would Saxen give the Gaels a similar one-two punch at center, he would prepare himself for the starting post position for when Tass moves on (under relaxed Covid rules, Tass could play an additional season in 2021-22, but whether he will is not certain).

At what point does the calculus for determining the value of Bowen’s defensive prowess compared to his lack of offensive contribution start to tip against him. Again, Fotu scored 22 points in 22 minutes against Notre Dame. Shouldn’t Bennett want him to play, say 32 minutes going forward given the lack of anyone else assuming more of the offensive burden?

For now, the Gaels’ defensive tenacity allows Bennett to forestall such a decision. His charges effectively contained a Notre Dame offense that is supposed to be its strength, holding the Irish to 38.9 per cent overall shooting and 33.3 per cent on three-point attempts. Clamping down when the going got tough, the Gaels held Notre Dame to just 29 points in the second half compared to 31 in the first.

The Oregon prognosis

What can the Gaels look forward to in their second-round game against Oregon this afternoon (5 p.m. Pacific)? The Ducks were considered a solid second-place Pac 12 finisher behind powerhouse UCLA when the season began, but that rating went crashing down thanks to a 32-point loss to BYU a week ago (81-49). Oregon cruised against D-2 Chaminade in the Maui opener, but that says nothing about how they’ll fare against Saint Mary’s.

The Gaels’s greatest hope is a smoother offensive operation, something they haven’t fully achieved yet this season. After getting solid performances from Kuhse, Johnson and freshman Augustas Marciulionis at various times, it all came down to Kuhse against Notre Dame. Johnson was only 2-7 plus a free throw in 27 minutes and couldn’t find his footing, while Marciulionis had a promising five-point (one three-pointer, one drive to the hoop) spurt, but soured that with a careless turnover that put him on the bench for the rest of the match.

Johnson is the key here, as the Gaels feed off his energy and scoring as he recklessly throws his body at the bucket. For some reason, Johnson didn’t find any lanes against Notre Dame, and he contributed four turnovers to the Gaels’s much-too-high total of 13 (against 9 assists). The Gaels need him to be a force on offense against the Ducks.

The other missing ingredients against Notre Dame were Ducas and Tass, who must bounce back against Oregon to give Fotu some support. Ducas has been a streak shooter throughout his time at Saint Mary’s, but his current three-point slump is worrisome. Three or four long-distance bombs from Ducas and a more efficient effort from Tass in the paint would give the Gaels a legitimate chance to advance to the Maui championship on Wednesday.

Wouldn’t that make for a gratifying Thanksgiving dinner?

Dan Fotu, shown above in a previous season, was a terror against Notre Dame, scoring 22 points on 8-9 shooting, including 3-3 on three-point attempts. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

It still counts

by Michael Vernetti

From some vantage points, Saint Mary’s prepared well for the rare challenge of playing the Bellarmine Knights of Louisville, LA.

The Gaels were never slow in getting back against the relentless onslaught that is the Knights’ offense. Pedestrian terms such as “motion offense” or “run and gun” do not capture the essence of a team that plays with its collective hair on fire. I’ve never been to a Knights’ practice, but Im pretty sure these guys run to the restroom, run to grab a towel and run wind sprints really hard.

They don’t have walk-ons at Bellarmine, they have run-ons.

I didn’t know what to expect from Bellarmine after reading stories about how they eschew dribbling in lieu of passing. Really? I envisioned a series of ingenious passes from out of bounds to advance the ball to the half-court, but actually they do dribble in conventional terms. It’s just that they whip the ball round via dozens of passes on each possession; guards go down low, bigs shoot three-pointers. They are seemingly everywhere at once.

In the face of this, the Gaels were not rattled, and not once did Bellarmine score an easy bucket because of a lagging defender. Saint Mary’s turned Bellarmine over 15 times, including seven steals. They out-rebounded the Knights by one, which usually hampers a team that likes to push the pace, and committed only six turnovers of their own — again seemingly depriving their opponents of oxygen.

And yet, Saint Mary’s found itself trailing Bellarmine 55-54 with about five minutes left in the game, having surrendered an 11-point second half lead. Yes, they righted themselves down the stretch to win by nine, 73-64, but questions abound.

Sometimes you’ve gotta make a bucket

Such as, how does a team that considers itself an in-and-out threat — score down low, then pass outside to willing shooters who add three-pointers to the mix — survive by shooting 5-25 on three-pointers? Barely, it turns out. It wasn’t until Alex Ducas sank a corner three-pointer with 2:19 left to give Saint Mary’s a 65-59 lead that Coach Randy Bennett could once again consider his team a three-point threat.

Ducas had handled the ignominy of shooting 1-6 on three-pointers until that point with aplomb, staying positive, never dropping his head. But he revealed the frustration he has felt over continuing poor shooting since opening strong against Prairie View when he went to the bench for a time out following his huge bucket.

Before taking his seat, Ducas pounded the (fortunately) padded seat with his fist, as if to say, “See, stupid, it’s easy to make the ball go though the hoop. Why not do it more often.”

He wasn’t alone in shooting hell. Logan Johnson went 0-3 from distance, Kyle Bowen, a pleasant early-season addition to the ranks of distance bombers, went 0-2, Dan Fotu 0-3, and Jabe Mullins, who has seemed determined to play his way onto the court by sinking three-pointers, missed his first four before finally sinking one.

Besides Ducas with his lowly 2-7, only tried and true warrior Tommy Kuhse made more than one three-pointer, sinking a respectable 2-4 en route to a 15-point, six-assist night. As if hearing — and responding — to fan whispers about his certain replacement by freshman Augustas Marciulionis, Kuhse has put together back-to-back games of 17 and 15 points against Southern Utah and Bellarmine. Marciulionis wasn’t a factor against Bellarmine, with no points and no assists in 11 minutes of action.

Tass has a perfect night

Another Gael veteran hearing whispers might have been senior post man Matthias Tass, who lumbered through a pedestrian effort against Southern Utah with zero points and three rebounds in 21 minutes. Tass was his usual unruffled self against Bellarmine, continually looking over the court from his position in the low blocks, moving on the basket only after satisfying himself that there weren’t any better options.

When he did move, he did so effectively, sinking 8-8 field goal attempts and converting 9-11 free throws to score a career-high 25 points. The latter stat was particularly relevant given the inability of the usually reliable Johnson to make his free throws, missing eight of 12 attempts. Overall, the Gaels shot well from the free throw line, making 20-31. A few more makes from Johnson and that percentage would have been higher.

It would be comforting for Saint Mary’s to brush off the close call against Bellarmine as just one of those things — the fourth game in a row on the home court, the last stop before heading into national attention against Notre Dame in the Maui Invitational, Vegas-style, next Monday.

But Gael fans must have their doubts about how well this team has come along in the early going. Although Bellarmine raised a lot of eyebrows last year in the first year of transition to D-1 status by battling Liberty for the ASUN Conference title down to the last game (Liberty won), and accepting a bid to the CBI post-season tournament (where they lost to Pepperdine), they have not exactly been killing it so far this season. They were slaughtered on the road by Purdue, 96-67, then cut the margin of defeat to 19 (78-59) against Murray State, The Team That Used to Have Isaiah Canaan.

Again, the Gaels did not succumb to Bellarmine’s challenging style, they simply failed to convert a reasonable percentage of their shots from three-point distance. The sight of Leemet Bockler wearing a boot on the foot (or ankle) he injured against Southern Utah was not comforting, as the reality of a struggling Ducas reinforces the need for Saint Mary’s to improve its three-point shooting.

Bockler was already targeted by Coach Bennett for return to full action only by January. The latest setback puts that plan in jeopardy, and makes fans wonder where the Gaels are to turn for reliable outside shooting as they head to Las Vegas. Quinn Clinton, who has been a forgotten man this year with the addition of Marciulionis, provided a boost to the Gael offense last season, but has barely gotten on the floor so far in 2021. Would Bennett consider turning to Clinton and his smooth three-point stroke if Ducas continues to struggle?

The answer probably lies with the improvement or continued slump, of Bowen, Mullins and Fotu. Sometimes you gotta make a bucket, and Gael fans can be excused for wondering if that is going to happen as the season rolls on.

Tommy Kuhse, shown above in a game against USF in a previous season, has put together back-to-back double-digit games for the Gaels. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Coming together

by Michael Vernetti

The 84 PPG Southern Utah Thunderbirds brought their run-and-gun offense to Moraga Monday night, and leapt to an 8-4 lead over Saint Mary’s.

Gael Coach Randy Bennett used a media time-out with 16:42 left in the half to remind his charges what they’re all about. Maybe he spelled it out on his ever-present whiteboard: D-E-F-E-N-S-E.

It worked. Southern Utah scored only eight more points in the REST OF THE HALF, the Gaels sputtering offense (29 per cent shooting) managed 29 points of its own, and Saint Mary’s was on its way to a 70-51 victory.

The Gaels’ freshman guard, Augustas Marciulionis, disrupted the Thunderbirds with three steals in the first half, and his teammates held the other guys to an even lower percentage than Saint Mary’s could manage, 28 per cent, and a 1-10 effort on three-point attempts. Remember when some Gael fans were expressing concern over Marciulionis’s defense after the Blue-White team scrimmage?

They can stop worrying, as “Goose” has found his way to Bennett’s heart with an amped-up defensive posture to go with his team-high five assists, and a feel for when to take important shots. As the Gaels clanked attempt after attempt in the first half, Marciulionis calmly sank two of their three first-half three-pointers to give them some breathing room.

Marciulionis was joined in the steal parade with Logan Johnson, who had three of his own, to give the Gaels a pair of back court thieves that should cause opposing guards to tread softly. The third member of the Gael back court rotation, Tommy Kuhse, failed to register an assist — previously his leadership domain — but settled for leading the team with 17 points on 7-15 shooting, including 3-5 from three-point range.

This trio has become the Gaels’ most solid unit, sharing court time, stats and highlight plays. Marciulionis totaled 26 minutes against Southern Utah to Kuhse’s 19 and Johnson’s 31, but they seem to have worked out a court-sharing system that is working smoothly. They scored a combined 38 points against Southern Utah, and that was with Marciulionis going scoreless in the second half. He concentrated on shredding Southern Utah’s defense, while Johnson attacked the rim with his customary gusto and Kuhse continued to show the effects of off-season concentration on his shooting form.

The rest of the story

Outside the back court, the Gaels’ most consistent star continued to be senior Dan Fotu, who has taken four years of switching positions and learning to keep his fouls under control to become an all-conference contender. Fotu went 6-10 against Southern Utah for 12 points, and pulled down a team-high seven rebounds in just 21 minutes.

Fotu is playing with a noticeable spring in his step this season, indicating that he knows he is capable of something special every night. Because back-up center Mitchell Saxen has not yet played because of a nagging back ailment, Fotu has had to spend some time in the post spelling starter Matthias Tass. No problem, as he has attacked the rim with strength and confidence, even as he has steadied his three-point approach to produce more consistent results.

Alex Ducas is another Gael who seems reborn after the Covid funk that derailed the Gaels last season. Ducas, a natural wing with a lightning-quick release on the three-ball, was just rounding into form that promised a run at team scoring leadership when he suffered a high ankle sprain against Colorado State in December. That was effectively it for him, as he didn’t return until the Gaels’ final games and struggled to regain his form.

Ducas seems to have dedicated the off-season to streamlining his body by paring bulk around the middle and strengthening his upper arms and shoulders. Whatever the formula, he resembles Fotu in his enthusiasm for playing. As was the case last season, Ducas is struggling with consistency on his three-pointer in the early going, but he is not dragging his head about it. He, too, has increased the defensive intensity, and he seems determined to become an all-around offensive threat instead of just a long-distance bomber. After going 0-5 from three-point range in the first half against Southern Utah, Ducas scored three tough buckets underneath, and netted two three-pointers in the second half.

Question marks

As well as the Gaels played defensively against Southern Utah, and as well as Kuhse, Johnson, Marciulionis and Fotu played offensively, there were several question marks after last night’s game. Kyle Bowen, who has added a deadly three-point stroke to accompany his stellar defense and rebounding this season, fired a goose egg. He took only three shots, all of them three-pointers, and missed all of them.

Not that Bowen was useless, as he tied Fotu with seven rebounds and handed out four assists to go along with three blocks and a steal. Bowen continues to anchor the Gaels’ back line, and we can probably chalk up his scoreless outing to an early-season hiccup. But what about Tass?

The 6’10” Estonian center was an enigma against Southern Utah, rekindling worries that he is feeling the pain from the torn ACL he suffered as a sophomore and re-injured in the Gaels’ NIT loss to Western Kentucky last March. Tass earned his teammates’ respect for the way in which he recovered from a second procedure on his knee and retained his starting position this season, but he was a shadow of himself Monday night: one shot (missed), three rebounds and two assists in 21 minutes.

With Bowen drawing a similar blank, the two pre-eminent Gael big men compiled a line no one hopes to see again — zero points from two starters. When Tass appears shaky, the focus intensifies on Saxen, who shone as a backup center in his freshman season but has not taken part in any action this year. Gael fans were heartened to see Saxen dressed and participating in warm-ups before the Southern Utah contest — and looking none the worse for wear throughout an hour’s worth of shooting drills and conditioning exercises.

But Saxen took up a position at the end of the Gaels’ bench when the game started and never drew a nod from Bennett as the game went on. With just one more warm-up before facing Notre Dame in the opening game of the Maui Invitational — Las Vegas version — next Monday, the Gaels are giving fans some early-season palpitations. Nothing would do more to rev up some Thanksgiving week enthusiasm for the Maui contests than to see Tass strong and Saxen available to back him up against Bellarmine in Moraga on Wednesday night.

Here’s hoping.

Logan Johnson, shown above twisting into one of his patented breakneck drives against Southern Utah, totaled 13 points, six rebounds and three steals against the Thunderbirds. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Gaels 2, SWAC 0

by Michael Vernetti

The prevailing sentiment of Gael fans leaving Moraga after Friday’s 67-58 victory over Texas Southern was probably something like, “Damn, we looked awful against these guys. I guess my optimism over beating Prairie View on Tuesday was misplaced.”

Wrong on both counts.

That Saint Mary’s struggled mightily against Texas Southern, pre-season pick as Southwestern Athletic Conference champion and possessor of a first-round NCAA win (over Mount St. Mary’s of Indiana) last season, was a function of two factors. One, they’re good, and two, they had a chance to plot the Gaels’ downfall by analyzing Saint Mary’s opening-season 87-68 win over Prairie View on Tuesday (the flu bug kept me in bed for most of the week and prevented a column on that game — but I watched it on the WCC Network).

Prairie View and Texas Southern are like Saint Mary’s and BYU in the WCC — arch-rivals and bitter competitors for post-season berths. Texas Southern knows Prairie View, and could glean a few helpful hints from their blowout at the hands of the Gaels. The first thing was forget scouting reports that discounted Alex Ducas, Kyle Bowen and Jabe Mullins as three-point threats.

Ducas was out of action last season from early December to late February, and was awful when he returned for the last few games, although he seemed to return to form for a few minutes in the Gaels’ NIT loss to Western Kentucky. Bowen was horrible from the three-point line last year, making just 15 of 62 attempts — 24 per cent. Defenses soon learned to slack off and dare him to shoot. And Mullins struggled to figure out his place in the Gaels’ rotation as a freshman.

Putting the clamps on

Prairie View was undoubtedly surprised that Ducas, Bowen and Mullins combined for nine three-pointers, led by Ducas’ six. Although Ducas started off as if he were going to continue hot from distance against Texas Southern, sinking his first effort in the early going, that was it for him. He missed his next four attempts, the last two so badly they didn’t even draw iron, as Texas Southern succeeded in depriving Ducas of good looks.

Ducas was probably foremost in Gael Coach Randy Bennett’s mind when he commented after the game, “Our shot selection in the first half was terrible.” As in 10-31 (32 per cent) terrible.

The veteran coach resolved that problem in the second half, demanding that his charges pound the ball inside to center Matthias Tass and power forward Dan Fotu. It wasn’t easy, but the Gaels eventually overcome a three-point halftime deficit and bolted ahead by 16 points (63-47) with 3:36 minutes left (for comparison purposes, that lead roughly equals the 17-point margin by which 13th-ranked Oregon beat Texas Southern on Tuesday).

The Gael offense was essentially a series of cuts into the lane with Tass triggering the attack by either hitting a cutter, Logan Johnson in particular, or muscling up against Texas Southern forward Joirdon Karl Nicholas. Tass ended the night with 12 points on 5-8 shooting, and, more importantly, four assists, which led the Gaels.

Fotu to the fore

Complementing Tass on the inside, and supplementing him on the outside, was Fotu, the senior from New Zealand who has assumed the Gaels’ scoring leadership after two games with 33 points. Fotu had 19 points to lead the Gaels against Texas Southern, and has combined toughness in the paint with efficiency from three-point range, making 3-5 from long-distance over two games. He also made Texas Southern pay for roughing him up in the paint, sinking 8-9 free throw attempts. And he led the Gaels in rebounding with nine, to lead a comeback from a 19-17 rebound deficit to a 36-32 advantage by game’s end.

Trailing Fotu only slightly with 15 points was Johnson, who has assumed spiritual leadership of the Gaels even though veteran guard Tommy Kuhse controls the offense from his point guard position. Johnson is fearless in attacking the basket, and feeds off particularly gnarly encounters with various defenders. His outbursts after stirring assaults on the basket would probably not be tolerated in the taunt-conscious NFL, but are loved by his teammates and fans.

That threesome, Fotu, Johnson and Tass, constituted a strong offensive thrust against Texas Southern, followed slightly by the much-improved Bowen, who almost matched his opening-night near double-double (12 points, nine rebounds) with nine points and seven rebounds.

Anyone who doubts that Bowen has markedly improved his three-point shooting need only arrive in Moraga early enough to watch the Gaels in pre-game shooting drills. Those drills are excessive, giving each player dozens of shots from every spot on the floor. Even against established sharpshooters such as Ducas, Bowen emerges as the most consistent three-point shooter on the team. He has become a legitimate three-point threat, which dramatically alters the playing field in the Gaels’ favor as the season unwinds.

Looking ahead

The Gaels continue their march to the relocated Maui Invitational Tournament in Las Vegas Nov. 22-24 with a pair of home games next week against Southern Utah and Bellarmine. Southern Utah’s pre-season resume was similar to that of Prairie View/Texas Southern, as it was picked to repeat as Big Sky Conference champion, and its best player, Tevian Jones, was projected as conference Player of the Year.

Some of the luster was dimmed by Southern Utah’s loss last night to D-1 newcomer Dixie State by 83-76, but the Thunderbirds nevertheless placed three players on the pre-season all-conference list, John Knight III and Maizen Fausett along with Jones. Thus, the Gaels face a highly-rated competitor from a lesser conference, one that will have added incentive to upset Bennett’s boys on their home court.

That the Gaels are quite a distance from the eventual team they hope to become has been highlighted in the first two games by glancing at two players who are nursing injuries, center Mitchell Saxen and wing Leemet Bockler. Saxen, dealing with a chronic bad back, was in civvies for the second time against Texas Southern, and Bockler, although active in pre-game warm-ups and having seen some action against Prairie View, also is coming along slowly after surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot.

The assimilation of Augustas Marciulionis into the Gael attack also continued fitfully against Texas Southern. Although trailing Kuhse only slightly in minutes played, 19 to 25, Marciulionis had only a single free throw to go along with three assists, second behind Tass. He also let his temper get the better of him in several chippy encounters with Texas Southern players, culminating in a technical foul in the closing seconds of the game called for throwing the basketball at Southern guard John Jones.

Jones had fouled Marciulionis roughly on a breakaway, for which he was assessed an intentional foul, which would have given Marciulionis two free throws and the Gaels possession of the ball. Because of the outburst from Marciulionis, however, Jones was awarded two free throws, which he made, while Marciulionis sank only one of his free throws and the Gaels failed to capitalize on the extra possession.

Bennett is building his team into a contender for a lofty finish in the WCC, for which they will complete with number-one ranked Gonzaga and an ascendent — at least in their minds — BYU. With Saxen, Bockler and Marciulionis successfully integrated into the Gael lineup, Bennett can much more easily help the Gaels achieve their dreams.

Bennett can envision lineups that feature two nearly equal players at each position: Tass/Saxen in the post, Bowen/Fotu at power forward, Ducas/Bockler at the wing, Johnson/Jabe Mullins at the off-guard and Kuhse/Marciulionis at the point. That’s a vision worth pursuing, and making it come true is what these early games are all about.

Senior forward Dan Fotu, shown above scoring against Texas Southern last night, has emerged as a scoring and rebounding leader for the Gaels after two games. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

All together again

by Michael Vernetti

The closest Randy Bennett came to excusing the performance of his Saint Mary’s Gaels in the Covid-addled 2020-21 season was a rueful comment: “This was not a good year to be young.”

Bennett was acknowledging the effect of Covid restrictions on spring and summer team events, including NCAA-authorized practices, six cancelled games, no fans in the stands, and a host of other headaches the Gaels shared with every other college basketball team competing during the pandemic.

The added complication for Saint Mary’s was unusual roster disruption between the 2019-20 season and last year, with five rotation players — including stars Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts — leaving the squad. Ford graduated and Fitts felt the cold breath of age falling upon his NBA dreams, so opted for the NBA draft. But Jock Perry, Elijah Thomas and Kristers Zoriks departed with eligibility left in Moraga, not a normal occurrence for the Gaels. Enter five new faces for 20-21, faces who in normal times would have basked in the care and feeding of heavy summer workouts, intense one-on-one interaction with coaches and a predictable, distraction-free practice schedule once the season officially opened in October of 2020.

Denied parts of all those luxuries, Bennett had to scramble to prepare newcomers Jabe Mullins, Mitchell Saxen, Judah Brown, Leemet Bockler and Matt Van Komen for immediate service. As rookie-laden teams throughout the country experienced, it was a tough challenge. Bennett found some consolation in the failure of big-time programs such as Duke and Kentucky — who are more experienced than the Gaels in revising rosters year-to-year — to make the NCAA Tournament in 2021. It was that kind of a year, and his 14-10 record with a number 2 seeding in the NIT was the result.

That was then...

All that was forgotten Friday night as Bennett introduced the 21-22 Gaels to fans — actual, breathing fans — for an intra-squad scrimmage on the home court formerly known as McKeon Pavilion. They’re back, they’re battle-hardened and they’re out to leave last season as far behind as possible.

It’s not wise to use an intra-squad game as a predictor of a team’s success, or even of individual players’ potential, because the combatants know each other too well. The Gaels have been practicing since late September, have scrimmaged two tough opponents in Arizona and Stanford — no results available, sorry — and simply can’t be beaten on back-door cuts that they’ve seen a hundred times over the past several weeks.

Data point: there were 12 steals and 18 turnovers in Friday’s game, which the White team (nominally the second team) won 67-59 in overtime over the first-stringers wearing blue jerseys. Yes, it was sloppy, because the defenders know just about every more the other guys are going to make. Even veteran playmaker Tommy Kuhse, sporting a buzz cut a Marine recruit would be proud of, managed only one assist in 28 minutes on the floor.

The Blue-White scrimmage is a showcase, to introduce new faces — Augustas Marciulionis and Chris Howell — assess injury recovery — a key issue for the Gaels — and see how veterans such as Kuhse, Logan Johnson, Dan Fotu, Matthias Tass and Kyle Bowen look.

Injury report

On the injury front, the news was mostly good for the Gaels. Alex Ducas, who recovered from a high ankle sprain toward the end of last season and looked back in form during the Gaels NIT contest against Western Kentucky (L69-67), has lost weight and gained muscle over the off-season, and seems eager to regain his position as a team scoring leader. Ducas got off to a slow start, went scoreless in the first half, then erupted for 12 points in the second half, including a corner three-pointer that sent the game into overtime. He added eight rebounds for his 31 minutes on the floor.

His fellow wing, Bockler, who went down with a foot injury the same week that Ducas suffered the ankle sprain, is a little behind Ducas, having returned to full practice only a few weeks ago. Bennett limited Bockler to a little under eight minutes in the scrimmage, and his shot looked rusty as he missed two attempts badly. But in warmups and while on the floor, Bockler showed no lasting effects from the injury, running and jumping freely and trying to out-smile everyone else on the team.

Bringing back painful memories of last year’s MASH-like sideline, when Ducas, Bockler and walk-on Luke Barrett were all hobbling with crutches and/or casts, transfer center Van Komen was rolling along on a scooter to protect his left foot, which was injured in practice. Bennett has indicated he will redshirt Van Komen this year, hoping to have him return — all 7’4″ of him — healthy next season.

On the freak injury front, reserve center Saxen, who spelled Tass admirably as a freshman last year, appeared to injure his hand while dunking during pre-game warm-ups. He did not play in the scrimmage, and fans may get a chance to gauge the extent of the injury while shaking hands with him at tonight’s Tip-Off Dinner in the Soda Center on campus.

The big M

No, it’s not Momentum — we’ll have to see how that develops — but it is something that may become more important. Despite the warnings about predicting too much based on an intra-squad scrimmage, I’m willing to guess that Marciulionis is going to have an impact of Mills-like, Delly-like or McConnell-like proportions. It wasn’t just that he led all scorers with 20 points on 7-8 shooting and overcame his teammates caginess with six assists, it was his presence.

Marciulionis is of blue-blood basketball stock, being the son of ex-Warrior great Sarunas Marciulionis, and he wore that lineage throughout the scrimmage. He was born to have the ball in his hands, and he attacks defenses with daring and aplomb. He is always pressuring the lane, from either the left or right side, always looking for a weakness, and able to finish on his own with a drive, pull-up or three-pointer — he attempted only two, making, one, but possesses a smooth stroke that looks to be designed for distance shooting.

Gael assistant Justin Joyner, who coached Marciulionis’s White team, knew what he had, and kept the freshman on the floor for nearly 35 minutes. The Blue team tried to slow him down by switching Johnson onto him after Kuhse, a good defender, gave it a try, but it made little difference. Marciulionis is unruffled by pressure, and has the kind of ball control that makes it seem as if the ball is an extension of his hand. His low dribble in tight spots is a marvel to behold, as he seems to maneuver in and out of trouble with ease.

Kuhse and Johnson started at guard for the Blue team, along with Ducas, Fotu and Tass, and this group will probably start against a dangerous Prairie View team in the season opener next Tuesday (Nov. 9). But Bennett is no fool, and loyalty to Kuhse or not, will get Marciulionis on the floor early and often.

About Prairie View

Cynical Gael fans may have looked at the team’s early schedule and said to themselves, “A Bennett classic, four patsies leading up to the re-diected Maui Invitational opening Nov. 22 in Las Vegas.” I’m not going to make any excuses for Southern Utah or Bellarmine (no, it’s not the San Jose high school, but a D-1 college in Louisville which lost to Pepperdine 82-71 in last season’s CBI tournament), but don’t disregard Prairie View or the Gaels’ second opponent, Texas Southern, which comes to Moraga on Nov. 12.

Prairie View has won back-to-back regular season titles in the SWAC, going 13-0 in conference play last season and losing to Texas Southern in the tournament championship. Texas Southern, whom the Gaels defeated at home last year 82-70, won its first-round NCAA game against Mount Saint Mary’s of Indiana.

Prairie View boasts the SWAC’s Preseason Player of the Year in 6’7″ guard Jawaun Daniels, and will come to Moraga with upset on its mind. Ditto Texas Southern, so don’t let complacency keep you away from the Gaels’ first appearance in Moraga since February of 2020. Bring your vax card and mask, and ring in a new season of Gael hoops.

Senior forward Dan Fotu, shown above in a game from an earlier season, is one of the veteran returnees for the Gaels as they embark on the 21-22 season. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Uh oh

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

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

Sensational Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is the Gaels small forward?

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

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

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

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

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

On to the WCC (Covid permitting)

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

Ducas and Bockler sidelined

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

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

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

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

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

What do San Diego State and Sacramento State tell us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can tough defense offset weak scoring?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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