Gut punch

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

Killer stretch

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

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

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

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

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

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

More of the same

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

Shooting themselves in the foot

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

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

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

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

Boola, boola

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Mary’s in control

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

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

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

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

As for the rest

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

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

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

Saxen surging

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ol’ rope-a-dope

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

The Saint Mary’s approach

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of the story

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

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

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

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

Mr. Johnson’s contribution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giant step backwards

by Michael Vernetti

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

You’d be wrong.

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

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

Breaking it down

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last gasp

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

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

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

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

The prognosis

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

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

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

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

Finally

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall lineup solidifying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not there yet

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of the story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the doghouse to the penthouse

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tale of two halves

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

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

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

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

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

What did Bennett say?

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

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

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

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

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

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.