MORAGA — After dropping five of its last six games, Saint Mary’s needed a spark.
After playing one of the tougher schedules in the WCC, the Gaels stood at 3-5 heading into another tough part of their schedule where they will have to play No. 13 Colorado State on Saturday and a tough UNLV team seven days after.
But that spark came in Tuesday’s game against Cleveland State.
Saint Mary’s center Mitchell Saxen tied his career-high when he dropped 20 points to go along with 8 rebounds and 3 blocks in a 70-57 home win.
“Feels really good,” Saxen said after Tuesday’s win. “Just playing at home in front of these fans was awesome. So just to get them out there feels good.”
Saxen had rough outings in the two games before Cleveland State. He averaged just 6.5 points and only took 13 shots.
But against Cleveland State, he was dominant.
Saxen started off the game scoring six of the Gaels first 13 points. He was able to get to the line early and often while also contributing on the boards.
Defensively, Saxen was a force near the rim. The Vikings’ offense is predicated on getting to the rim, but Saxen’s presence was enough for the Gaels to hold Cleveland State to just 24.2% from the field in the first half.
Saxen ended the first half with 17 points en route to a 20-point lead at halftime.
When the Vikings started to key in on Saxen in the second half, the 7-footer became more of a defensive presence. He only scored 3 second half points, but teammates praised Saxen for being a veteran leader to help close out the game.
Saxen was at his best when he could post smaller defenders on each block. The Gaels used flex screens to post Saxen against smaller forwards and the playcalling paid off.
In the pick and roll, Saxen is not the lob threat that backup center Mason Forbes is, but his ability to set solid screens helped point guards Aidan Mahaney and Augustas Marciulionis break free to make plays in the open floor.
The Gaels are going to need Saxen as conference play gets closer.
If the big man can score and block shots at a consistent level, the Gaels could be back to the NCAA tournament for the third straight year. But more up and down play only puts more pressure on Mahaney and forward Alex Ducas to continue to play high minutes as the season goes on.
“I want to see him dominate,” said coach Randy Bennett.
“He’s trying to take the next step up as a player. And in the first eight games, he hasn’t really been inconsistent. His effort has to be very good every night. Tonight, that’s what he should look like.”