ALBANY, NY. — The opening game of Friday’s first round between St. Mary’s and VCU here in MVP Arena was going almost as expected, when two things happened that changed the course of the afternoon.
It turned out he had strained an Achilles’ tendon, and even though he attempted to come back a few minutes later — and even made a shot — he couldn’t continue as his team’s hopes were fading.
“He gave it his best shot, but he couldn’t push off at all,” VCU Coach Mike Rhoades said after St. Mary’s (27-7) cruised to a 63-51 victory. “He wanted to play, and we needed him to play, but he just couldn’t do it.”
The second key to the outcome was more subtle: the play of St. Mary’s sophomore Augustas Marciulionis, the Gaels’ third guard. With star Aidan Mahaney in foul trouble and having a tough day shooting — he missed all five of his attempts from the field — Marciulionis was a spark off the bench. He played 22 minutes — 15 of them in the second half — and scored 13 points, grabbing three rebounds and committing just one turnover despite doing most of his team’s ballhandling.
“We’re going to need him to be one of our main guys next season for sure,” St. Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett said. “With Aidan struggling, we really needed him today. Normally, I would have brought Aidan back for the last five minutes, but Augustas was playing so well, I decided to ride with him. He saved us.”
If the name Marciulionis sounds familiar, it is because he is the son of a basketball icon — Lithuania’s Sarunas Marciulionis, who starred on the Soviet Union team that upset the United States in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and then, after the Soviet Union fell, played on Lithuanian teams in the next two Olympics that won bronze medals.
I met Marciulionis in Seoul in 1988 and spent a good deal of time with him. His English was excellent — as opposed to my Lithuanian — and we talked often. One day, after we finished, I proudly said to him “Spasibo” — Russian for thank you. He put up a hand and said: “Stop. I’m Lithuanian. It’s ‘Aciu.’ ”
I never forgot.
Augustas is not as good as his father, a Hall of Famer who spent eight years in the NBA, most memorably with the Golden State Warriors. But he’s a smart, heady guard who, as Bennett said, is expected to do big things for the Gaels in the next two seasons.
Bennett and the elder Marciulionis got to know one another while both were in the Bay Area, and they became friends. When Marciulionis retired after the 1997 season, he moved back to Vilnius and started a basketball academy. The two men remained in touch.
“First time I went to Vilnius, Augustas was 1,” Bennett said, laughing. “I remember him in his car seat, but honestly, I didn’t pay much attention to him. I came back when he was 17, and I paid a lot of attention to him.”
Augustas began to play when he was 6 and liked the game right away. But he said his father never pushed him to play. “He always said it was all up to me,” Augustas said. “If I wanted to play, he would try to help me. But it was always about me.
“When I started to really like playing, he didn’t work out with me very often, but we would watch games on TV all the time, and he would point out little things to me, things I should try to do and things I should try not to do. I learned a lot.”
He also learned early that his father was an icon in Lithuania but that bragging about it wasn’t allowed.
“When I first started to play, I found out that my dad had been a very big star,” he said. “I was proud and began to tell all my friends that my father was Sarunas Marciulionis.” He paused and laughed. “My parents found out that I was bragging. And then told me to stop — or else. I stopped.”
Bennett has been at St. Mary’s for 22 seasons; Friday’s victory was his 507th, in the opening game of his ninth NCAA tournament. He has been overshadowed in the West Coast Conference by future Hall of Famer Mark Few, whose Gonzaga teams have been to 24 straight NCAAs, as well as two national title games.
Bennett has recruited internationally since he first got to the Contra Costa County school. In addition to Marciulionis, two of Friday’s starters were from Australia; Bennett also has recruited players from Eastern Europe and New Zealand, as well as NBA standout Patty Mills, another Australian.
“I never got to visit St. Mary’s because of covid,” Marciulionis said. “But I felt comfortable with the idea of playing for Coach Bennett because he was friends with my dad. Plus, I knew he recruited a lot of players from around the world, and I liked that idea.”
Those players seem to bring a joy to the game that is often missing among American players.
As VCU’s Jalen DeLoach prepared to inbound to start the second half, the Gaels’ Alex Ducas, who is from Geraldton in Western Australia, stood in front of him singing. “I love to sing,” he said, laughing. “I do it all the time.”
Ducas was singing “Intro,” by rapper Meek Mill. DeLoach enjoyed it almost as much as Ducas. “He said to me, ‘I didn’t realize that rap had gotten out to Australia yet,’ ” Ducas said. “He loved it.”
As it turned out, the game wasn’t over when Baldwin went down a few minutes later. The Rams (27-8) kept scrapping, but without Baldwin and with Marciulionis calmly running the offense, the Gaels steadily pulled away.
Rhoades, usually calm on the bench, could feel the game slipping away and did something he had rarely done in his six years as VCU’s coach: He picked up a technical foul.
“They clearly missed a foul inside,” he said, walking down the hallway afterward. “I said, ‘Come on, call it!’ ” He paused and added, “Then I said, ‘F---.’ ”
Rhoades’s frustration was understandable. His team was under-seeded as a No. 12 even though it won the Atlantic 10 by three games and then won the conference tournament. The committee didn’t do St. Mary’s any favors, either, sending it across the country as a No. 5 seed.
The Gaels survived because they are tough, experienced and well coached; because they made it almost impossible for VCU to score inside; and because they got an excellent performance from a player with a famous last name who wasn’t supposed to be a star until next season.
When I finished interviewing Marciulionis in front of his locker, I shook his hand and said “Aciu.”
He smiled and said, “My father would be proud of you.”