Needing to win at least one of their final two games of the regular season to make the playoffs, the SPU men’s basketball team lost at both Western Washington and Simon Fraser. This marked the end of the Falcon’s injury-ridden season and Grant Leep’s first year as Head Coach.
“I have been working for this for a very long time, but not only for it to happen period, but for it to happen at a place that I truly love working was a thrill for me,” Head Coach Grant Leep said.
The Falcon’s 8-12 conference record was not enough to qualify for the six-team GNAC Tournament. Likewise, the Falcon’s 12-16 overall record was not enough to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, snapping a 12-year playoff streak (first time since 2004) and ending the longest active streak in Division II men’s basketball.
Despite the tough season, the Falcons had many bright spots. First-year forward Tony Miller was named the GNAC’s 2017 Freshman of the Year, and redshirt sophomore forward Coleman Wooten and senior center Joe Rasmussen were placed on the all-league honorable mention list.
In their first matchup last week, the Falcons lost to WWU 87-89. SPU started the game on a 6-0 run, but wound up trailing by nine points at half despite a 16-point, seven rebound first-half by Miller (29 points and 15 rebounds).
The Falcons came out of the locker room freezing, only netting seven points in eight minutes, putting the them behind by a daunting 19 points.
Sparked by great shooting from sophomore forward Hunter Eisenhower, who scored 14 points (all in the second half) on 4-5 from beyond the arc (5-6 from the field), SPU made a run at first-place WWU to try to save their season.
“Eisenhower came into both of these last two games and made a huge difference,” first-year guard Gavin Long said. “He was able to provide a spark off the bench with draining threes.”
The Falcons closed out the game on a 45-28 run. They even pulled within one point with six seconds left on a Miller dunk.
“As our guys have done all year long, they just came together and things were really clicking for us offensively, and we battled back, we battled all the way back,” Leep said.
After a pair of made WWU free-throws (putting WWU up by three), with the Falcons out of timeouts, first-year guard Sharif Khan went to the line with the intent to make one free-throw and miss the second, which is exactly what he did. Khan pulled down the rebound and threw up a desperation shot to send the game into overtime, but the Falcon’s spectacular comeback fell just short as Khan’s shot careened off the backboard.
“We just fell a couple of points short,” Leep said.
“We played a great game, just didn’t get the outcome we hoped for,” senior guard Will Parker said.
Another notable performance in the loss was Long’s 17 points, five rebounds, three assists, one steal and one block. Wooten, returning from a bad illness, contributed only four points, but he helped distribute the ball with eight assists.
After the loss to WWU, the Falcon’s needed a win at SMU and three other teams to lose. As it happened, all three teams lost, opening the playoff window for the Falcons.
If SPU won their last game, they would have had the tiebreaker over the other three teams tied for the final playoff spot (all at 9-11). Unfortunately, with the pressure of the season on the line, the Falcon’s road struggles reemerged and SPU fell to Simon Fraser 82-93.
“Winning on the road is tough; I don’t care if you are playing the first-place team or the last-place team, when you are on the road, it’s just different. It’s a difficult game, so credit to them playing as well as they did,” Leep said.
With SPU in a must-win situation, SFU stepped up for a hard fight.
“I felt like Simon Fraser came out with a lot of energy, and we didn’t match it,” Parker said. “It was their senior night, and we were playing for our season, so I was a little disappointed in that regard.”
SPU trailed nearly the whole game but made a push toward the end of the second half, even tying the game at one point, only to see the gap widen again.
“We came out pressing, trying to do too much, trying to be too fine with what we were doing, rather than just kind of trusting and relying on each other,” Leep said.
Long had another great game on the season scoring a team-high 24 points. Miller added 18 points and 11 rebounds to go along with Wooten’s 18 points, six rebounds and five assists. The three players’ contributions were all for naught in the loss.
“I thought that [Long] did a great job for us in this game,” Parker said. “He has such a high motor; the guy never quits. He’s someone that is really easy to play with.”
The most glaring disparity in the game was bench scoring, as SFU outscored SPU by 28 points (12-40).
“The SFU game was a heartbreaker,” Long said. “We just didn’t have it that night, and it ended up costing us. SFU capitalized on every mistake we made on the defensive end. We struggled with turnovers and bad shots, but we were still able to compete and make it a game despite those things.”
“We needed a win plus some help … we tried as best we could to focus on the one thing we could control (the SPU-SMU game) … unfortunately, we did not do our part,” Leep said. “When you want a game like that, want it really bad, we went away from some of the things that had been really working for us.”
Next year, the Falcons’ prospects are looking up, as their team is very young (only two of 12 on the roster will be seniors), and is returning multiple injured/redshirt players, their two leading scorers Wooten (17 PPG) and Miller (19 PPG) and their best two-way player, Long.
In addition to those key parts, sophomore forward Nathan Streufert, Khan and Eisenhower will be returning and looking to contribute.
“We are returning a lot of guys, and we are going to be very dangerous,” Long said. “It was tough losing a lot of close games, and I think now that we have experienced what that feels like, I think it is not going to happen as much as it did this year.”
“I think we are close; we have some very good foundational pieces to build with,” Leep said. “We are very pleased with what we have … there are some things to be excited about.”
Though the seniors will be greatly missed, the Falcons’ young players were baptized by fire this past season, forced to play a large amount of minutes due to injury.
“Our team has matured a ton since the beginning,” Long said. “With no returning starters, everyone on the entire team was thrust into an unfamiliar role, and, overall, we did a nice job of accepting those new roles.”
“I don’t know how you couldn’t be proud of those guys [the underclassmen on the team],” Parker said. “Everyone that played this year had an increase in minutes significantly. I was proud of our entire team. We were resilient.”
The Falcons will focus their efforts on getting healthy and strong and preparing for next season.
“It’s going to take a lot of hard work; it’s going to take a lot of effort. Guys are going to have to be very focused and purposeful in what they do,” Leep said. “But we have a group that really wants to improve and wants to get better, and we should have to shortage of motivation … we are ready and excited to go again.”