Simon Fraser's Wilfried Balata (10) and Elliot Dimaculangan had plenty to celebrate Thursday after a rally from 22 points down carried SFU to a last-second win over the St. Martin's Saints. (Photo by Wilson Wong property of SFU athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)
Feature University Men's Basketball

After frigid start, Simon Fraser rallies from 22 points down to stun visiting St. Martin’s! Says point guard David Penney: “Now we know we have another gear we can get to!”

BURNABY — It wasn’t exactly a first half that you would put alongside the most inspiring in the history of Simon Fraser men’s basketball.

In fact, it ebbed low enough about four minutes from halftime that the home team was staring a 22-point deficit straight in the eye Wednesday evening at the West Gym against the visiting St. Martin’s Saints.

The beauty of it from the home team’s perspective, however, came from  how something so unspectacular in the first half could morph into something as utterly revelatory in the second half.

After falling behind 2-0 off the opening tip, SFU trailed for what was basically the entire game, not taking its first lead until guard Elliot Dimaculangan somehow got a short jumper along the baseline to find favour and fall through the rim with five seconds remaining.

It gave Simon Fraser a 64-63 lead that would soon become the final score.

Understanding those dynamics all too well, SFU head coach Steve Hanson couldn’t help but greet the media with a well-timed one-liner following the win.

“Thanks for staying for the first half,” he said beaming after his team’s dramatic win over the Saints (7-5) evened SFU’s Great Northwest Athletic Conference record at 5-5 and snapped a two-game losing streak ahead of Saturday’s 3 p.m. home clash against the Western Oregon Wolves.

Hanson wouldn’t have taken if personally if anyone did leave after an opening 20 minutes, one in which the team was unable to crack the code of the Saints’ zone defence and found itself trailing 37-15 with 4:15 left in the half.

Shooting 2-of-19 from distance and trailing 39-25 at the break, however, SFU came out an entirely different team in the second half, amping up its defensive presence, and leaning on guards Josiah Mastandrea and Dimaculangan off the bench to spark the comeback rally.

“He is bold and he hit a couple of big ones against UBC at start of the season and we said ‘Hey he’s got some big-game ability,” said Hanson of Dimaculangan who finished with 13 points off the bench, including five of his team’s points over its decisive game-closing 9-0 run as SFU rallied from a 63-55 deficit with 3:29 remaining.

Julian Roche scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a win over St. Martin’s on Thursday night at the West Gym. (Photo by Wilson Wong property of SFU athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)

Fellow reserve guard Josiah Mastandrea also came off the pine to finish with 12 points, and together the duo combined to hit seven triples on the evening.

Hanson admitted afterwards that the combination of wingspan, height and girth of the Saints within their zone defence was a tough nut for his team to crack, and that it led to their early shooting woes.

“They are big,” said Hanson. “Their wings are 6-7, 6-6 and long, and they make entry passes tough. We were not getting the ball inside out and that is what you have to do against a zone defence. You have to make it collapse to open up shots. But Josiah (4-of-12 from three) has been working his tail off so we’ll let him shoot it all game, and Elliot (3-of-9) shot it well from pretty deep tonight because he had to.”

Just as key to the win, on a night in which starting guard Jordan Lyons was unable to go, was the play of SFU forward Jahmal Wright, who especially in the early and lates stages of the second half, brought a toughness to the defence and helped key a press that ultimately seemed to tilt the game in the home team’s favour.

“I thought Jahmal was good and that elbow jumper was huge,” Hanson said of the Wright basket which kicked off the game-closing run. “He was great on defence, getting deflections. I thought the difference in the second half was our ball pressure. We got some steals from it and we just played tough.”

Most of all, it gave Simon Fraser a reminder that over its final six games of the season, anything is possible.

“Now we know that we can take it to the next level,” said SFU point guard David Penney. “When we’re playing bad we have another gear we know we can to get to.”

SFU centre Julien Roche led the winners with game highs in points (16) and rebounds (10). Wright added nine points and Wilfried Balata seven points and five rebounds.

Brett Reed and Kyle Greeley led the Saints with 12 points apiece while Alex Schumacher and Tyke Thompson added 10 each.

Afterwards, Hanson summed up the chaotic feel the schedule has taken on as teams cram cancelled games into the final weeks of the conference campaign ahead of playoffs.

“I mean, the conference is as crazy as it’s ever been and I think every team is tired,” he said. “We’re a little tired. They are tired. Teams aren’t healthy. Both teams are missing guys and I think there can be a little bit of complacency when you know everybody is in (the playoffs). But we want to be in that top six which is going to be really tough over the last few weeks.”

The GNAC expanded its playoff structure this season so that all 10 of its member schools would take part, with teams seven through 10 tipping off in a play-in bracket. Those winners would join the top six in a quarterfinal bracket.

Simon Fraser’s current home stand wraps up Monday when it faces Alaska Anchorage in a 2 p.m. contest.

Road games at Seattle Pacific, Montana State Billings and Northwest Nazarene follow before the regular season wraps up Feb. 26 at home to Western Washington.

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