Playing it tough in the paint was the key Thursday for the Simon Fraser Clan, and sophomore Sophie Klassen was one of the leading lights in that regard as her team topped visiting Seattle Pacific at the West Gym. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2019. All Rights Reserved)
Feature University Women's Basketball

Even without its magical three-ball, Simon Fraser women sit at 4-1! Clan turn rebound-hungry in impressive win over Seattle Pacific Falcons

BURNABY — The only thing certain about 2019-20 Simon Fraser Clan women’s basketball team at the quarter-pole of their league schedule is that they sit third in the 11-team Great Northwest Athletic Conference standings with a 4-1 record.

That’s first and foremost, and in the minds of Clan fans, more than soothing enough despite the fact that success has come in this 10th-anniversary of NCAA life with a team that stubbornly refuses to reveal its true identity.

On Thursday, as part of a decisive 71-54 home victory over the Seattle Pacific Falcons (1-4), Simon Fraser continued to distance itself from its great three-point shooting teams of seasons past, yet seemingly out of nowhere brought the kind of physical, gang-rebounding mentality many thought they were incapable of producing.

The Falcons came into the game as the best defensive rebounding team in the GNAC, and its plus-5.8 rebounds per game differential was the loop’s second best.

The Clan came eighth in rebounding differential at minus-4.2 per game, and when you added those numbers up, Simon Fraser was a 10-rebound underdog.

Yet what was a seemingly horrible matchup for the home team, especially given its challenges shooting the ball from the distance, may have advanced the Clan along a line of thinking which says they can be that tough-minded team in the paint.

Quite impressively, the SFU crushed Seattle Pacific on the glass to tune of 43-27, holding the Falcons just 21 defensive boards, a full 10 below their average.

“We talked about it quite a bit this week,” said Clan veteran forward Ozi Nwabuko who scored just two points in one of the toughest offensive performances of her career, yet came on late to grab a team-leading eight rebounds. “We put a heavy emphasis on it, and I think we can be that kind of team. We’ve been struggling to show it, but I think that now, we’re ready to get physical and go get some boards.”

The preponderance of caroms off both windows allowed SFU to ultimately outscore the Falcons 40-26 in the paint.

“I thought board-wise, many, many people went to the boards and that gave different people the opportunities to take advantage,” agreed Clan head coach Bruce Langford, who will be looking for the same kind of interior energy when his team faces St. Martin’s (1-4) in a 7 p.m. tip Saturday at the West Gym.

Simon Fraser’s Justina Chan is adjusting to the physical style of play in the GNAC and on Thursday against Seattle Pacific, she was part of a stellar bench which poured home 26 points over the visiting Falcons atop Burnaby Mountain. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2019. All Rights Reserved)

The question remains, however, will a young SFU team find its way through the darkness and recapture the form which has made the program one of the best shooting teams in Div. 2 basketball over the past half decade?

Respectable on Thursday at 5-for-21 from three-point range, SFU has nonetheless shot under 30 per cent from three-point range in three of last four games.

Slip up and pose a question to Langford which labels his Clan as a three-point shooting team, and the veteran coach is quick to offer a correction.

“It’s not that we’re ‘just a three point shooting team’, we’re not a three-point shooting team,” the head coach stated. “At all. We’re the worst three-point shooting team I’ve ever had, which is non-sensical because in practice we’re not. We hit threes. We hit five today but we scored 40 in the paint.”

At 35-of-117 for a .299 percentage this season, the 2019-20 edition is not the Clan’s worst three-point shooting team of the NCAA era, yet in trying to make a point, Langford is clearly not off base.

In three of its first four GNAC seasons, however, SFU shot under 30 per cent from distance as a team in conference play, with the low-water mark of .278 (98-of-353) coming in its second season (2011-12).

Yet when you put together the kind of extended excellence Simon Fraser did from 2014-15 through 2017-18, the bar gets set pretty high.

Over those four seasons, the Clan shot a combined .370 (605-of-1633) from distance, and individually all four of those campaigns ranked top three in the conference.

The high-water mark came in 2015-16 when SFU led the GNAC at .391.

That season, the combined conference numbers for Ellen Kett, Elisa Homer, Alisha Roberts and Sophie Swant were 179-of-444 for a sizzling .403 success rate.

Still. by the time Thursday’s post-game rolled around, there was so much reason for optimism, not the least of which it’s early, and this team has a 4-1 conference record with 15 left to play.

Yes, conference heavyweights Alaska Anchorage and Northwest Nazarene — each currently 5-0 —  still await, yet a Clan team working seven first- or second-year players into the rotation outscored SPU’s bench 29-16.

In fact over a first half in which its offence seemed to battle through extended stretches of stagnant play, Emma Kramer, Sophie Klassen, Majella Carey and others came off the pine to shoot a collective 10-of-20 and finish with 20 bench points.

“I think we have pretty good bench if they come with some energy,” said Langford. “I think Emma Kramer has an awful lot of talent, and lately, she’s made it a focus for herself to come prepared. She had a good week of practice. (Sophie Klassen) has got a bundle of energy, she has been very good. And Justina Chan has a lot of offensive skill. She just needs for the game to slow down a bit for her to take advantage of that.”

Bench play. Toughness. Rebounding.

If the Clan can continue to bring that trifecta, then history seems to indicate that its other kind of trifecta — that vaunted three-point shooting game — is sure to follow.

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