BURNABY — They may have scuffed and scrapped through the early going in their 2018-19 home opener Friday.
Yet even before the home team put it all together down the stretch drive of 73-72 comeback win over the Humboldt State Broncos on the first day of The SFU Showdown invitational, the Simon Fraser Clan were making a statement to the sold-out crowd at the West Gym.
With a 6-foot-11 Div. 1 transfer who is tough, nimble, athletic and only a sophomore, and with a 6-foot-4, 200-pound freshman guard who is already more that physically ready at both ends of the floor to step right into a starting role in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, the Clan can say, for the first time since they became NCAA lodge brothers in 2010-11, that they have the kinds of players around which an entire program can be built.
Julian Roche, the big man who arrived atop the hill via transfer from D1 Santa Clara, not only produced an 18-point, 11 rebound double-double, he showed a particular flair on the offensive glass, and even a face-up dribble-drive game.
And how about Wilfried Balata?
It’s not like he looked out-of-place with a 2-for-5 shooting performance and five points at the half.
It’s more that he looked like he owned the place in the second, when his cold-blooded three-pointer from about seven feet beyond the arc fell through, bringing the Clan back from 11 points down late in the first half to lead 66-65 with 2:33 remaining.
In fact all Balata did over the second half was go 5-for-7 from the field, including 4-of-5 from distance, to finish with a game-high 22 points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes.
Roche. Balata. And redshirt sophomore forward Graham Miller, the Coquitlam-Dr. Charles Best kid who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, but arrived Friday braced and ready, his contributions so much more impactful than a line score which read four points and five rebounds.
His authoritative block with 1:23 left on Humboldt’s Hunter Johnson preserved the one-point Clan lead.
His huge defensive board with 12 seconds left led to a pair of free throw opportunities, both of which he hit to make it 73-70 Clan.
On top of that add three made free throws with just a handful of seconds remaining by guard Jordan Muir-Keung, and you got a four-point cushion which was just enough to hold off a Humboldt team which sank three free throws with a 10th-of-a-second remaining after Balata fouled the shooter, Kameron Curl, beyond the arc.
“I think we have a bunch of guys who are willing to share the ball,” said SFU head coach Steve Hanson afterwards.
With junior guards Michael Provenzano and Othniel Spence already proven commodities, and with Drew Bryson, Jas Singh and Sam Bailey joining the rotation, there is finally a broad foundation.
Of the nine players who saw action Friday, only Muir-Keung is a senior.
Of course there are bound to be tough nights ahead as this group gets deeper into the details of learning each other’s tendencies, and how they react as a team against the adversities that the long GNAC schedule is sure to bring.
Yet the newcomers Roche and Balata showed their quality so quickly that it wasn’t too hard to deduce that this team may have already turned an important corner.
“I think you hope, but you really don’t know what you have until they show up to that first day of practice,” Hanson said when asked post-game what he thought he had when he secured the duo. “Defensively, we have a new system and the team didn’t look that sharp in September. But things have really started to come together.”
Says Spence, who scored eight points on Friday while battling foul issues throughout: “I am excited about the group of guys we have on this team, excited about the personalities we have.
“Like Julian,” he continues. “We love Julian and Julian loves us. With the new guys, it usually takes a little time. But with Julian? It was instant. It was from the moment he walked into the locker room. We’re all cool together. There is a great dynamic on this team.”
The Clan wraps up The SFU Showdown on Saturday with a 7p.m. tip-off against Minnesota State Moorhead.
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