Simon Fraser's Josiah Mastandrea had the touch coming off the bench on Saturday, scoring 16 points in a pivotal GNAC victory over Seattle Pacific. (Photo by Wilson Wong property of SFU athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)
Feature University Men's Basketball

Simon Fraser men’s basketball: Sitting in first place atop the GNAC standings, SFU set to embark on marathon schedule of games over next three-plus weeks!

BURNABY —A famine filled with cancellations has added up to a feast of games for the Simon Fraser men’s basketball team.

In what will amount to playing almost a half season of conference games over a span of just over three weeks, SFU opened a gruelling stretch of nine games over a span of 24 days this past Saturday, moving into first-place in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference standings (3-1) following its 75-72 win over the visiting Seattle Pacific Falcons (3-4) at the West Gym.

Yet despite all that waits ahead following that victory, head coach Steve Hanson said his players have embraced the marathon challenge by dedicating themselves to all of the little things which help them better navigate a gauntlet which includes its annual two-game road swing to Alaska.

“We’ve gone from feeling bad the guys aren’t playing to now,” said Hanson, whose team plays three games this week, opening Tuesday in Ellensburg (Wash.) for the first of what is now a home-and-home series with the Central Washington Wildcats (3-2).

“We’re in the weight room every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9 a.m., so I asked them ‘Are we still lifting?’ and they said ‘Yes.’ I think for us, the weight room is going to be something that is all about injury prevention for us.”

SFU’s Julian Roche prepares to shoot over the outstretched arm of Seattle Pacific’s Kelton Samore on Saturday at the West Gym. (Photo by Wilson Wong property of SFU athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)

As it has for many teams battling to stay healthy since the arrival of the Omicron variant in mid-December, Simon Fraser has had virtually every part of its approach and preparation to the GNAC schedule derailed at some point or another.

Already, road games at Northwest Nazarene, Central Washington and Western Oregon, as well as a home date with Montana State-Billings have been postponed.

When the team hit the road to face St. Martin’s on Jan. 15, it was coming in off of 40 days without action, and it showed in an 80-55 loss.

Saturday’s win, however, one which came on the heels of a 79-76 victory earlier in the week at home to Alaska Fairbanks, has seen SFU return to its more familiar self, closer than not to the team which beat Western Washington 82-80 in overtime to open the conference campaign back on Dec. 4.

“I thought we played really hard but there was a lot of game rust at St. Martin’s,” confirmed Hanson. “Fairbanks wasn’t perfect. It was a little sloppy, and the way we started tonight had me a little concerned because we turned it over way too much in the first half. But the second half (three turnovers after 11 in the first half) was the key.”

Indeed, it’s a great starting point heading into Tuesday’s 4 p.m. tip at Nicholson Pavilion against a CWU team which shot 59 per cent from the field Saturday en route to a 90-67 home court demolition of Western Oregon (2-3).

Simon Fraser’s 7-foot senior centre Julian Roche, who led his team Saturday with 24 points and 11 rebounds, confirms that he and his teammates are ready to throw themselves head-first into the meat of the conference slate.

“Man it’s going to take a lot of will-power, a lot of coming together and making sure we have a common goal,” said Roche. “We’ve got a lot of games, but we live for this. We’ve been working hard for this. I feel like this is the time we make a stretch drive.”

The big man from St. John, NB remembers all too well how, back in 2019-20, the team opened GNAC with a 2-0 mark, but went 1-3 to start when play resumed after the winter break, all part of what was a disappointing 9-11 conference season.

“Two years ago we kind of fell apart after the Christmas break, but this team is different,” Roche explained. “We’re built different. We had the hiatus of five-to-six weeks of not playing, and now we get to get after it. We get to show people what we’re about.”

For SFU, the short-term includes soldiering on without injured senior forward Jas Singh, the team’s 2019-20 scoring leader, currently nursing a lower-body injury.

“The hope is that he will return healthy,” said Roche of the Delta Secondary product. “He is working hard every day and doing what he needs to do rehab-wise. He is doing everything in his power. We just take it day-by-day and hold down the fort while he is gone. He’s one of our best players, so we have a bunch of guys who will step up and do well in his wake, so that when he does come back, we’re ready to make a deep push.”

Guarded by Seattle Pacific’s Henry Cavell, Wil Balata of Simon Fraser had one of his best two-way games of the season as SFU topped the visiting Falcons to move into first place atop the GNAC standings. (Photo by Wilson Wong property of SFU athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)

Wilfried Balata, the team’s 6-foot-4 junior forward/guard, has jumped right back into his familiar hard-nosed front court role since returning from his own early-season injuries and turned in a 13-point, six-rebound performance Saturday against the Falcons, one which Hanson hopes is a harbinger of more to come over this especially-heavy slate of upcoming games.

Point guard David Penney had 13 points, four assists and two steals on Saturday, while shooting guard Josiah Mastandrea came off the bench and filled it up from the outside, the Terry Fox Secondary product hitting three triples and finishing with 16 points.

Simon Fraser returns to the home court Thursday to re-set against Central Washington, then rounds out its weekend homestand on Saturday against Northwest Nazarene. Both games will tip at 7 p.m.

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