Simon Fraser's David Penney loves the developing chemistry he's seeing in the Red Leafs. (Photo by by Wilson Wong protected image 2023. All Rights Reserved)
Feature University Men's Basketball

Simon Fraser men’s basketball: With three wins in past four GNAC conference games, veteran guard Penney gives nod to Red Leafs’ developing chemistry as season’s toughest road swing charters north to Alaska!

BURNABY — David Penney’s senior season with the Simon Fraser Red Leafs has included its share of tough times.

Yet as his final Great Northwest Athletic Conference regular season winds its way down to its final five games, their is no greater authority to speak to the ever-evolving state of suddenly-percolating Red Leafs.

“Last year, we were a really young team, but this year we’re a little bit older and we’re starting to build some chemistry,” the veteran point guard said Saturday following SFU’s third win in its past four conference games, a comprehensive 71-63 win over the visiting Seattle Pacific Falcons at the West Gym.

That’s simply put, yet there’s no better way to characterize the late-season emergence of several Red Leafs who are in their first season of play with the team and have been tasked with filling key roles within a rotation of heavy-minute returning vets like Penney, Elliot Dimaculangan, Zach Stone and Immanuel Oludele, as well as Nigel Hylton and George Lefebvre.

As the Red Leafs take to the friendly skies later this week for the Alaskan double-di, annually the toughest road swing in the GNAC with stops Thursday in Anchorage to face the Seawolves (5-7), and Saturday in Fairbanks to clash with the Nanooks (3-9), a continuation of what SFU (4-9) has shown over its past four games could be just the stepping stone head coach Steve Hanson’s team needs to become genuinely relevant in its late-season charge for the conference’s sixth-and-final playoff spot.

 “It’s the toughest trip for sure” Hanson said after his team beat Seattle Pacific (6-7) and left it clinging to the conference’s last playoff spot with five more games remaining.

“It’s a long trip with short days,” continued Hanson. “It’s dark when you wake up.”

Yet that developing chemistry of which Penney speaks has really helped to light the way.

Zach Stone has upped his game since entering SFU’s starting lineup. (Photo by Gordon Kalisch property of FastTrackSportsPhotography and SFU athletics 2024. All Rights Reserved)

Ever since Stone, the 7-foot redshirt sophomore from Ottawa, moved into the starting line-up on Jan. 6, the Red Leafs started to turn the corner, going 4-7 after an 0-2 GNAC start.

Over his 11 straight starts, he’s highlighted his effectiveness by averaging 10.2 points and 1.2 blocks per game while shooting 48 per cent (12-of-25) from three-point range, and 93.3 per cent (28-of-30) from the free throw line over 24.3 minutes per game.

That interior presence has been complimented by the evolving emergence of fellow redshirt sophomore big-man Sasha Vujisic, the 6-foot-11, 240-pound centre out of Burnaby South.

Over the last five games, Vujisic has upped his floor time to an average of 13.8 minutes per game, his highest stretch since high school.

And while the numbers are modest at 2.8 points and 2.8 rebounds over the span, he’s committed just one turnover during those 68 total minutes and shot 60 per cent from the field.

And in those moments when both bigs are on the bench, the Red Leafs have begun to refine a smaller, quicker overall unit which has given them a nice change of pace.

“When we went to a small lineup, I loved the way we finished plays… so that was big,” Hanson said of Saturday’s effort.

Hard-nosed and skilled, Erick Beckett’s long journey to play for the Red Leafs has really come to fruition in 2024. (Photo by by Wilson Wong protected image 2023. All Rights Reserved)

In concert with the aforementioned veteran guard group, three key first-year Red Leafs have played a big role in the overall depth of the main rotation.

Guard Eric Becket, a multi-talented, wide-bodied 6-foot-3, 230 pound redshirt junior transfer from the University of Vermont, who sat out virtually all of last season tending to a litany of injuries, has been every bit as good as Hanson hoped he would be.

The Ajax, Ont., native who didn’t make, for all intents and purposes, his true Red Leafs debut until Jan. 4, has started his past four games and as he’s gotten into game shape, has defined himself as a defensive lynchpin by drawing charges and just generally grinding in the dirty areas of the court, a style of play which has seen him score 11.5 points over an average 23.3 minutes per game.

“He leaves it all on the floor every night,” remarked Hanson. “The Saturday night games, after playing a lot of minutes on Thursday, are tough for him, but he’s making big plays for us and we’re all really happy for him.”

And then there’s a couple of younger players to mention.

From the lost Covid season to a serious ankle injury to a redshirt season in 2022-23, SFU’s Matthys Van Bylandt is finally getting a chance to perform this season with the Red Leafs. (Photo by Wilson Wong 2023. All Rights Reserved)

Redshirt freshman Matthys Van Bylandt out of North Vancouver’s Handsworth Secondary has played just about every role possible as a GNAC newcomer, and that stronger base has helped him gain more confidence as a wild-card chip coming off the bench.

Able to hit from the outside, attack off the bounce and play in the post, Hanson is finding there are more and more ways to summon Van Bylandt’s skill set to the fore. 

In Saturday’s win over Seattle Pacific he was the team’s primary sixth man, finishing with the second-highest plus-minus on the team after an outing that featured seven-points, seven rebounds (four offensive), two-assists, one steal, one made-triple and no turnovers in just under 21 minutes of play.

“With him flying around it was great,” said Hanson. “He hit that three early to give us some confidence, and then Irish comes on…”

SFU’s pure freshman Irish Coquia remains ice-veined in the face of the opposition as he makes the transition from high school to the NCAA. (Photo by by Wilson Wong protected image 2023. All Rights Reserved)

Irish is Irish Coquia, the team’s pure freshman guard out of St. Patrick’s in Vancouver, and the two-time B.C. high school Triple-A championship MVP.

Like Van Bylandt, he’s learned his role and all the mental preparation that must come with it.

In those moments when either Penney or Dimaculangan, or both, are off the floor, Coquia has been tasked with the role Detroit Pistons’ guard Vinnie ‘The Microwave’ Johnson thrived in during the 1980s behind starters Isaiah Thomas and Joe Dumars.

“I think he knows he has to produce offensively and be locked in defensively,” Hanson said of Coquia, who on Saturday hit a pair of threes in just over 15 minutes of time, went turnover free and helped limit a Falcons team which shoots 39 percent from deep, to just 28 per cent from distance on the game.

Penney loves the way his team has started to come together of late, but he’s been around long enough to know that all that matters at this stage of the season is how you’re playing in the next game.

“We’re going to go on runs where we do score and runs where we don’t score, but the most important thing is that we have to be gutty on defence,” he begins. “You know, box out. Play tough. Coach always says be the tougher team and today we were.”

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