ARCATA, CA — Last winter, two years into his studies in computing science at Simon Fraser University while on a ever-lengthening hiatus from the game, big man Sasha Vujisic wandered into the office of Red Leafs’ men’s basketball coach Steve Hanson and asked if he could try and earn a spot on the team for the upcoming 2023-24 season.
Highly-decorated as a first-team all-star at the B.C. Quad-A championships in leading the Burnaby South Rebels to a top-tiered provincial Quad-A title after beginning his university career at Kamloops’ Thompson Rivers University, Vujisic had the feeling that the time was right for his return to the game.
After having dusted off the mothballs this past weekend with spot duty over SFU’s inauspicious 0-3 start at the CCA Division II Canadian Tip-Off Classic at the Langley Events Centre, Vujisic got the tap on his shoulder from Hanson with his team trailing 57-41 to the host Cal Poly Humboldt Lumberjacks in the opening game Friday at the West Region Crossover at Arcata, CA.
The Red Leafs were giving up much more than they wanted to in the paint, and as a result had trailed moments earlier by as many as 20 points (47-27) in the second half.
Yet the big-boned, 6-foot-11, 250-pound Vujisic proved to be just the balm the team was looking for as it looked to try and slow Humboldt’s own 6-foot-11, 295-pound pivot Cam Timmons.
Over a game-changing span of 7:04 in which Vujisic set the tone inside, the Red Leafs went on a 23-11 run in which it stopped the hosts in their tracks.
The Lumberjacks shot just 4-of-11 over that span with four turnovers. SFU countered by shooting a red-shot 10-of-13 and by the time Hanson had subbed the former Burnaby South star out of the game, the 57-41 deficit had shrunk to just four points at 68-64.
By that time, momentum was all theirs, and SFU looked like a brand-new team en route to the massive comeback 83-75 comeback win, despite also being down by 21 points down in the first half .
“I thought Sasha provided a huge spark,” confirmed Hanson after the game, his four points and two rebounds secondary on this night to what his team needed most: A physical defensive presence in the paint.
“We put Sasha in because we needed a physical body out there and he gave us that physical presence to spark us,” continued Hanson. “Tonight he was just physical for us. He came in and set some great screens. He had a great shot block they called a foul. He was a game-changer for us.”
From there, with the likes of Nigel Hylton (11 points), Tate Christiansen (five points) and Jovan Rai bringing good energy in support of the team’s two most established scorers in guards David Penney (19 points) and Elliot Dimaculangan (18 points), the Red Leafs completed perhaps their most miraculous comeback of the last decade.
Hanson couldn’t remember a bigger one in his near-decade with the program.
“I think that is the biggest one of I have been a part of at the D-2 level,” said the head coach, who after one season spent as the team’s lead assistant is now in his eighth season as head coach. Overall, the swing from lowest to highest ebb was 28 points.
With five more games remaining before the start of GNAC conference play, Vujisic’s performance Friday gives Hanson three posts he can rely on, with incumbents George Lefebvre and Zach Stone already known quantities at the NCAA level.
It’s something Hanson doesn’t take for granted.
“It is a luxury to have three centres,” he added. “I mean, their centre was 6-11 and 300 pounds, so that’s a tough match-up for anyone.
“Today (Timmons) got rolling early, he got a lot of easy buckets, but once we took away the one-on-one play inside and put some pressure on their guards to make shots, we were in a good place.”
Timmons finished with eight points, four rebounds and a game-high six assists. Jacks’ point guard Emanuel Steward led the way for the hosts with a game-high 20 points.
Hylton was excellent for SFU with 11 points. Immanuel Oludele and freshman guard Irish Coquia each hit a pair of treys and finished with eight points apiece.
For Hanson and his staff, the hope is that the win can be a springboard to so much more.
Especially for a team which shot just 7-of-25 (28 per cent) in the first half, but then answered by going 22-of-31 (71 per cent) in the second.
“We talk about it all the time,” he said. “You got to earn your confidence and with a young group and young guys who have not played with some of our more veteran guys, they gotta make plays in big moments. We had that tonight. I think this (win) will be catalyst.”
SIMON FRASER 71 SAN FRANCISCO STATE 56
Official game statistics were not immediately available, but the Red Leafs beat the SF State in non-conference play behind the game-high 25 points off post Gemma Cutler as SFU improved to 1-3. SFU faces Cal State Monterey Bay on Saturday (2 p.m.).
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