BURNABY — You could feel it.
That was the vibe in the air Thursday night in the moments before tip-off at the West Gym atop Burnaby Mountain.
It has been clear since the start of the season that the 2017-18 edition of the Simon Fraser Clan men’s basketball team is much improved over last season’s 4-24 (2-18 GNAC) team.
Yet what was most special in the moments leading up to the Clan’s opening tip against visiting Central Washington?
The near-palpable feeling that, coming off a heartbreaking 98-93 overtime loss at Seattle Pacific on Dec. 30, that the team’s resolve, under second-year head coach Steve Hanson, had become unflappable.
And that is key when you think of the number of losses this core group of players has absorbed over the past few campaigns.
It was one of those moments when you could literally feel the energy of the group, and from the opening tip-off, it was evident.
Oh yeah, the Clan (8-5, 2-3 GNAC) won 91-78, getting stronger as the game progressed, that in itself a sure sign of the team’s current state of mental health.
As SFU prepares to face the visiting Northwest Nazarene Crusaders on Saturday night (7 p.m.), here’s our biggest takeaways from the game:
1 THE FREE THROW MAXIM
You’ve heard it, and on Thursday it seemed to be a gospel truth: The state of any team’s mental health is directly tied to its success rate at the free throw line.
SFU went 24-of-26 from the stripe, and most importantly, senior guard Kedar Salam went a perfect 12-for-12.
“Oh man, I’ve been struggling this year and the stats showed it,” Salam said of coming into the game shooting 59.5 per cent from the charity stripe. “But I like to think this is a reflection of the work that I have put it.”
In keeping with the theme of being able to feel it in the pre-game air, Salam had actually begun to step up with his free throw prowess over the month of December.
He had gone 16-for-19 over his past six combined games.
Yet the on Thursday, the accuracy came in addition to frequency, and that all led to a game-high 40-point performance by the former UBC Thunderbird, the second-highest single-game outing in the program’s NCAA history, behind only Sango Niang.
Salam was a showstopper down the stretch drive, going 8-of-11 from the field over the second half, and 8-for-8 from the stripe. He finished shooting 11-of-19 overall and 6-of-9 from distance.
“He is capable on any night but what I was most proud of was the fact he went 12-for-12 (from the free throw line),” said Hanson. “And of those 12, I don’t think any of them even got near the rim. If you watch Kedar at work from Monday to Friday in our gym, that’s what you see out there (on game days). He puts in more time than any guy on our team and he has spent a lot of time improving.
“But I am really happy, too, that we have three of four guys that can all step up and score.”
2 SENIOR SERVICE
Salam himself said it right after the win, one which the Clan managed with just an eight-player rotation.
“I feel like I bring whatever is needed, (but) we have three seniors that are playing very well this year. Sometimes it’s going to be me, sometimes it’s going to be Isaiah (Sherman-Newsome), and sometimes JJ (Pankratz). So you just do what you’ve got to do.”
Salam, Sherman-Newsom and Pankratz are indeed the team’s three seniors, and they are also the team’s three-leading scorers, each averaging double figures.
Underclassmen Michael Provenzano, Tyrell Lewin, Othniel Spence, Jordan Muir-Keng and Aleks Vranjes all played their roles to varying degrees as well on Thursday.
And in the end, it represented that elusive ’40-minute effort’ that every coach so desperately seeks from the rotation.
Yet it’s that senior trio, defined by its explosiveness, its physicality and its versatility as three-position players that is leading what its fan base can only hope is a renaissance in Clan men’s hoops.
3 SIZE NEEDED
The Clan redshirts this season include 7-foot EJ Christie, as well as 6-7 Graham Miller (injury redshirt) and 6-7 Sam Bailey.
Yes, there is height coming.
But the loss of Miller before the start of the season was huge, and it put all the more focus on 6-foot-8 junior Tyrell Lewin to play the most consistent ball of his collegiate career.
On Thursday, Lewin had one of his best games in SFU colours.
In 26 minutes, he went 5-of-6 from the field without a turnover and two personal fouls taken. Each of his four offensive rebounds was significant, and on one series, he created a turnover on the defensive end, sprinted the floor and closed in full stride with fluid lay-in.
He finished with 10 points but his mere positive presence on the floor over his minutes was worth so much more.
“It was simple things,” said Hanson. “I said before the game ‘We could use 10 points from Tyrell. And if you watched him last week, he was really active.”
Yes, on so many fronts, Thursday’s effort was one that was building. The signs were everywhere, and the home team delivered.
Of course the follow-up question gets even tougher: Can this young team with three uniquely talented seniors find the wherewithal to do it all over again? The answer comes Saturday night.
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