Down by 12 points with just over 11 minutes left in last night's game against a taller and more athletic Oregon State team, Seattle University began an eight minute 24-5 run on pure heart.
Seattle U forward Alex Jones had a layup attempt blocked by OSU post Joe Burton, forward Chad Rasmussen snatched the offensive board among the mass of bodies in the paint and missed a putback, and Jones got another chance with an offensive rebound and missed putback. Then, apparently waiting for the right opportunity, 6-foot-5 junior forward Aaron Broussard snuck through a crease in the scrum and got a tip-in off Jones' second failed attempt.
It wasn't pretty and the Redhawks had honestly been dominated on the boards to that point in the half. But they kept fighting even when the ball just wouldn't seem to bounce their way and eventually got the opportunity to make something happen.
While solving OSU's zone defense(s) was certainly a major part of how Seattle U came back to win 83-80, it was that mentality - an aggressive, determined, and gritty attitude without sacrificing focus - that helped the Redhawks win last night's game.
"When you're playing against them it's the psychological wear down of 1-3-1, Princeton, 2-3, you get tight, you turn it over once, now you're scared to go in there again," said Redhawks coach Cameron Dollar. "So you gotta go in there - you gotta go try to make plays."
And that has toe be near the top of the list of why the Redhawks are so intriguing to the Seattle basketball dork set - this team fights to get everything they achieve, occasionally winning games simply by outworking their opponent. And last night, Oregon State simply got outworked and outsmarted once Seattle U turned the pressure up and the KeyArena crowd of 4,526 really got going.
After getting thoroughly outplayed in their first three games, last night's finish was the perfect way to celebrate this team turning a corner and showing signs of life when vital signs looked to be getting low and falling fast.
Beyond winning the game, that's what got Seattle U coach Cameron Dollar most excited about this game - they finally started to play winning basketball.
"It's great to see some fruit - ain't no doubt about it - on regional TV," said Dollar. "That's tremendous. It speaks volumes of our kids. Good exposure and opportunity. But the early struggles for us are nothing but being laser focused: making sure that our team gets focused on every possession - doing things right, continue to improve as a sound basketball team. So that's real big."
However, while the improved execution against the zone was evident in the first half, it wasn't immediately obvious what they did to get them selves back into the game after being down by 12 - it was one of those times that it was so easy to get caught up in the emotion of the game that it was hard to follow the specifics about how the Redhawks were finally able to just win a game.
Of course on the game level, freshman Sterling Carter's 3-point shooting (4-for-5 in the first half) was huge for helping to force OSU out of the zone. But narrowing the focus to the Redhawks second half run - during which time Carter was on the bench - three other things stood out as significant as they continue to improve as a basketball team.
Redhawks statistical MVP: Cervante Burrell attacking the rim
After Broussard catalyzed the run with his put-back on the offensive end, Cervante Burrell led a personal 6 to 2 run that brought the Redhawks within six points of the Beavers. And again, more impressive than the outcome was the way he got it done.
"If Cervante didn't go in there all night and try to pass it, he wouldn't have scored 20 and we would be shooting what we shot against Cal Poly," said Dollar, referring to the Redhawks' 21.1 percent shooting in their 76 to 60 loss to Cal Poly.
Burrell finished with a team-high 22 points and shot a rather efficient 7-for-14 from the field. But most importantly for a team that had struggled so badly to hit perimeter shots to this point in the season, Burrell found gaps between the guards in OSU's 2-3 zone to hit two jumpers during his personal mini-run.
A yet even more important development down the stretch that really started with Burrell was also free throw shooting - Burrell finished the game with a strong free throw rate and hit six of his eight free throws during the Redhawks big run. Which leads to the second major feature of the Redhawks second half performance: the Redhawks lived at the free throw line.
Key statistic: Free throw rate
While turnovers were the focus of OSU coach Craig Robinson's post game comments and the Redhawks much improved shooting definitely had the biggest impact viscerally, Seattle U had an outstanding free throw rate getting as many free throw attempts as field goal attempts in the second half.
That started with Burrell, who eared six of those 24 free throw attempts. And that aggression was key to breaking the zone and being more efficient offensively.
"It's the 'Evil Kenieval' type play because we're just saying you gotta go be aggressive," said Dollar. "If we pass it around three or four times waiting to get a shot, we ain't getting a shot. If we pass it around three or four times, we're probably going to turn it over. But if we go in there and be aggressive, we're probably going to make shots, get rebounds, probably going to get fouled."
Although we could debate home court bias, ultimately it was Seattle U's aggression in drawing fouls that tipped the scales in the game. And while getting to the line that often alone is a sign of the type of aggression that defined their run, it certainly helped that they made 75% of those free throws as well.
But for all the attention to their much, much improved offensive performance, Burrell pointed out their focus in walking off the court with a win.
"Tonight we put together stops, that was key," said Burrell. "We put together stops and then our offense came."
Key player: Aaron Broussard on the defensive boards
Broussard will never be the most athletic, dynamic, or imposing player on the court. But Broussard has a way of making his presence felt that makes him more valuable to the team this year than he might normally get credit for.
Although it might have been even more subtle than the impact of the Redhawks free throw rate, a major shift in the game occurred on the boards - OSU won the offensive rebounding battle in the second half, but Seattle U shut that down during their run with increased intensity on the defensive end.
"With Cervante and Aaron Broussard, both of those guys responded and they played aggressive," said Dollar. "Obviously, the win signifies that and it's exciting. But I told them win, lose or draw, we compete. We didn't do that Sunday."
After OSU got seven offensive boards in the first nine minutes of the second half, they only had one offensive rebound during the extended 24-5 run. Broussard's five defensive rebounds during that run were no small part of that and he finished with a game-high 12 rebounds to go with nine points and four steals. His four assists and three turnovers made him arguably the most efficient ball handler on the court for the Redhawks.
But that defensive rebounding was without doubt his biggest contribution with the 6-foot-5 forward grabbing over 20.62% of the defensive rebounds available to him while in the game.
"My instructions were the same as they were in the earlier games: don't sit back and hope that they miss - go be aggressive, get a stop," said Dollar.
Broussard might just embody Redhawks basketball more than anyone else on the team with his gritty play and hustle: it's not pretty, but he gets the job done.
Beavers statistical MVP: Jared Cunningham
In contrast, Cunningham might have been the most impressive player on the court throughout the game - one media member noted that Cunningham reminded him of Seattle native and former NBA player Doug Christie. You can take or leave that comparison, but after scoring eight of the Beavers' first 10 points, he continued to make his mark on the game on both ends of the court.
In addition to finishing with a team-high 19 points, he finished with a game-high 5 steals. Like Burrell, he also made a mark at the free throw line finishing with a team-high eight attempts. However, one of the Redhawks biggest accomplishments during their run was essentially shutting down Cunningham entirely - after making the layup that put the Beavers up 12, he didn't score again.
Redhawks moving in the right direction
After struggling so badly through their first few games, the win was a sign of progress on multiple fronts for Seattle U. They aren't near where they want to be, but they also showed that they can do the little things required to gut out a win when necessary, even against an opponent that very well could have beaten them. Burrell's continued aggression going to the basket, Broussard's shooting, and the team's ability to get to the free throw line were all key factors to their run.
While part of that could certainly be flipped and attributed to OSU's coaching decisions or player lapses, Seattle U looked like a much better basketball team last night independent of the opponent.
"Leading up to this week was - in a strange way - one of the best weeks for me just being focused on just continuing to move this thing in the right direction: not getting sidetracked, don't lose focus, just focus on getting better," said Dollar. "I just really felt like our guys minds were right. We're getting better, we're improving on our defense, we're improving on our game plan."