A year ago, the Saint Martin’s University men’s basketball team reached the semifinals of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference tournament they had been hosting for years.
More than 3,000 fans showed up at Marcus Pavilion in Lacey to give the Saints an electric home court advantage, though they eventually lost to Western Washington.
This season, the enthusiasm continued as SMU (22-6) rolled to its best record since joining NCAA Division II. More than 1,500 fans showed up Saturday when the Saints capped a run of 12 wins in 13 games to end the regular season with a 75-68 victory over Central Washington.
Sadly for the Saints, when they match up with the Wildcats again on Thursday at 1 p.m. in the first round of this season’s GNAC tournament, the game will be played 1,452 miles away at the University of Alaska in Anchorage.
“Last year was a fun thing to have the tournament at our place,” third-year SMU coach Alex Pribble said. “We’d gotten nosed out of the playoffs altogether on a tiebreaker the season before, so the players had a sense of urgency about making it the last year we were going to host. The atmosphere was great.”
Nonetheless, Pribble sees some pluses in a second trip to Anchorage, where the Saints beat the Seawolves, 71-66, in January.
“The Iditarod is this weekend, so we’ll be able to see things we wouldn’t normally see. Plus, we’ll have a lot of support there. Our president (Roy Heynderickx) is coming with us along with some other administrators,” Pribble said.
Locally, Saints’ fans can join in a watch party at O’Blarney’s Irish Pub on Martin Way, beginning at 12:30 p.m.
When SMU walked off the court last March after that season-ending 91-79 loss to Western, there were legitimate questions as to how quickly the team would rebuild. The Saints’ top three scorers in the contest — Tyler Copp, Preston Cole and Brandon Kenilvort — were set to graduate.
Three incoming transfers erased all doubts about the 2017-18 Saints.
Luke Chavez came over from South Puget Sound Community College to lead the team in scoring at 16 points per game, earning GNAC Newcomer of the Year and first-team all-conference honors.
EJ Boyce, a junior who previously played at San Jose State, was named honorable mention all-GNAC, scoring 11.5 points per game, fueled by 45.5 percent shooting from 3-point range.
Another Division I transfer, Matt Dahlen, a graduate of Oregon State who is studying for an MBA at SMU, is the third-leading scorer at 9.5 points per game and is second in rebounding averaging 4.6 despite playing limited minutes some nights because of foul trouble.
“We have nine new guys,” Pribble said. “Our returners did a great job of establishing the standards and showing that the culture was set.”
Jordan Kitchen, a preseason all-GNAC choice, finished at 8.8 points per game and led a balanced rebounding corps at 4.7, while fellow junior Rhett Baerlocher averages 8.3 points heading into the postseason.
A fourth transfer, Jared Mathews, and freshmen Tavian Henderson and BJ Standley also earned praise from Pribble for coming into the program ready to immediately contribute.
“Everyone is all about the team,” said Dahlen, who decided to take advantage of the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule after learning about SMU from Oregon State’s Director of Player Personnel Joey Petschl, a former Saints assistant.
“No one cares about their stats. You can see it on the court and off. That’s very rare. We had just one season like that at Oregon State. Normally, it’s hard to keep everyone happy.”
The Saints’ mixture of talent, from long-range bombers like Boyce and Chavez to inside bangers like Dahlen, combined with what Pribble calls “guys focusing on the process,” makes SMU difficult to defend.
“We’ve won games in a lot of different ways,” Pribble said. “We’ve made teams pick their poison. When they try to stop one thing, we attack what they’re leaving open.”
Pribble rejects a couple of coaching truisms as his team prepares to meet Central in its GNAC opener. One that it’s difficult to beat a good team three times in a year. The other that the playoffs are a whole new season with no carry over from a late-season streak.
“It’s not about it being hard to beat someone three times,” he said. “It’s about Central being an athletic, talented, well-coached team. It helps we just played them.
“Our process has always been to continuing growing and take the lessons we learn late on into the postseason.”