Aaron Landon had to change the culture of South Puget Sound Community College men’s basketball.
Now, it’s not just changed. It’s established. The Clippers claimed a second consecutive Northwest Athletic Conference West Region title with a 74-56 victory against Grays Harbor Wednesday night in the Clipper gym.
The Clippers (22-7, 13-1 in the West) advance to the NWAC championships for a third year in a row, beginning next weekend at Everett Community College.
What is the culture?
“Accountability and toughness,” Landon said, “on and off the court. Waking up for an 8-o’clock class when you got in at 1 a.m. from a game the night before.”
Wesley Reynolds, a North Thurston High grad and one of five sophomore “upperclassmen” on the team, had a ready answer to the same question: “We’re the hardest-working team in the NWAC.”
Change came slowly, in win-loss terms -- the Clippers were 2-22 in 2013-14, Landon’s first year as head coach, and won seven games the next year.
In 2015-16, the Clippers won 22 games. Last year, the team was 23-6 and advanced to the NWAC’s Elite Eight.
This year, the team was 8-6 after three straight holiday-season losses, then reeled off a 12-game winning streak. A bump in the road was a 62-59 loss at Lower Columbia last week, before the Clippers closed the regular season with wins over Tacoma and Grays Harbor,
DeMonte Malloy, a freshman from Portland, led the Clippers on Wednesday with 18 points. Reynolds gathered 13 points and eight rebounds, and sophomore AJ Hodges (Salt Lake City) had 11 points and four assists.
The last -place Chokers (4-24, 1-13) were anything but tame for most of the first half, harassing the Clippers into 22 percent shooting in the first 20 minutes. South Puget Sound kept it close by getting to the foul line for 15 points on 20 tries.
Two of Choker guard Guy Bean’s three first-half 3-pointers propelled a 12-1 Harbor run that earned a 21-16 lead.
Six straight points from the foul line and back to back treys by freshman guard Max Reitman (Boise) rebuilt a Clipper lead that grew to 35-23 before a late Choker basket before the buzzer.
Four straight 3-pointers, including two more by Bean, pushed the Chokers on a 16-7 burst to trail at 42-41 to open the second half. SPSCC responded with a display of ball-sharing near the hoop – eight points in a 13-0 sprint were earned from 2-foot range, along with a 3-pointer by Malloy.
Malloy had one more from long range as the Clippers rolled out to a 68-47 lead that finally subdued Grays Harbor.
Bean had to work hard for his 24 points for Grays Harbor – five more treys in the second half gave him eight for the game on 19 attempts from behind the arc.
Landon expects host Everett to be a top contender at the championships — the Clippers edged the Seagulls 76-75 on Nov. 18. Portland Community College should contend, he said, along with defending NWAC champion Walla Walla.
The season started, according to Reynolds, with 5 a.m. practices through the fall.
“Hard work,” he said, “every day.”
South Puget Sound 74 , Grays Harbor 56
Grays Harbor 25 31 -- 56
S. Puget Sound 35 41 -- 74
GH: Holifield 2, Jackson 2, Bean 24, Thomas 11, Marrotte 9, Brown 4, Fischer 4.
SPS: Dick 3, Poquette 3, Warren 2, Malloy 18, Reitman 9, Harris 0, Sipe 6, Hodges 11, Moore 6,
Hamilton 3, Reynolds 13.