by Mark Hoffman
The Seawolf men’s basketball team escaped a packed Wells Fargo Center Saturday night with a dramatic, 71-69 victory over the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
With more than just bragging rights on the line, the Seawolves managed to get timely defensive stops and hit crucial free throws down the stretch to secure the win, and move into sole possession of third place in the GNAC.
Sophomore guard Teancum Stafford led the Seawolves with 18 points in the contest but none more important than his three go-ahead free throws with 48.9 seconds left. Down 69-67 after a Nanook score, Stafford pump-faked UAF defender Andrew Kelly into the air and drew the foul to put UAA up for good.
After calmly hitting all three from the stripe, Stafford and the Seawolves withheld the Nanooks valiant comeback effort, despite only making one of four free throws in the final 12.9 seconds.
Junior guard Kyle Fossman and senior forward Abebe Demissie each tallied 16 points for the Seawolves. The Aussie down low, senior center Liam Gibcus, chipped in ten points before fouling out late in the game.
Nanooks guard Ronnie Baker had a game-high 20 points for UAF, fueling the Nanook rally, as he hit six of his seven field goals in the second half. 6-foot-11 center, Sergej Pucar, scored 12 points for the Nanooks, including two huge baskets down the stretch.
Down by as many as 13 with only eight minutes to go, UAF rallied to take their first lead of the second half, 64-63, on a three by Pucar with 2:56 remaining. After a Seawolf free throw tied the game, UAF responded with a quick bucket by Kelly to take a 66-64 lead.
With the momentum decidedly in the Nanooks’ favor, the Seawolves scrambled for a shot on the next possession until freshman Christian Leckband came to the rescue. The forward buried a desperation 23-foot bomb as the shot clock expired to give the Seawolves a one-point lead, and whip the Seawolf faithful into a frenzy.
However, the elation was short-lived, as Pucar responded, scoring a tough bucket in the paint and drawing the fifth foul from Libcus with 1:04 left in the game.
During an ensuing timeout, the opposing Alaskan fan bases had their own battle, as the standing-room-only crowd broke out into rivaling chants of “U-A-A!” and “U-A-F!” Pucar’s following free throw then set the stage for Stafford’s heroics.
Baker, who had the hot hand for the Nanooks in the second half, had two chances in the final 20 seconds to either tie or take the lead, but came up short both times. Although, UAA was unable to capitalize on the defensive stops – freshman guard Jalen Little made just one of two free throws, and Leckband missed a pair with 3.5 seconds left to leave the window open for UAF.
Guard Pat Voeut rushed the ball up court on the final UAF possession, but lost control trying to gather for a shot, and time expired.
UAA head coach Rusty Osborne was quick to credit his young team that is still growing up as the season continues.
“We’ve played pretty well in close games,” said Osborne. “We have a young group and we don’t play a whole lot of seniors so you never know at that point.”
Coach Osborne downplayed the emotion of the UAF rivalry, but praised his group for staying focused on their goals.
“[GNAC standings] is the most important thing – we just happened to be playing UAF and they happened to be in third place with us.”
UAA is 16-6 overall, and now 9-5 in the GNAC, three games behind second-place Seattle-Pacific.
The Seawolves play a pair of home games this week against Simon Fraser and Western Washington on Thursday and Saturday. Both games are at the Wells Fargo Center and tip at 7:30 p.m.