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College Hoops: Nationally ranked San Bernardino ekes out 52-49 win over Seawolves in NCAA Tournament opener

UAA’s Sawyer Storms with a clean block on a layup attempt. Photo by Will G. MacNeil

In a thrilling NCAA Tournament game that could have gone either way, CSU San Bernardino executed one, maybe two, more plays down the stretch to hold off the Seawolves.

UAA stood toe-to-toe with the country’s 20th-ranked team before falling 52-49 in a first-round West Regional defensive slugfest in Los Angeles.

It never strayed from a one-possession game for the final 15 minutes as both teams exchanged blows and proved they could take a punch before the Coyotes landed the knockout on Sedrick Altman’s tough step-back jumper with 1:15 left.

The Seawolves pulled within 50-49 after All-GNAC first team guard Tyson Gilbert converted a spin move stop-and-pop midrange jumper over two defenders with 50 seconds left. UAA forced an airball on defense and got the ball back with 8 seconds to play, but poor inbounds plays doomed Anchorage down the stretch.

Credit San Bernardino for making things tough on the Seawolves and flexing its postseason chops as the Coyotes moved to 5-1 in the NCAA Tournament since making their Final Four run last year. Meanwhile, UAA was making its first appearance at the Big Dance since 2012.

The Seawolves were ready for the big stage as they rallied from an 11-point deficit to take a 41-40 lead late in the second half on Dillon Barrientos step-back 3-pointer with 1 second left on the shot clock.

Point guard Dillon Barrientos gave UAA its final lead at 41-40. Photo by Will G. MacNeil

From there, UAA answered San Bernardino bucket for bucket down the stretch in the kind of game that defines March Madness – big shots, big drama.

“This is one of the most mentally strong groups I’ve been lucky enough to coach, and they showed their character again today,” said UAA coach Rusty Osborne. “When our shots weren’t going early, and then we kept fighting and fighting and got back in it, our guys were looking at each other saying, ‘This is who we are.’

“In the end, it came down to a possession here and there, and credit San Bernardino for making the plays.”

Altman, a Division I transfer from Rider and Pepperdine, made the difference for San Bernardino at crunch time. The 6-foot-3 highflyer turned an offensive rebound into two free throws at the 2:02 mark and hit the game-winning jumper 47 seconds later.

This was the second time these teams have played this season. The first time it was tied 54-54 inside the final minute. This time it was 50-49 inside the final 10 seconds.

San Bernardino pulled out both wins, with Friday’s nailbiter punching their ticket to the semifinals against Chico State, which rallied in the second half to beat Montana State Billings 78-64.

Gilbert was huge in the second half with 13 of his team-high 15 points coming after halftime. He did most of his damage while being shadowed by reigning CCAA Defensive Player of the Year LeAndrew Knight.

The Seawolves went down 19-8 early as they were hurt by committing seven turnovers and Barrientos going to the bench with two personal fouls at the 16:04 mark.

Gilbert’s only points of the first half came on a short jumper at the 4:20 mark that helped pull UAA within 26-21 at halftime.

UAA’s Tyson Gilbert pumped life into a second-half comeback. Photo by Will G. MacNeil

Gilbert got cooking in the second half as he pumped in seven points in a 13-8 UAA string that tied the game 34-34. He had two free throws, a left-hand finish at the rim and a 3.

“Growing up, I never thought I’d be actually playing in an NCAA Tournament game, and I’m grateful to Coach Osborne and everyone at UAA who believed in me,” said Gilbert, a Colorado State-Pueblo transfer who came to program in 2020, and was soon after diagnosed with a condition that required open-heart surgery. “I don’t know if I’d even be alive today if it wasn’t for UAA, so to be able to have this kind of season and leave a legacy like the one this team accomplished is extremely special.”

Jaron Williams of Anchorage mixed in a nice drive in UAA’s string, using a beautiful ball fake to create a clear path to the hole. He also had a big block as UAA’s defense picked up.

Sawyer Storms, a 6-foot-5 Swiss-Army-Knife-type player, collected six points, five rebounds and three assists. He also blocked two shots, including one to erase a layup attempt.

In the second half, Storms continued to be a force on the defensive end, taking three charges in three minutes, including two against San Bernardino freight train forward, 6-foot-8, 240-pound Robbie Robinson.

The Coyotes are a problem, starting two all-league first team guys, a defensive POY and a D1 transfer. They rank No. 3 nationally with a plus-9 rebounding differential, which has been an Achilles heel for UAA this season.

It wasn’t Friday.

Williams, a 6-foot-4 former all-state starter out of East High, ripped down a team-high seven rebounds and grabbed back-to-back offensive boards off missed free throws that led to Barrientos’ go-ahead 3-pointer at the 6:27 mark.

UAA’s Jaron Williams of Anchorage splits the defense for a layup. Photo by Will G. MacNeil

San Bernardino went ahead 44-41, but Barrientos scored on a left-hand finish at the rim to make it 43-41. Back and forth, like a tennis match, the teams raced up and down the court and exchanged buckets.

Williams’ beautiful bounce pass in the lane led to Storms’ two-handed dunk as the Seawolves pulled within 48-47 with 1:43 to play.

The seventh seeded Seawolves trailed 50-49 with the ball and 8 seconds on the clock, but a turnover proved costly as Robinson knocked down both ensuing free throws with 4 seconds left.

After two near-miss turnovers on inbounds plays, the Seawolves had one last shot with 1.4 seconds left and threw the ball in from the coffin corner.

UAA’s Hasaan Herrington was able to get off a desperation 3 against good defense, but it fell short as the final horn sounded on the season.

Morale victories aren’t desirable, but this one represents a building block for a program that dusted off the NCAA Tournament cobwebs and proved a lot of people wrong. A preseason pick to finish seventh in the GNAC, UAA beat first-place Billings on the final day of the regular season to qualify for the conference tournament. Then they upset the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds to reach the title game, and ultimately the West Regional.

The Seawolves won their first eight games for the best start in school history and finished 22-11, a nine-win improvement from last season.

“This team has overcome so much to get to where it got to this season,” Osborne said, “and I’ll really miss coaching them.”

The Seawolves break the huddle. Photo by Will G. MacNeil

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