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College Hoops: Seawolves rally from 11-point deficit, beat first-place Billings to clinch final spot in GNAC Tournament

UAA’s Tyson Gilbert tries to dribble around Montana-State Billings’ Steven Richardson. Photo by Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report

They are called Seawolves, but this year’s UAA men’s basketball team competes more like spiders because it keeps luring opponents into a false sense of security before striking.

Facing an 11-point deficit with seven minutes to play Saturday night, the Seawolves had Montana State-Billings right where they wanted them. Crazy second-half comebacks have been their trademark as they erased an 18-point deficit to beat Simon Fraser and wiped away a 12-point deficit to beat St. Martin’s.

On Saturday, they climbed out of an 11-point hole to beat the first-place Yellowjackets 84-78 and clinch the sixth and final spot in next week’s GNAC Tournament.

UAA had five players score double figures and posted its seventh come-from-behind victory of the season to delight a Senior Night crowd of 2,183 at the Alaska Airlines Center.

“I can’t say enough about the intestinal fortitude of this group,” UAA coach Rusty Osborne said in a press release. “They really believe they are never out of a ballgame, and never seem to get shaken.”

One year after suffering his first losing season on the bench since 2005, Osborne led the Seawolves (20-9) back to the playoffs in a coach-of-the-year type campaign.

Anchorage native Jaron Williams celebrates with UAA coach Rusty Osborne. Photo by Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report

Last season, the team lost 10 of 11 games decided by five points or fewer while this season the Seawolves have won eight of 11 in that scenario. And even though Saturday’s six-point victory didn’t fall in that category it had the same vibe.

The Yellowjackets (20-8) stretched their lead to 70-59 with 7:33 remaining before UAA flipped the script with an 11-3 run to get within 73-71 at the three-minute mark. That’s when UAA really poured it on to seize control for good.

Jaron Williams’ steal led to Tyson Gilbert’s 3-pointer for the final lead change of the night. Gilbert’s steal led to another bucket, this time by Sawyer Storms, who crashed the glass for an and-1. Moments later, Dillon Barrientos delivered a dagger with a floater in the lane to make it 80-75 with 1:16 to play.

Barrientos led the way with 19 points while Gilbert had 17, Storms 15, Williams 15 and Dathan Satchell 13. All five players are upperclassmen, with Barrientos being the only junior in the mix.

“It’s appropriate that this win should come on Senior Night, because our group of five seniors has been the driving force behind that mental toughness,” Osborne said.

The GNAC Tournament tips off Thursday in in Ellensburg, Wash., where the sixth seed Seawolves and face third seed Saint Martin’s at 4:15 p.m. ADT.

UAA’s Dillon Barrientos delivered a dagger with a floater in the lane to make it 80-75. Photo by Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report

Saint Martin’s (21-7) is ranked No. 21 nationally but is 0-2 against UAA this season. The Seawolves won 71-68 in Anchorage when the Saints were No. 1 in the country and 80-79 in Lacey, Wash., when they were ranked 17th.

“We’re excited to continue our season next week and hope we can earn some wins in Ellensburg,” Osborne said.

The Seawolves entered Saturday uncertain whether a loss would knock them out of playoff contention. They could have clinched a spot if UAF had beaten Seattle Pacific earlier in the day, but it didn’t happen after the Falcons rallied late to beat the Nanooks 62-56 in Fairbanks.

UAA would have to win to get in.

It didn’t look good early as the Seawolves fell behind 19-3 before they battled back to take a 22-21 lead at the 11:38 mark.

The game was tied 44-44 at halftime, but it didn’t take long for Billings to build a lead. Famous Lefthand hit a 3 to make it 63-55 and 6-foot-11 Emmanuel Ajanaku played big, which symbolized the tall order facing UAA.

But like the saying goes, ‘The bigger they are, the harder they fall.’

The success of this UAA team carries special significance because there are seven Alaskans on the roster (three are redshirting). All seven were all-state players in high school and freshman Sloan Lentfer was last year’s Gatorade Alaska Player of the Year.

The four active players all saw the court Saturday. Lentfer (Grace Christian) started while Williams (East), Hasaan Herrington (East) and Luke Devine (Wasilla) came off the bench.

Anchorage’s Hasaan Herrington lets one fly. Photo by Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report

Williams, Herrington and Devine each logged double figures in minutes and combined for five of the team’s 10 steals.

Williams was the lone homegrown Alaskan to score in double digits (6-12 FGs) in his most productive offensive performance since his career-high 29 points against Hawaii Pacific in December.

A junior college transfer, Williams is an elite player as a defensive specialist and offensive playmaker. The 6-foot-4 guard is averaging 9.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists as a senior, and last month became just the eighth Alaska man to register 1,300 points and 350 assists in a college career.

Osborne was long maligned by the city’s fanbase for not recruiting and signing enough elite Alaskans, particularly from the Cook Inlet Conference’s holy trinity of East, West and Bartlett.

They can’t say that anymore.

Osborne brought back former Class 4A player of the year Da’Zhon Wyche (West) for his final season last year and lured All-NWAC standouts Williams and Bishop Tosi (Bartlett) home as well as Herrington from Texas-Tyler.

Getting Alaskans is one thing, winning with them is another, and Osborne did both things this season.

UAA coach Rusty Osborne hams it up with his seniors. Photo by Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report

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