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Slow-Burn Warriors Building Basketball Culture

By Brandon Petersen, 12/06/19, 11:30AM PST

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In the film industry, the Westcliff University men’s basketball team would be what is known as a “slow-burn” picture.

The film starts so slowly, you almost lose interest.

But as you continue to watch, you catch glimpses of brilliance that compel you just enough to keep your attention.

Then gradually, as you continue to dive deeper and deeper into the story, you uncover characters that fascinate you, and plot developments of which you simply must learn the outcome.

The slow-burn picture takes time, but it’s worth it, because the story is rich, the characters true, and the ending leaves you feeling an emotion that you can invariably connect to your own experience.

Enter the 1-12 Warriors, whose season has been long and hard already, and we’re not even to Christmas yet.

A second-year program, at a tiny, overlooked school in Irvine which is just now planting its athletic roots, is going to take its lumps.

But here’s the thing about losing – in sports and in life – it makes you better. It makes you tough, it erases your fear, and it makes you hungry for success.

On Saturday, Westcliff will travel to snow-covered Ogden, Utah to take on Weber State, a team that made a name for itself in 1995 by knocking off Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament, and has been a Division I stalwart ever since.

It’s not the first D-I foe the Warriors have faced this season, and it won’t be the last.

But it says a lot about the no-fear attitude of a program that is just now beginning to learn itself, to take on any and all comers.

If nothing else, the Warriors are just that – warriors, and their story, if you’re willing to stick around, is just now beginning to take shape.

The Plot

Westcliff’s 70-54 loss at Vanguard Wednesday was a 16-point loss, yet it felt like a 180-degree turnaround from the Warriors’ 11-point setback to Cal Maritime two weeks earlier.

The Warriors played hard, especially on defense. Nick Pete blocked multiple shots, Rishard Williams, Jeremiah Atkinson and Damien King all had steals. Ronnie Davis snagged some cookies and raced the distance to the cup.

Offensively, Davis continues to look like the second-option behind Jacob Knox, and the bench lit up the scoreboard as well – Anthony Ograndnick hit back-to-back triples to spark the Warriors in the first half.

The coaching decisions had changed as well. The rotation was decidedly deeper, and head coach James Larson was quick with the hook, especially when it came to turnovers.

This is the slow-burn evolution of the Westcliff men’s basketball team – the story that compels, even when the scoreboard doesn’t.

“We definitely took some steps in the right direction (at Vanguard),” Westcliff associate head coach Jerred Cook said. “Defensively, the effort was there. Guys are flying around, and that’s the biggest thing we’ve been preaching. We don’t want to worry about effort.”

Against Cal Maritime, the Warriors appeared disinterested at times, and after the game, Knox said he felt the team let a win slip away outside of a surprisingly upbeat locker room for a team that had yet to collect its first win.

Two weeks later at Vanguard, no such sense of disinterest existed. Instead, the Warriors played hard and selflessly, and – finally – for one another.

The scoreboard told the same old story, but for the slow-burn viewers, a change in character had been made.

Westcliff’s basketball culture was beginning to take shape.  

“Guys are starting to play for each other, and it shows,” Cook said. “We are taking the right steps, now we just have to hammer out the details – taking care of the ball has got to be the biggest thing.

“We have to be patient and continue to build. Build the culture.”

The Characters

Knox, the Warriors’ leading scorer, is still young, and very raw, but he is surprisingly consistent, despite the fact that opponents key and swarm on him defensively.

“In spurts, our best player right now is Jacob Knox,” Cook said. “He’s very raw in his ability, but he is still very effective right now. We’ve only scratched the surface. He’s starting to slow down and pick his spots way better. He shot 7-for-10 (against Vanguard).”

The game is slowing down for Knox, and while he is no doubt the Warriors’ on-court leader, Knox is going to be looked to off the court to lead as well.

Conversely, senior guard Rishard Williams, a natural leader off the court, could be asserting himself more offensively.

“Our senior leadership from Rishard shows – he does everything,” Cook said. “He guards the ball, guards the best player, he doesn’t turn the ball over. We just got to get him to shoot more.”

Cook praised his young group of guards, namely Richard Serrano, Adofo Thomas Jr. and Jonathan Hill, as well as wing Davis, who he said sparked the Warriors on the defensive end most importantly, before providing that scoring threat on the offensive end.

Then there is Pete, who showed those slow-burn flashes of brilliance against Vanguard that keep everyone glued to their seats.

At one point, Vanguard collected a steal and raced to the cup for an open lay-up before Pete soared in to swat away the attempt with a violent thud that echoed over the awe-struck crowd.

“He shows flashes – it’s there,” Cook said. “We haven’t seen a team that has anybody who can do what he can do.”

Pete has been battling wrist and ankle injuries all season, and Cook says for Pete, it’s all about developing his body to maximize his talent.

Cook and Pete have been working on his post repertoire when they can – Westcliff’s rigorous schedule leaves little time for practice – but slowly, Pete is developing a jump-hook to complement his natural ability around the rim.

“It’s up to him whether he wants to put the work in,” Cook said. “He’s made some strides and it’s starting to slow down for him. It’s about him being able to finish through contact, knowing that no one’s going to be able to jump with him.

“He can go over the top of most guys.”

Now, for Pete, and for the rest of the Warriors, it’s about believing in themselves.

The tools are there, and one-by-one, the Warriors are finding them, and piecing them together.  

It’s a slow-burn, but it’s fascinating to watch unfold.

All you need is a little patience.

To contact Brandon Petersen, e-mail brandonpetersen@westcliff.edu.