Struggle leads to strength.
It’s an invariable fact of life – only the grindstone will sharpen a knife.
On Wednesday at Vanguard University, the Westcliff University men’s basketball team figured out just how sharp it’s become over the course of its season-long grind, taking down Northwestern of Iowa, 62-55.
The Red Raiders came into the contest with a record of 12-2, and were ranked 19th in the country according to the NAIA Division II coaches’ poll.
But all of that meant next to nothing to the Warriors, who have spent their season traveling up and down the coast taking on big-name programs like Loyola Marymount and Weber St.
Indeed, the Warriors’ greatest asset Wednesday was perhaps their record – sure, on the surface, it’s not pretty – but Northwestern figured out its substance with about a minute left, down five and fouling.
“It felt good for the guys, that’s the biggest thing, for them to get a win, not just over any team, but a ranked team," Westcliff head coach James Larson said. "Now, heading into break, they know what they’re capable of doing when they play together for a full 40 minutes.”
Jacob Knox had his best game of the season, shooting an incredibly efficient 7-of-11 from the floor and 5-of-7 from the stripe for a team-high 19 points to complement 12 boards.
"Jacob Knox is our horse – he’s the go-to guy,” Larson said. “He didn’t overplay. He didn’t shoot too much. He took what they gave him. And he had 12 boards at the same time.”
Knox has been the Warriors’ offensive catalyst all season, but his maturity Wednesday truly took center-stage – the double-double is one thing, but limiting his shots to only good-looks was the key that helped unlock his teammates’ potential.
Several Warriors had banner days, and Larson heaped praise on everyone who contributed, but it can’t be understated just how important Nick Pete’s day was on the defensive end.
Pete (six points) finished with eight boards, four blocks, three steals and drew a charge. When he was on the court, Northwestern avoided the paint and relied on its outside shooting.
“He had a real impact on the game,” Larson said.
Larson also pointed to an over-the-back whistle on Pete that had the potential to derail the Warriors in the contest's final minutes.
Previously, a bad call could have caused the Warriors to lose focus. Not Wednesday. Following the call, Westcliff huddled and moved on.
It’s those moments of emotional maturity that help mark the Warriors’ exponential growth as a team this season.
“Working on the emotional side of the game is the biggest part of it,” Larson said. “There were a couple of calls that challenged our guys. A month ago, they might’ve lost it. But (Wednesday), they stayed together and fought through it.”
Damien King (five rebounds, three steals) finished shooting 3-of-6 from three-point range, including a number of pivotal shots in the second half.
Adofo Thomas, meanwhile, now starting at point for the injured JD Hill, was fantastic, finishing with 10 points, five steals, three rebounds and three assists.
The Warriors will enjoy a few days off to celebrate the holidays before the second half of the season begins.
Larson says now that Westcliff has picked up its first signature win, the expectations for the home stretch have changed.
“They now know that they can play with anybody,” he said. “We’ve gone through the toughest stretch of games that anyone has faced in the country, and we finished with beating a ranked team.
“But we have to continue to improve. (The win) wasn’t perfect.”
When the Warriors return, they will face five teams in a row that they’ve already played this year, each one a beatable opponent.
“You just beat a ranked team,” Larson said. “Now go get another one.”
To contact Brandon Petersen, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.