TURLOCK — There were ample hand-slaps and high-fives as the Cal State Stanislaus men’s basketball team walked through the gauntlet of mostly fellow athletes Wednesday afternoon en route to the bus that would take the Warriors to San Bernardino.
On the other hand, there was no sign of the chips that these players have been wearing on their shoulders since the season began way back in November.
“We knew that we were the underdogs and we played like we were tired of being stepped on because of the teams that came here before us,” said junior guard Chris Read. “We used it as motivation.”
Make no mistake about it, one of the driving forces behind this Stanislaus team surging to its first California Collegiate Athletic Association championship and into the NCAA Division II Basketball Tournament has been the sense that, all along, the Warriors haven’t received the respect they’ve deserved.
Stanislaus, 21-8, battles Great Northwest Athletic Conference champion Seattle Pacific, 26-5, Friday at 2:30 p.m. at Cal State San Bernardino.
The team’s fire started way back in autumn, when the coaches got together and predicted Stanislaus – with only one returning starter – would finish ninth in the 12-team CCAA.
Then, when the Warriors went on to finish fourth in the regular season, only two of their players were selected to the 20-member all-CCAA.
Corralling that anger, they played three exceptional games in the CCAA Tournament, defeating Cal State Los Angeles, Cal State San Bernardino and Chico State to claim the program’s first conference title as a Division II school.
High off that accomplishment, Stanislaus was put back in place when it found itself seeded No. 7 in the eight-team regional, behind San Bernardino, Cal Poly Pomona and Chico – all teams it’s beaten in the last two weeks.
“We just look at all of that as fuel to our fire,” said junior forward Rob Walters. “We won the tournament and that’s behind us now, so now we have to get the hunger back, that fight back, that mean dog that we had going into the tournament.”
The Falcons, 53-9 over the last two seasons, certainly have the respect of the Warriors, with a 1-2 scoring punch the likes of which Stanislaus hasn’t seen.
Guard David Downs not only averages 20.2 points per game, but is hitting 47.3 percent from 3-point range. Patrick Simon, at 6-feet, 8-inches, averaged 16.8 points per game and hits an amazing 51 percent of his shots from behind the arc.
“They are as good a shooting team as I’ve seen in 30 years of coaching,” said Warriors coach Larry Reynolds. “They’re very effective running their offense, which is kind of a Princeton-style of offense with everybody cutting all over the place, moving and screening. And just when you’re afraid of getting beaten by a back-cut, somebody’s open for a 3.”
The Warriors, meanwhile, are on a seven-game win streak in which the common thread has been defense. They will be quicker than Seattle Pacific, so it becomes a matter of maintaining their communication on defense.
And if the Warriors continue to play at the high level they displayed last weekend at the CCAA Tournament in Ontario, there’s no reason not to believe they’ll get through to Monday’s regional title game, with a trip to Evansville, Ind., on the line.
At that point, Stanislaus will have earned the respect of everybody in Division II.
“We’re a new item on the scene and you don’t get a lot of respect in that Cinderella role,” Reynolds said. “The players want to prove that they’re more than a Cinderella team, and we have a team that, when we’re on point, we’re pretty good.”