March Madness is alive and well in Seattle. The first round of the Men’s College Basketball was on display Wednesday Night when the Seattle University Redhawks welcomed the Central Arkansas Bears to the Connolly Center. The Redhawks faced a stern test against the Bears and Jordan Howard, the third leading scorer in college basketball.
The game started badly for the Redhawks with Senior Josh Hearlihy being forced from the game with an injury. However, the loss didn’t seem to slow down the Redhawks as they ran out to an early eight point lead (23-15) behind the interior dominance of Aaron Menzies and the steady play of senior guard Jordan Hill. Menzies, the 7’3″ junior has dominated in the paint all season and even though the Bears countered with their own 7 footer (Hayden Koval), Menzies seemed unstoppable early on. By four minutes left in the half Menzies had completely taken over, scoring 13 points to go with five rebounds and a blocked shot. Of note as well was Senior Richaud Gittens’ smothering defense on Jordan Howard. Although leading the Bears with seven points, Howard was held mostly in check by the swarming defense of Gittens shooting an uncharacteristic 1-5 from the three-point line. The Redhawks were buoyed as well by a raucous crowd at the Connolly Center, a true indicator that playoff basketball was alive and well. Like all good teams do, the Bears made a run at the end of the half and only trailed by one after a buzzer beater to end the half.
The Bears headed in for the half most likely feeling lucky to be so close after they were dominated in almost every major category by the Redhawks in the first half. Their ability to get to the free-throw line (10-13 for the Bears vs. 3-4 for the Redhawks) was where the Bears were able to keep the deficit close.
The stellar play by both teams continued right where it left off at the start of the second half. Still being shutdown outside the arc, Howard started to get things going closer to the basket and had a game high 16 points just five minutes into the second half. Menzies once again started the second half strong, but the Bears brought pressure to the back-court, constantly harassing the Redhawks ball-handlers, in order to prevent interior passes to the big man. The pressure coupled with double and triple teams by the Bears was a sign to come that the Redhawks would be forced to get their scoring from elsewhere. The loss of Hearlihy to start the game was starting to take a toll as well with the guards for the Redhawks forced to stay on the floor for extra minutes. Halfway through the second half the game was deadlocked at fifty-five and the intensity had definitely ratcheted up. Both teams were starting to step it up defensively and there was an added sense of urgency from the partisan Redhawks crowd. Already stellar on the defensive end, Gittens provided an offensive spark for the Redhawks, shooting 3-6 from the 3-point line for a game-high 17 points as the Redhawks jumped out to a four point lead. Even though he was being constantly stifled by the Redhawks, great scorers always seem to get theirs and as the half headed into crunch time, Howard started to take over. Unable to get it going outside the arc, Howard was able to use high-arcing floaters and short jumpers to pace the Bears, and by four minutes left in the half he had brought the Bears within four. The half ended in a flurry with both teams hitting big shots only for the other team to respond with one of their own. Matej Kavas, who was left alone outside the arc for most of the game due to the gravity of Menzies, hit another big three (5-12 3-pt), but the Redhawks inability to close the game out at the free-throw line came back to haunt them as another late basket for the Bears took the game to overtime (78-78).
Everyone was on their feet as Overtime began, and the atmosphere and noise in the arena was a perfect indicator of the basketball that was being played. Jordan Howard was taking over for the Bears making tough basket after tough basket, but the one two punch of Gittens and Hill kept the Redhawks right in it. But the Redhawks were burned by their biggest weakness all season, the inability to convert at the free throw line. The high minutes that the starters were force to play due to the injury started to take its toll as well. Shooting 12-21 from the line vs. 16-22 for the Bears, the Redhawks were still able to stay on the heels of Central Arkansas. Down just one possession as the the game ticked under a minute Jordan Hill, as he has done so many times in his career drove to the basket with a chance to tie the game. As he rose for the layoff, Hill was able to fight through a bunch of contact in order to get the shot up, but his lefty layup fell just short and with no help from the refs, the game slipped away. An amazing season for the Redhawks coming to an end 92-90 in overtime.
Although ending on a sour note the play by the Redhawks, especially being shorthanded forcing some players to play over forty minutes, was awe inspiring. In a season where they improved by seven wins under new head coach Jim Hayford, the Redhawks scratched and clawed as they have done all season, and showed true grit. The future seems to be bright for these Redhawks, and if they continue to play at the level they did on Wednesday night seasons like this one should continue. Seniors Jordan Hill, Richaud Gittens, and Josh Hearlihy should keep their heads held high as they were a huge part in leading the Seattle to their best record in eight seasons.
Postseason basketball at the raucous Connolly Center was a sight to behold and their should be many more opportunities to cheer in the years to come.