Despite ending the season on a five-point loss to Saint Mary’s, the 2020-2021 basketball season was a massive success for the LMU Lions. From winning their first WCC tournament game since 2006, to having four players honored at the conference’s end-of-season awards, the Lions made a massive leap that may have been the first step towards creating a culture of winning similar to that of WCC rivals, the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
The turnaround all started with the hiring of Stan Johnson, the Lions’ new head coach who led the team to a 7-5 record in the WCC and a 13-9 record overall. Johnson came to LMU after coaching at Marquette, Arizona State University, & Drake. He instantly started to create excitement around men’s basketball with a tasteful rebrand and an increased focus on digital content. Johnson led the Lions to 3rd place in the WCC and was a finalist for the Joe B. Hall award.
On Nov. 25th, the Lions opened their season against Southern Utah and gave fans a hint of the excitement that would follow for the next three months. With 10 seconds left and a score of 83-83, Eli Scott dribbled up the court prepared to take the final shot. Scott hesitated before bolting right and, with two seconds left, he prepared to gather and shoot before the ball was knocked out of his hands. Freshman Jalin Anderson picked up the ball and let it fly as time expired. As the ball found the bottom of the net and the Lions celebrated Coach Johnson’s first win as captain of the ship, a sense of hope reverberated through the LMU community that this might be the year that things start to turn around in Westchester.
The rest of the Lions’ pre-season was full of ups, downs, and cancellations that led to going into conference play with a 5-3 record. Eli Scott quickly established himself as the Lions first option with a slew of impressive outings including 31 points and 12 boards against a battle-tested UC Santa Barbara team. Although Scott led the charge, few shined as brightly as sophomore Dameane Douglas who built on a solid freshman season by playing with enhanced confidence and a larger role. He led the Lions in scoring for the last three games of the pre-season (not to mention rebounding in two of those three games).
The team enjoyed a three-week winter break due to coronavirus cancellations before starting conference play with an eight-point win over the University of San Francisco on January 10th. Eli Scott controlled the game as he recorded his 17th career double-double (20 PTS, 10 REB) while the Lions willed their way to their first league win by outscoring USF 15-4 in second chance points. The excitement that surrounded LMU basketball in early December quickly returned and the team prepared to take the WCC by storm.
This excitement was diminished on Jan. 23rd as Dameane Douglas suffered a season ending injury during a three-point loss to Santa Clara. The sophomore had been averaging 13.5 PPG and 7.3 RPG while shooting 54% from the field. “Dameane is a tough person who is the ultimate competitor,” said Head Coach Stan Johnson. “There’s no doubt in my mind he will come back a better player and more determined individual than ever before. He means so much to our team and is a huge part of what we are building here at LMU.”
Despite Douglas’ injury, the Lions continued to win thanks in large part to continued production from Keli Leoupepe. The 6’6 sophomore from Australia became a viral celebrity in November due to Barstool Sports dubbing him the “coolest player in college basketball”. Leoupepe and his signature hair continued to be a problem for opponents all season through excellent spacing and quick yet effective post ups resulting in Keli finishing the season as the Lion’s third highest scorer (10.5 PPG).
On February 18th, LMU extended their win streak to four behind one of Mattias Markusson’s best games of the season. The 7’3 player from Sweden seemed to get whatever he wanted in terms of back-to-the-basket post scoring against a familiar USF team. Markusson scored 11 points to go with 15 rebounds as LMU bested the Dons by five points. Matthias played well all season after he took a year off to be with his family.
LMU ended their regular season with a loss to the number one team in the nation, the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Despite the L, the Lions gave GU one of their toughest matchups of the season controlling the tempo for the majority of the game and finding ways to score against an elite defense. It wasn’t enough though, and the Bulldogs topped the Lions by 17 points thanks to a deep roster of terrific talent and three college superstars in Jaylen Suggs, Corey Kispert, and Drew Timme.
Prior to the start of the post-season tournament, the 3rd place Lions received some good news when the WCC announced their all-conference teams. Four Lions were selected with Eli Scott earning first team, Dameane Douglas and Keli Leoupepe earning honorable mentions, and Jalin Anderson earning a spot on the all-freshman team.
After being knocked out in the first round of their conference tournament for the past 15 years, the Lions felt the importance of their first round game against San Francisco on March 5th. Everything from Johnson’s arrival in Los Angeles to LMU’s third place finish indicated that this season was different from past years of mediocrity and their first round game affirmed just that. The contest was close the entire time with neither team holding a lead of more than five points the entire game. The game was decided in the final two minutes as Eli Scott converted back-to-back ones, capping off a 12-4 run. Scott finished the game with 24 points, 14 rebounds, and the Lions first postseason win since George W. Bush was in office.
LMU’s quarter-finals appearance against Saint Mary’s didn’t go quite as well as both teams struggled from the field resulting in a halftime score of 21-24, SMC’s favor. The Lions’ were unable to gain the lead in the second half and ended up losing the game, 47-52. Although the Lion’s fell short of their ultimate goal, spirits remained high as fans understand that the energy around the team, thanks in large part to Stan Johnson, will not merely go away during the off-season.
The Lions got the best news of the season on March 31st when Eli Scott announced that he would be taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility the NCAA is offering. LMU’s go-to guy will be back for another year of buckets and preparation for whatever league is next for Scott.
Although the loss of the Lions’ big man Mattias Markusson will certainly be felt, it will be minimized by the arrival of two electric freshman guards. David Elliott IV and Lamaj Lewis were both honored with invitations to McDonald’s All-American Game and will be arriving in Los Angeles this fall. Both can score at will, facilitate with ease, and should provide some of the most fun basketball LMU’s had the privilege of watching in years.
With an inspiring new head coach, a roster of talent that’s only getting better, and a new sense of excitement surrounding Lions basketball, the feeling that LMU might be on the verge of creating a winning culture around Gersten Pavilion is palpable.