In recent years, the West Coast Conference has been dominated by two teams that have turned into regulars at the NCAA Tournament: the Gonzaga Bulldogs and the St. Mary’s Gaels. But this year, there’s a third WCC team with Tourney hopes.
Currently ranked No. 3 in the conference, the Lions (17-10, WCC 7-6) are 10-7 in their last 17 games, and are riding high after beating Gonzaga 68-67 in late January, and St. Mary’s 78-74 on Feb. 9. Led by Coach Stan Johnson, the team plays suffocating defense and would be a Cinderella story even before tip-off of their first March Madness game if they were to make it.
Jalin Anderson, a junior guard, credits Johnson for keeping the team focused this year.
“I do feel like this team is locked in,” Anderson said. “We really believe we can beat anybody in the country. So we just go out there and just show our confidence and swagger.”
Crediting Johnson for keeping the team locked in, Anderson has the utmost confidence in his team. He believes that on any given day, they can out work any team they play regardless of their ranking or buzz. Hoping to become this season’s WCC Sixth Man of the Year, Anderson has been a force on offense and defense, averaging a career-high 10 points per game in addition to his 2.3 assists per game. He’s also a great on-ball and off-ball defender. With 22 steals this season, Anderson has already shattered his previous season best. Heading into the final stretch of the season, his defense stands to be a huge factor in the success of the team.
Justin Ahrens, a fifth-year guard who has shot almost 40 percent from 3 over the course of his career—he played for Ohio State University prior to coming to LMU and went to the Tournament three times with the Buckeyes—credited the team’s defense for the higher level of play this season.
“We defend, rebound, and run — that’s when we’re at our best,” he said. “We really truly believe we can play with the best in the country, but we got to be on our Ps and Qs. When we don’t defend, that’s when we lose games we shouldn’t be losing.”
LMU’s first loss of the season was against UC Riverside on Nov. 10. After jumping out to a 52-34 lead at the half, the Lions were unable to stop Riverside’s scoring attack in the second half, when they outscored the Lions by 20. Similarly, when LMU played Utah State on Dec. 10, the Lions jumped out to an early lead (39-36), only to then lose the game by 12 points. It’s only when the Lions are making defensive call outs, are aware of incoming screens and picks, and are rebounding on both offense and defense that they can be a tough team to beat.
Another contributing factor to the team’s success this year, according to senior guard Kwane Marble II? They like each other.
“We mesh really well together,” he said. “We get along really well off the court, which I feel is really important for our chemistry on the court.”
Although he began the season with a foot injury, Marble is now ready to help propel the team toward March Madness. He scored double digit points in back-to-back conference games last season as a junior (15 against Portland and 10 against Pepperdine) and can be a huge asset when healthy.
After the huge win vs No. 15 St. Mary’s (22-5, WCC 11-2) last week, the Lions hold a 2-1 record against ranked opponents. After St. Mary’s jumped out to an early lead of 16 points, LMU managed to get back in the game quickly by hitting 6 threes in the first half. Guard Cam Shelton hit a layup to tie the game with 2 seconds left (he scored 31 points on the night), sending the game to overtime. While overtime was a back and forth shootout, the Lions went on to win after forward Keli Leaupepe made two free throws late. The starting 5 of Alex Merkviladze, Rick Issanza, Ahrens, Leaupepe, and Shelton, collectively scored 63 points.
On Thursday, the Lions are set to once again take on the Gonzaga Bulldogs (21-5, WCC 10-2), this time at a sold-out Gersten Pavilion, where the Lions are 12-2 this season. Going into the first half, expect to see the Lions locked in on defense. With a team that can put up points like Gonzaga, LMU’s offense must be ready to shoot and take all the scoring opportunities they can get. In games versus other opponents, Gonzaga has managed to score over 100 points on seven occasions, making it all the more impressive that the Lions held them to just 67 in their first meeting.
The game will be broadcast on the CBS Sports Network and livestreamed on FuboTV beginning Thursday night at 8 p.m.