In some ways, the Southwestern University Pirates men's 2018-19 basketball season was a historic one. In truth, the year the Pirates had was less about making history and more about setting up the future.
On the last day of the regular season, the Pirates staged an epic comeback, trailing the Austin College Kangaroos by 15 with less than five minutes remaining. Junior forward Brandon Alexander made several big plays down the stretch to pull out an 80-77 victory.
The win earned the Pirates a share of the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) title with a school-best 11-5 conference record, the second regular season title in program history after the 2004-05 team. It also might've clinched the SCAC Player of the Year for Alexander, which was also the second time in program history and also follows the 2004-05 season in which Aaron Bowser won the award.
"He had a really good year last year but because we didn't win enough, he ended up third team [All-SCAC]," Head Coach Janson Hightower said. "He also developed as a leader both vocally and energy-wise in practice with his work ethic."
Alexander bumped his scoring average up to 18.1 points per game on 44.2 percent shooting, setting the school's best individual mark since joining the SCAC.
The season before, he was thrust into a top role as a sophomore when senior Ryan Ogden's season ended in injury 13 games in. The team finished 10-15 on the season and 6-8 in conference, falling to seventh in the standings and out of the SCAC Tournament, though just two games out of the second seed with three teams finishing 8-6.
It was enough to keep outsiders skeptical heading into the season with coaches picking the Pirates to finish fifth in conference in the preseason polls.
"I think we always knew we were better than that," Hightower said. "[Missing the tournament] was good motivation in the offseason to get back and do well this year with so many players coming back.
"I think Ogden getting injured hurt us last season but started to form the roles everyone else would take on this year and figure it all out half a season early, so it pushed us ahead of schedule."
Alexander's scoring was a constant foundation the rest of the team plugged in around. A strong shooter with size and versatility in his jump shot, Alexander is capable of shifting defenses without dominating the ball, warping defenses with his gravity (the attention he draws from defenses) while empowering his teammates to make plays.
No other player made any of the three all-conference teams but several (Jake Holmes, Joel Martinez, Andrew Puhl, and Ryan Wheeler) earned votes, perhaps pulling attention away from each other with coaches unable to decide between quality players of equal value.
"Brandon can dominate stretches of games with his scoring but there's not necessarily just one dominant player out there with how we play," Hightower said. "When you don't have that, you need to have a lot of options and I think guys one through eight or nine were able to carry us through lulls with their effort on either end. We needed everybody.
"When you go down the list, they all have exciting things about their games that helped us stay in games, build leads, or make comebacks."
Senior Jake Holmes, a baseball player plying his wares in a new sport, was an oddball center; providing playmaking and rebounding to keep the Pirates' offense humming. Backup Trenton Garrett, with size and length more traditional to the position, was the team's best rim protector with some rim-running ability and burgeoning shooting range.
The pairing made for interesting contrasts of style, moving from motion with Alexander and Wheeler running intricate routes off the ball with Holmes holding the ball at the elbows to simple spread pick-and-roll with Martinez, Luke Hicks, or Kyle Howard creating for themselves or others.
Southwestern challenged itself with its non-conference schedule, defeating the University of Texas-Dallas in the season opener; a team that would go on to win 24 games and the American Southwest Conference Tournament, earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
From the Nov. 17 game against Howard Payne until a Jan. 11 game at Austin College, a variety of ailments kept the Pirates' lineups short of full strength.
Losses to quality teams in McMurry, Mary Hardin-Baylor and George Fox were part of a four-game losing streak heading into the Dec. 15 conference opener.
In that opening weekend against Johnson & Wales University, the coaching staff made its first significant move of the season, putting Puhl into the starting lineup.
A fringe rotation player a season ago, Puhl made subtle improvements across his game, improving his outside shooting a little and adding some off-the-dribble ability to attack closeouts. Improved strength added power to drives lacking explosive burst, bodying smaller guards and wings with his drives to the paint more than speeding past them while maintaining control.
The improvements didn't do anything to change the mindset of a player going all out to earn a spot in the rotation, even after it was secured. Puhl helped to shore up the Pirates' defense and rebounding, producing a double-double in his first start and a double-digit rebounding performance in his second.
Southwestern shook off its four-game losing streak to reel off a 5-0 conference start.
"We showed a lot of resiliency, keeping our eyes on the conference season, which is the most important," Hightower said. "They stuck to the plan of playing unselfish and trusting the changes we tried to make defensively. There were games where we turned people over and games we did some good work in zones and I think that goes to them being smart kids because they're able to handle a lot of new information."
The Pirates lost back-to-back games in January, falling on the road against Dallas and at home against Texas Lutheran University. Then three more to start February, dropping two games in Colorado and the third at Schreiner, putting the Pirates at a crossroads.
"That was a turning point because at 7-5 in conference and having to go to Trinity and then TLU on Saturday and Tuesday, that could've been where we fell back to the middle of the pack where we were picked to finish," Hightower said. "It reminded us we have to be ready to play once the ball is tipped because everyone can beat you. The margin for error is so small, you can't not be ready for the first four or five minutes and fall into a hole."
Heading into the final stretch, the coaching staff moved Joel Martinez into the starting lineup, adding defensive length on the perimeter and off-the-dribble creativity to shake the Pirates out of their slump.
The Pirates torched Trinity University 92-76 in Martinez's first conference start and then a 93-83 victory over Texas Lutheran, keeping the window open for the regular season title.
Martinez played well enough to earn the final SCAC Player of the Week this season as the Pirates closed the season with two comeback wins at home against Centenary and Austin College, earning a share of the conference title when Centenary defeated TLU on the last day of the regular season.
Alexander got the individual hardware but every player played a role from Kyle Howard and Ryan Wheeler creating off the bounce on offense and jumping into passing lanes on defense to Luke Hicks hitting shots against tough defenses.
Even the end of the bench guys contributed, with Justin McCormack providing instant offense when things stagnated, Kyle Poerschke bringing energy from the wing, and Mike May spacing the floor and playing sound positional defense against a handful of post scorers.
"I thought our bench was really good as far as how they acted and their positivity," Hightower said. "That's something we looked for from those guys and no matter the score, they were into the game."
For creating that culture and maximizing the rotating pieces of the roster, Hightower earned the SCAC Coach of the Year award, which he credited his players for.
"[Coach of the Year] means you have good players and you probably improved a decent amount over last year," Hightower said. "And I think it means our coaches respect us and how we do things, so it's nice to receive that from your peers. And of course, I wouldn't have had a chance at it without the kids working hard.
"I just think they're doing all the little things the right way. It's great to win on the basketball court and I'm glad they were rewarded with at least one trophy this year. They're such great kids off the court and involved on campus and have built such a good reputation for this program these last few years, doing amazing work in the classroom from guy one through 17. They should be very proud of that. In every aspect of the program, they're succeeding."
And though it wasn't a storybook ending with a semifinals loss to the University of Dallas in the SCAC Tournament, with every rotation player except Jake Holmes returning, this year was less about endings and more about building towards a brighter tomorrow.