Young Talent Ignites Triton Fury

    The Triton men’s basketball program is in the midst of its most successful season since moving to NCAA Division II in 2000. The season began with new faces outnumbering returning players and, despite the lack of experience, the team broke the UCSD D-II records for wins in a season, conference victories, and, now, having won four-straight games, are heading into the final weeks of the season with the longest winning streak in eight years.

    Greg Dale/Guardian file
    Freshman guard Shane Poppen’s clutch play, including a game-winning layup against Cal State San Bernardino, has contributed to the Tritons’ program-best 13 Division-II wins.

    Propelling the Triton tide is a very deep squad with nine players averaging at least 10 minutes a game. Three of those players, forwards Henry Patterson and Darryl Lawlor, and guard Shane Poppen, are freshmen who have played in all 25 games this year.

    Patterson, the current California Collegiate Athletic Association Player of the Week, leads the team with 13.4 points per game and tops the CCAA in field-goal percentage, making 59 percent of his shots.

    Lawlor has proven extremely versatile from the forward position, averaging 6.6 points, 2.6 rebounds and one assist per game while converting a team-high 45.5 percent of his three-point attempts.

    Poppen is the team’s fourth-leading scorer with 7.3 points per game and has been particularly clutch as of late, with four points in the final two minutes of a win over Cal State Stanislaus and the winning layup against Cal State San Bernardino, helping UCSD defeat the six-time defending CCAA champions for the first time since moving up to Division II.

    In fact, without the clutch play of the triumvirate, the Tritons might not have recovered from a 2-7 start to reach third place in CCAA standings this late in the season.

    “Basketball is all about pressure,” said Poppen, the 6-foot-4-inch guard from Thousand Oaks. “You’re going to have pressure free throws, pressure shots and clutch defensive possessions. That’s what basketball is.”

    Sophomore guard Andrew Hatch, last year’s CCAA Freshman of the Year, called the contributions of the three freshmen “very important” and said there was never any conflict between the newcomers and returning players.

    “There wasn’t any struggle coming together as one,” said Hatch, calling the trio of freshman “humble” upon their arrival. “Everyone really gets along on the team.”

    The humble spirit is evident when talking with the newcomers. Asked for his greatest individual moment from this year, Lawlor had to be reminded of his own heroics during the home opener against Grand Canyon University when his layup in the final minute sent the game into overtime.

    “Oh yeah, that was a pretty big shot,” said Lawlor of the Jan. 3 game that ended in a 94-91 overtime win. “That was pretty cool.”

    Patterson pointed to the Grand Canyon contest as the moment when the team really began to gel on the court.

    “They [Grand Canyon] were ranked like No. 12 in the country, and that win sealed the notion that we can win the close games,” Patterson said, noting that his own sense of belonging on the team came much earlier. “Till then we lost a lot of nail-biters. That was the first game where we were really able to execute at the end and come out on top. I felt like a part of the team when we finally finished conditioning after we had to run a mile in five minutes and forty-five seconds and we got our team shoes. That was when I was like ‘We’re brothers now.’ Everyone is in here together and we’re a team.”

    The familial theme seemed a popular sentiment among all three players, who continually compared the atmosphere to that of a family, stating their love for their teammates, and describing practice scuffles akin to fights between older and younger brothers.

    Patterson labeled his teammate, senior guard Odioh Odiye, as the “big dad” and “old guy on the team.” Odiye seems to embrace the role of mentor.

    “I try to give them advice from experiences that I went through,” said Odiye, the only senior on this year’s squad. “I am confident that they will be able to fill my void. The team will be very good next year. They’ll all have valuable experience.”

    Lack of experience might have been one of the reasons that UCSD was picked during the preseason to finish No. 7 in the ultra-competitive CCAA. Losing its first three conference games by an average of three points might have led some to believe that the young Triton team wasn’t ready to compete with the conference elite. However, the young players never got down on themselves.

    “You don’t really know what to expect when there are a lot of young players,” Poppen said. “We fought through some adversity in the beginning of the season, but I knew being around these guys and seeing how hard we worked that we’d turn the ship around, and we did.”

    Lawlor, like Poppen, immediately noticed the renewed work ethic of this year’s squad.

    “When we were at our first practice and I saw these guys work out, I knew it was going to be something special,” Lawlor said. “I love everybody on this team and we just started to gel. It’s a beautiful thing.”

    The freshmen have received little slack from second-year head coach Bill Carr. Despite the early intimidation from the extra work, all three seem to be motivated instead of frustrated with the coaching system.

    “I think this program has been used to coaches who were not as intense and not as serious,” Patterson said. “Coach Carr is a different kind of coach. He’s out there to win, he’s out there to be successful, and the only way to achieve success is through hard work.”

    Lawlor agreed that Carr’s relentless pressure to improve has pushed the team.

    “He’s never satisfied as a coach,” Lawlor said. “We’re coming off a four-game winning streak and we just got kicked out of practice [on Monday] because we weren’t going hard enough. He always expects more from us.”

    What Carr comes to expect might very well include the postseason as soon as this year. Playoff-eligible this late in the season — another Division-II first — the Tritons are three games behind Sonoma State and Cal State Bakersfield for what will likely be the two CCAA postseason spots. Four games remain on their schedule, three against teams they’ve already beat and a regular season finale against Sonoma State that could be monumental for the program.

    “We just want to go 4-0, finish strong and hopefully get that spot in the playoffs,” Patterson said.

    That scenario might have seemed very distant to the 6-foot-5-inch forward a year ago when he sat out the season to focus on academics.

    “I like to take credit for pushing him toward playing again,” said Hatch, one of Patterson’s closest friends who called the forward “our main offensive weapon.”

    Patterson, now a Triton star, almost stayed off the hardwood before Hatch convinced him.

    “When I was scheduling my classes I felt as if [it] was too much,” Patterson said. “Basketball just seemed like something extra that I didn’t need at the time. I returned because I really missed the competitive atmosphere and the camaraderie formed between teammates.”

    While Patterson gets more minutes and accolades than his counterparts, Poppen and Lawlor’s versatility have helped to make UCSD a complete package.

    “Shane has brought some much-needed athleticism and Darryl is a guy who can play both outside and inside,” Odiye said.

    “I don’t really like a particular part of my game more than any other,” Lawlor said. “I think I’m a pretty well-rounded player.”

    Lawlor’s well-rounded game meshes well with Poppen’s style of play.

    “I love to use my jumping ability to grab offensive rebounds,” Poppen said. The player now known as “Shooter Shane” admitted he “likes to shoot a little bit too.”

    Poppen’s sharp shooting coupled with Patterson and Lawlor’s agressive play has led to this historic season.

    The impressive year for these three freshmen and the rest of the Triton men’s basketball team continues this weekend as it travels to take on Cal Poly Pomona and Cal State Dominguez Hills, before returning to RIMAC for the final homestand of the season. While they focus on the end of this season, it’s also evident that the magic this year can continue in years to come.

    “The potential this team has for success is limitless,” Patterson said. “We are capable of doing something very special for this program.”

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