The Seawolves may have exploded for 24 points during the game’s final seven minutes, but their 66-50 win over their rival Chico State Wildcats on Feb. 3 was all about defense.
The court in question was Sonoma State’s home, The Wolves’ Den. After a mid-season remodel forced the Seawolves to host games elsewhere for three months, their much-anticipated return made defending their home more important than ever.
When asked to compare the surrounding hype to that of other games during his four-year career, senior center Luke Cochran said this one was “definitely at the top.”
Since Nov. 19, the Seawolves haven’t had a home court. They still had games, however, and their opponents felt the wrath of a team looking to put up a fight. They entered Friday allowing a Division II-best 58.1 points per game, and proceeded to hold the Wildcats—who score 76.6 points on average— to a season-low 50.
Perimeter shooting and offensive rebounding have been big parts of Chico’s success this season, but both proved difficult against Sonoma. The Seawolves’ willingness to switch and close out eliminated what would normally be pockets of airspace for Chico jump shooters, while their guards covered for them on the boards.
Seniors Khalid Johnson and Jimmy Golden tied for the team lead with five rebounds each. Both are guards.
“All week, our coaches were saying to us that if we can limit their offensive rebounds, we’ll have a good chance to win,” Johnson said.
At the break, Chico had 15 points, and was 3-of-13 on threes. That type of team defense is expected by the Seawolves themselves.
“We’ve practiced hundreds, if not thousands of times to make the right defensive decisions…it just becomes second nature,” Cochran said.
Chico responded to Sonoma’s feisty perimeter defense by changing its game plan at halftime. It took only eight triples in the second half, and started to force the ball inside. The results were slightly more positive for the Wildcats. They got to the free-throw line 20 times after just two first-half attempts, while also cutting their turnovers from 11 to five. They scored 35 points, a more typical showing for their high-powered offense.
Yet, the Seawolves’ halftime lead of 12 grew to 16 by the final buzzer due to an offensive outburst. After a two-point first half, Cochran scored 13 in the second on 6-of-7 shooting. His 3-point play with 5:04 remaining—he had another and-1 opportunity minutes earlier, but missed the free throw—was just one of many highlights during a game-closing 14-4 surge, serving as a response to Chico cutting the lead to 44-37 with 6:55 remaining.
The Seawolves’ run started with a 3 from Golden, who finished with a game-high 18 points. On the next possession, Cochran recorded his third block of the night, which led to an and-1 for senior wing Armani Nicolis. Cochran’s and-1 came the next trip down, and a steal-and-score from Johnson capped the game-defining burst.
Cochran credited the crowd with leading the late charge.
“They brought so much energy and we just fed off it, playing some of our best basketball,” he said.
The near-capacity crowd had plenty of reasons to be excited. The Seawolves entered the game tied for third in CCAA play, with a conference record of 9-3. Chico was alone in first place, at 11-2. With Sonoma’s victory and a 56-47 win the next night against Stanislaus State (6-16 overall, 3-12 in CCAA), the team now moves to within half a game of first place.
That it was the school’s annual Pack The Den night also boosted the fan presence, both in attendance and decibel level.
Despite the game’s high intensity andstakes, the Seawolves players remained level-headed.
“Yeah it was Pack The Den against a great team like Chico, but it was like any other league game for us,” Johnson said. “We just wanted to defend our home court like we would against any other team.”
Defend, they did.