Tritons enter GLVC Tournament looking to build on one of the most successful seasons in program history
Bob Sundvold noticed the banner hanging from the rafters in the corner of the Mark Twain Athletic Center in 2013 when he first came to interview for the job of head men’s basketball coach at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
It lists the years of the school’s NCAA Tournament appearances and contains only two numbers. The most recent: 1988.
“Why?” Sundvold remembers wondering. “You look back, and they’ve had good coaches, they’ve had good players, they’ve had good teams. They just haven’t been able to get the tournament.”
Had Sundvold spent too much time pondering the potential reasons for what at the time was a 25-year postseason drought, he might have been scared off from pursuing the position at all.
It’s not that he didn’t raise the issue with Director of Athletics Lori Flanagan, but she managed to pitch the veteran coach on the quality of the university and the program’s potential. When she offered him the job, he didn’t take long to accept.
For seven years, though, Sundvold has found himself looking up at that banner, whether he’s huddled with his players during practice or barking orders from the sidelines during games. It’s been a near daily reminder of a goal still unmet.
“Yeah, it’s about time,” Sundvold said. “In Division II, you ought to get into the tournament.”
He and the Tritons could be on the verge of doing just that. With senior forward Jason Towery scoring a career-high 21 points to lead four players in double figures, the team held off a second-half charge by Illinois Springfield in Saturday afternoon’s regular-season finale to secure an 86-79 victory. They celebrated the victory by cutting down the net at the west end of Chuck Smith Court after capping an unbeaten season at home and clinching a share of the Great Lakes Valley Conference regular-season title with Truman State.
UMSL heads into this week’s GLVC Championship Tournament as the top seed after sharing the regular-season title and will take on No. 8 seed Drury at 6 p.m. Thursday at First Community Arena on the campus of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
The Tritons are ranked 18th nationally, at 25-5 already own the school record for victories in a season and are No. 6 in the latest NCAA Division II Midwest Regional rankings – positioned to be one of the eight teams that qualify for the national tournament.
To call this a breakthrough season for Sundvold’s program would be to overlook the success it enjoyed a year ago when UMSL won 20 games for only the fourth time in history and first since 1991.
But the way that season ended, with a lopsided loss to Southern Indiana in the GLVC quarterfinal that ended the Tritons’ NCAA hopes, served to motivate returning players such as Towery, Jalen Wilkins-McCoy, Jose Grubbs, Steve Webb and Shane Wissink throughout the offseason.
“When adversity hit late in the season, I think we kind of folded a little bit,” Towery said. “That wasn’t the way we wanted to finish.”
UMSL has had to replace two seniors who finished as last season’s top two scorers – guard Johnathan Matthews and forward Eric Dust – but has gotten increased production from a number of veterans. Grubbs, a 6-3 swingman, has more than doubled his offensive output to 13.5 points per game. Forwards Towery and Wilkins-McCoy are both averaging more than 10 points and roughly five rebounds. Webb has led the team in rebounds (5.8 rpg) and assists (3.6 apg). Wissink is averaging 8.7 points and shooting a team-best 45.2 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
Sundvold and his staff also brought in junior point guard Yaakema Rose Jr., a NJCAA Division II All-American last season. He’s exceeded their expectations, averaging a team-high 14.1 points and has picked up near two steals per game.
“Yaak brings a lot,” Wilkins-McCoy said. “He can get those last-second shot-clock shots, or if you want an early bucket, he can get it. He passes the ball well, and he sees the floor.”
Early injuries forced Sundvold to deploy a smaller lineup than he might otherwise have preferred. Towery and Wilkins-McCoy, both 6-5, have logged most of the minutes in the frontcourt.
What the Tritons have lacked in size, they’ve made up for in versatility and athleticism, and they’ve used it to become one of the nation’s stingiest defensive teams. They rank third nationally in scoring defense, holding opponents to 62.1 points per game and only 41.5 percent shooting from the field.
“We all sit down and grind every day we come in here and work,” Webb said. “We pride ourselves on getting stops and then running. We’re all not very big, but we’re very quick and athletic. So when we get stops, we get to run. Now we’re on the break doing what we love to do.”
There were early signs UMSL would be able to combine that formula with enough poise and grit to have success, starting with an exhibition loss at Indiana State on Nov. 30. The Tritons were battling the Sycamores to a draw midway through the second half before running out of steam against the Division I opponent.
Sundvold got an early taste of his team’s resilience as it rallied from an eight-point deficit in the final 15 minutes of the second half against Universidad de Puerto Rico Bayamón on Dec. 19 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
He really started to believe the team might have big things in store when it pulled out a 72-70 victory at Drury, snapping a 12-game losing streak against the GLVC-rival Panthers.
UMSL won 19 of 20 games during one stretch in the middle of the season, moving into the national rankings and climbing as high as No. 13.
The Tritons had a setback when they lost three of four games during a road trip in mid-February. That included one-point losses at Truman State and Southern Indiana, the latter coming after they squandered a 10-point lead in the final five minutes.
But UMSL rebounded to win four straight at home to finish the regular season.
In addition to their defensive prowess, the Tritons have succeeded by limiting mistakes. They rank 14th in the country in fewest turnovers and ninth in turnover margin.
“You kind of feel like that’s going to show up every night,” Sundvold said. “If you have a team that has to rely on 15 3s every game, that’s when you sweat it out. But we take care of the ball, we defend.
“We’ve only had a couple hiccups where we didn’t really play hard and maybe weren’t quite as focused.”
Sundvold said he’s only felt that way maybe twice in 30 games.
That gives him and his players confidence that they can not only get into the NCAA Tournament but will have an opportunity to hang around a while if they do.
“It does feel really good to be in this position, knowing that we’re doing so well and that we have so much time left to just keep improving,” Webb said. “But we’ve got to realize that at any given moment, this can be taken away from us. So, we’ve got to keep our heads on straight and keep working because we can lose in the first round still. We don’t want to be satisfied.”
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