While most Southwestern College students were relaxing at home getting plump off eggnog, the men’s basketball team was traveling Southern California competing against the who’s who of elite basketball programs.
Now 8-2 against PCAC opponents, SWC is in the pole position for the conference championship. Its two recent losses have caused concern for head coach John Cosentino although he said the skid may have some benefits.
“We were without our primary playmaker Kevin [Windley],” he said. “You would hope you would learn while winning, but you really do learn a lot from losing. We were kind of full of ourselves. Once we get back to full strength I think we will be in a good position for the playoffs.”
Although the results have been good, they have not always looked pretty. In the conference opener against winless Imperial Valley, the Jags left the crowd stunned with a 35-31 halftime deficit.
In the second half, the Jags unleashed a 60-point onslaught on the shell-shocked Arabs, cruising to a 91-77 victory. SWC’s offensive outburst was spearheaded by sophomore guard Shawn Lathan’s 20-point, 8-rebound performance.
Cosentino said Lathan’s leadership was key as the sophomore battled through injury.
“He’s going to make plays, drain threes and do a lot of little things,” he said. “He’s our team leader on offense and he played hurt with the thigh bruise, but with him you never know. He’s very theatrical.”
Lathan described the injury.
“It felt like someone shot me,” he said. “If the game gets close, I’m going to turn up the intensity and my teammates will follow my lead. Kevin [Windley] is right there as my second scorer.”
SWC got off to another sloppy start against the Cuyamaca Coyotes. Turnovers and careless fouls helped Cuyamaca to a 31-26 lead late in the first half.
Like a case of déjà vu, SWC stormed back and took the lead in the second half behind freshman reserve guard Richard Grove’s 21 points. This time, despite Grove’s torrid three-point shooting, the game stayed competitive until the waning minutes when the Jags’ 51-29 rebounding edge powered an 80-71 win.
Rebounding has been SWC’s one consistent statistical category all season. Ranked first in Southern California, the Jags average 43.5 rebounds per game and their rebounding margin in conference play is an astounding 22.5 per game. Sean Butts, a 6-foot-7-inch freshman, leads the conference and is fourth in the state with 11.6 rebounds per contest. If the Jags fail to rebound from their early-half doldrums, however, they could struggle in an extremely deep conference that boasts four teams ranked in the Top 10 in Southern California.
Cosentino said his team needs to stop underestimating their opponents.
“If I could explain it, I’d fix it,” he said. “I think we start paying attention to our ranking and the other teams record and we get comfortable. I’ve told them we are going to get everyone’s best game. When the third place team plays the fourth place team that’s something else, but when anybody plays the team that is eleventh in the state and first in the conference, you get everyone’s A game.”
Sophomore Yobby Williams, the team’s 6-foot-8-inch defensive anchor, concurred.
“I don’t know why our energy hasn’t been there to start games,” he said. “I guess we need to start sweating first, but once we do there’s no stopping us.”
Cosentino said, despite SWC’s big victories, the players are not taking any win for granted.
“There are no easy games left, your not going to blow anyone out,” he said. “We did beat [San Diego] Mesa by 20 points, but that was probably because I had pneumonia and I wasn’t there.”
All kidding aside, Cosentino said the Jags are primed to achieve their preseason goal and stacked with enough talent to make a deep playoff run. Skip the eggnog, chill the champagne.