With the bitter taste of a subpar 2014-15 season serving as great motivation, the University of Redlands men's basketball team returned to the hardwood in 2015-16 with a hungry desire for a successful campaign. With the right concoction of capable veterans and first-year players, the Bulldogs doubled their wins from the previous year and advanced to the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) Postseason Tournament for the first time in three years. The exciting campaign was highlighted by a dramatic end-of-season run that catapulted them into a tie for second place in the SCIAC standings and secured Head Coach Jim Ducey's 200th career-win. By the final whistle, Redlands had earned an overall record of 14-13, which included a 9-7 mark among a parity-full conference.
After opening with a 67-58 victory over the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs in non-conference action, the Bulldogs put together a 3-1 start to the season that included wins over Northwest Conference opponents, Pacific University (OR) and Linfield College (OR), in back-to-back days. With an impressive 50-point performance by the Bulldog bench brigade, Redlands outscored Pacific by 12 points in the second half en route to a 73-58 victory. After being sidelined by injury as a rookie, sophomore guard Wyatt Pannabecker (Choteau, MT) returned to action to drop 13 points on a 3-for-4 shooting night from beyond the arc. Sophomore forward Reed Hopkins (Spokane, WA) also stepped up for the Maroon and Gray by tossing in 13 points on 5-for-9 shooting off the bench. In the Bulldogs' 87-79 victory over Linfield, senior forward Al Bjekovic (Maribor, Slovenia) earned his first of five double-doubles on the season, with this one coming off of 26 points and 15 boards. Sophomore guard Kyle Husslein (Tamuning, Guam) complemented his teammate's efforts with an 18-point, three-assist showing.
Unfortunately, December did not fare well for the Bulldogs, as they gained just one victory in five games played. During the positive outcome against LIFE Pacific College, freshman guard Joey Sponheim (Redlands, CA) provided a spark off the bench by drilling 14 points in 17 minutes of action en route to the 78-65 tromping.
When conference action began in January, the Bulldogs' struggles continued for the first three games, which extended their skid to seven games.
However, Redlands regained its rhythm by rattling off consecutive wins against Cal Lutheran University, the University of La Verne, and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Colleges. In a 75-68 triumph over Cal Lutheran, three starters produced double-digit scoring, as Bjekovic paced the pack with 20 points and 10 rebounds to earn another double-double. Sophomore center Blake O'Brien (Sammamish, WA) chipped in 14 points on a 4-for-8 shooting mark, while Husslein added 10 points. Junior guard Sean Milligan (Portland, OR) also served as a key contributor by draining nine points and hauling in eight rebounds.
Redlands followed with a 76-72 nail-biting victory against La Verne, with S. Milligan taking charge on the offensive front with 23 points. Bjekovic contributed 19 points and 13 rebounds to earn his second-consecutive double-double. Senior forward Kyle Milligan (Portland, OR) crashed the boards with tenacity for a 14-rebound showing in the victory.
Claremont-Mudd-Scripps was next on the list, as the Maroon and Gray took down the Stags by the final score of 68-61. Four of the five starters finished the night in double figures, with Bjekovic leading the way once more with a 20-point performance.
After temporary setbacks against Whittier College and Chapman University, the Bulldogs put together a four-game winning streak that began with a 20-point victory over Cal Lutheran University. Bjekovic stepped up for a season-high 32 points in a 66-58 victory over Pomona-Pitzer Colleges on February 3, before the Maroon and Gray avenged a pair of earlier losses to Caltech and Occidental College. Bjekovic's hot hand continued during the Bulldogs' 75-71 triumph against the Beavers, as he lit up the scoreboard for 28 points and grabbed 18 rebounds. The Maroon and Gray's momentum continued in a 55-50 triumph over Occidental, as Sponheim served as an effective sixth man by drilling a trio of triples en route to an 11-point burst of offense.
Despite back-to-back losses, the Bulldogs finished out the regular season with two critical victories – one coming in a 24-point rout over rival CMS on Senior Night and another in a comeback showing over La Verne. After trailing by as many as 17 points against the Leopards, Redlands clawed its way back to capture Head Coach Jim Ducey's 200th career-win with a thrilling 78-76 victory on the road to complete the regular season. Senior center Shawn James (Plano, TX) made his first start of the season a memorable one by burying the first bucket of the night. After the team's offense stalled in the second half, sophomore forward Will Tender (Spokane, WA) found an open freshman forward Trevor Brown (San Mateo, CA) under the basket for a lay-up that initiated the Maroon and Gray's epic comeback. S. Milligan led the charge with a 20-point showing, but Sponheim, Husslein, and Bjekovic also contributed plenty of late-game heroics to complete the impressive comeback.
With a conference record of 9-7, the Bulldogs tied for second place in the standings and entered the SCIAC Postseason Tournament as the third seed due to a tiebreaker scenario against Whittier College. As a result, Redlands traveled to Whittier to face off against the No. 2-seeded Poets in the semifinal of the tournament.
The Maroon and Gray overcame a 17-point deficit for the second game in a row, which led to Redlands' first win over the Poets in the teams' third meeting of the season. Sophomore forward Nate Battisti (Seattle, WA) sparked the Bulldogs' comeback by going off for 15 points, which included a perfect 2-for-2 mark from long range and a flawless effort at the charity stripe. S. Milligan was instrumental as well by scoring 20 points, including the go-ahead trey with 3:45 left in the game.
With the victory, Redlands traveled to Chapman University to face off against the Panthers in the SCIAC Postseason Tournament Championship to determine the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The contest was all the fans could hope for, as the Bulldogs trailed by only four points entering into the second half. Bjekovic provided nine points in the opening 20 minutes of action, while Battisti continued his stellar postseason play by contributing eight points off the bench. The Bulldogs and Panthers were neck and neck up to the final seconds of the game. With less than 10 seconds remaining, O'Brien clutched up and kissed the glass for a lay-up to tie to contest. However, a controversial foul call with two seconds remaining sent the Panthers to the foul line for a pair of free-throws, thus ending the Maroon and Gray's season on a 69-71 loss.
Upon conclusion of the season, Bjekovic was honored with All-SCIAC First-Team recognition for the second-consecutive season after his dominant play in conference action.
With the Bulldogs' return to the SCIAC Postseason Tournament, the men's basketball team revealed its resilience and determination to excel amidst a talented conference. While utilizing its depth and versatility on the floor, Redlands provided plenty to celebrate in 2015-16. Although difficult to say goodbye to seniors Jake Olsen (Portland, OR), K. Milligan, James, and Bjekovic, the Bulldogs look forward to a lucrative future under the direction of Head Coach Jim Ducey.