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Searching for Pepperdine: How LMU can be the WCC Tournament’s next Cinderella

Last year, the 8 seeded Waves won three games in three days to make it to the semifinals. This year, 8 seed LMU looks like it can pull off a similar feat.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 20 Loyola Marymount at St. Mary’s Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — It’s usually the case in conference tournaments, but in the West Coast Conference Tournament, seeding is just a number.

Just ask 8 seed Loyola Marymount, which led for all but 22 seconds in a dominant 75-61 win over 9 seed San Diego on March 5. In fact, the Lions’ performance was so dominant that they looked like a far cry from a team that has overcome so much adversity this season.

“[It’s] resiliency,” LMU forward Eli Scott said after the game in order to explain why the 8 seed Lions can make a run in the WCC Tournament. “That’s been the theme of our team this year. We’ve had a couple things not go our way, but we’ve just kept playing through it.”

Unlike most years, there is a historical precedent for a one of the bottom four seeds to make a run to the semifinals. In the first year of the WCC Tournament’s current format, in which the top two teams get automatic spots in the semifinals, 8 seed Pepperdine crashed the party with a three-game tear that included upsets over LMU and San Francisco. After last night, Loyola Marymount took its first step towards a run of its own.

Like the Waves of last year, which featured a bonafide duo in Colbey Ross and Kessler Edwards, the Lions will only go as far as its tandem of Eli Scott and Keli Leaupepe will take them. While Scott was a known commodity around the conference, Leaupepe has stepped into a complimentary role and then some: The Australian won All-WCC Freshman Team honors earlier this week. His 23-point, 10-rebound day on Thursday is the best performance of the 2020 WCC Tournament thus far.

“As a freshman in the second round of the WCC [play], he just took this big leap, confidence-wise,” Dunlap said of Leaupepe, who notched his first career double-double against San Diego on March 5. “He’s a three-level scorer. He was 13-13 from the free-throw line and he also shoots a high percentage from the three-point line.”

Playing in his first conference tournament game, the former Aussie rules footballer turned in a complete showing: He dove for loose balls, forced jump balls, blocked shots (his three blocks on the night doubled his season total in that category) and was a perfect 13-13 from the charity stripe. San Diego sent Alex Floresca, Jared Rodriguez and James Jean-Marie on LMU’s star freshman, but all three were unsuccessful in containing him.

“[I’ve been] believing in myself,” Leaupepe said of his emergence this season. “Practicing... five-on-five and four-on-four [has] really helped my confidence.”

Leaupepe’s performance was so impressive that all USD head coach Sam Scholl could do was tip his cap after the game.

“[Leaupepe] came out like gangbusters over the past two months,” Scholl said. “He just got better and better and better — it’s a great tribute to their coaching staff for bringing that out of him. He’s a hard-nosed, tough-playing, skilled guy who is going to get better and better in this league. He’s going to be one of the next great players in the WCC.”

Not to be overlooked, Scott showed why he was a second team all-conference player with a 16-point, seven-rebound night. The Chino Hills product controlled the game from the get-go. As LMU clung to an early 11-7 lead, Scott bowled over USD guard Braun Hartfield and drew a foul. On the ensuing inbounds play, Scott beat Hartfield one-on-one by charging in for a right-handed layup, sending a message to the Toreros’ top-100 defense.

From that point forward, USD double-teamed every post entry to mixed results. With under seven minutes to go, Scott found Ivan Alipiev for an open three that ended San Diego’s lone lead. On the next play, Scott wisely deferred to Leaupepe as USD’s zone collapsed on him, which led to an and-one that reclaimed LMU’s lead for good:

Dunlap was quick to add that Scott also has the same versatility as Leaupepe. Scott, who leads the Lions with 4.3 APG, played point-forward for the majority of LMU’s possessions and was too much of a mismatch for any assignment Scholl threw at him.

“Give coach Dunlap a tremendous amount of credit,” Scholl said. “[LMU] plays to their strengths and gets the ball to the right guys. Those big guys are hard to deal with.”

Now the challenge of facing a 20-11 San Francisco team awaits. But for a LMU team that lost Dameane Douglas and starting point guard Joe Quintana to season-ending injuries in the preseason, clearing one more hurdle towards the program’s first semifinal appearance since 2013 doesn’t seem so daunting. In fact, the Lions nearly upset the Dons six days ago.

And if the new-look WCC Tournament has taught us anything, it’s that teams like LMU can’t be counted out.