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Sedrick Altman’s fearlessness propels Pepperdine to the WCC Tournament quarterfinals

Like he’s done all year, Altman’s emotional, emphatic play set the tone in Pepperdine’s 84-73 win over Santa Clara.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 19 Pepperdine at USC Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — If the bright lights of the WCC Tournament’s stage affected Pepperdine freshman Sedrick Altman in any way, he certainly didn’t show it.

And if there were doubts in anyone’s minds about the way a true freshman — one whisked into the starting lineup due to a litany of injuries, nonetheless — would play, Altman immediately put those concerns to rest.

Simply put, it just didn’t look like Altman was playing in his first West Coast Conference Tournament game. And in some ways, Pepperdine might not have beaten Santa Clara on March 6 without Altman’s swagger on both ends of the floor.

Fifty-eight seconds into Pepperdine’s game against Santa Clara on Friday night, Altman — a 24.4% three-point shooter — nailed a corner three. Merely 20 seconds later, he tied his scoring average with a transition layup, then followed that up with an alley-oop on the next possession. That personal 7-0 run in the first two minutes not only gave the Waves a lead they wouldn’t relinquish, but also set the tone for rest of the team.

“It’s a lot of fun. [Altman] plays with a lot of confidence and a lot of swagger,” Pepperdine senior Kameron Edwards, who finished with a 21-point, 16 rebound double-double, said afterwards. “When he comes out like that, he gets us all energetic and gets us all of us going. Seeing him come out with that type of energy definitely was inspiring to me, so I think it had an effect on how I came out today.”

Altman has emerged as one of Pepperdine’s most promising young players, and his 12 point, five rebound effort against Santa Clara proved why he will be a key player for the Waves over the next few seasons. Although Colbey Ross and Edwards brothers Kessler and Kameron are the three names bold, underlined and italicized on any Pepperdine scouting report, Altman has carved out a role for himself during his WCC All-Freshman team campaign. So far, the 6’2 guard is known for his midrange game, fearless play and tenacious defense.

The latter trait has been invaluable. While Pepperdine as a team has had a tenuous relationship with defense this season, Altman has been one of the bright spots on that end of the floor. Playing without Jadé Smith since early December, the Waves needed someone (anyone, really) to be a lockdown perimeter defender; Altman has been that guy. Aside from his physical defensive gifts like staying low, making the most of his 6’2 frame and lateral quickness, Altman brims with confidence every time he steps on the floor. Statistics be damned, all that matters to Altman is rising to the challenge one defensive possession at a time.

Altman’s first assignment in the biggest collegiate game of his life wasn’t easy. His first matchup? Santa Clara junior guard Tahj Eaddy, a volume-shooting guard coming off a three-game stretch in which he averaged 16 PPG. In other words: precisely the guy who could cause problems for Pepperdine’s struggling perimeter defense.

But Altman’s time on Eaddy was short-lived. As the freshman scored seven points in a flurry — two of which came off an Eaddy turnover — Santa Clara head coach Herb Sendek subbed Trey Wertz in for Eaddy. The assignment was different but the results were the same. Eaddy and Wertz combined for 2-8 shooting in the first half — all while Altman hounded both of them on the perimeter and along the baseline.

Altman finished with 12 points on 5-8 shooting, five rebounds, an assist and an emphatic block. As the last few seconds of Santa Clara’s time in the WCC Tournament ticked away, Eaddy dribbled right, then drove left at Altman one more time, as if to settle the score for a chippy second half. Eaddy elevated, but Altman met him mid-air, smothering his layup and putting the final nail in Santa Clara’s coffin.

Fittingly, Altman and Pepperdine’s defense garnered high praise from Pepperdine head coach Lorenzo Romar.

“I thought our defensive focus fueled our offense,” Romar said. “I thought we were moving in unison and really communicating. Our guys did a really good job of being locked in, which carried over to the offensive end before we allowed [Santa Clara] to get by us a few times.”

Yet the Santa Clara game was far from perfect. Both teams committed 33 fouls — including a triple-technical sequence — in a heated second half. One of those techs came from Altman, whose emotional, expressive play got the best of him in a moment under the basket between him, Eaddy and Keshawn Justice.

Despite the kerfuffle — and Altman’s ensuing foul trouble midway through the first half — the freshman kept playing at full-throttle. Never one to turn down a hustle play, Altman dove for loose balls, then flew amongst the trees for rebounds, help-side blocks or put-back attempts. Although he’s listed at 6’2, Altman has been known to put opponents on posters, finish strong at the rim, or make plays like these:

With Pepperdine’s biggest test of the season against Saint Mary’s ahead, the Waves will need Altman to rise to the occasion once again. And although Pepperdine hasn’t beaten a team ranked ahead of it in the conference standings, anything can happen in the Orleans Arena. Last season, Pepperdine went on a three-win tear against Pacific, Loyola Marymount and a onetime-NIT-bound San Francisco team in order to crash the semifinals. Three of the five starters from that run will suit up against the Gaels tonight.

Except this time, they’ll have one of the conference’s most fearless freshman alongside them. And he might be the difference.