3 may well be the magic number for Seattle.
If nothing else, Jim Hayford thinks it’s an important part of the equation. The Redhawks advanced to the WAC Tournament semifinals on Thursday night in Las Vegas, getting a career-high 27 points from junior guard Nate Robinson in a win over California Baptist. It was a banner night for a player who struggled with an ankle injury throughout the season, and came into the quarterfinal against the Lancers averaging just over five points per game.
He added another prong to an offensive attack that has relied heavily on impressive seasons from sophomore guard Darrion Trammell and senior forward Riley Grigsby.
“Whenever we get a third scorer on top of Darrion and Riley, we’re really hard to beat,” Hayford said in the postgame press conference. “Nate was really special tonight.”
And for this particular game, the number three held even more significance. It was the third time that the Lancers and Redhawks had played each other in the last seven days, splitting a two-game series in Riverside last week that saw both games come down to the final possession. In the end, it was a defensive effort from SU that held the Lancers’ potent offense to just 29 second-half points that carried the day.
For Hayford, it was a case of finally getting the defensive game plan right.
“If [CBU is] comfortable and their spacing is right, their action is too good. They’re an elite offensive team,” Hayford said. “You have to disrupt the spacing and push everything out a bit more.”
And what’s pushed this SU team to its first WAC Tournament semifinal since 2018 has been a trio of junior college teammates flourishing as a unit at the next level. The City College of San Francisco was a fertile recruiting ground for Hayford and his staff for last year’s class. Trammell, Robinson and junior forward Emeka Udenyi suited up together for the Rams during the 2019-20 season, making the jump up the Pacific Coast — and into Division I — together.
Each are now playing a significant role as the Redhawks seek their first NCAA Tournament since 1969, and try to truly dust off a cabinet full of big-time March success. Like Loyola Chicago’s return to the national scene in 2018, SU has its own sparkling history as the program that produced Elgin Baylor, was the national runner up in 1958 and a general force throughout the 1960’s.
A drop out of Division I in 1980 led to an 18-year journey through the NAIA, Division II and Division III that ended with the Redhawks rejoining their traditional college athletics home in 2008. Now, the CCSF trio will try to upend another team — league co-champion Grand Canyon — looking to make its own kind of history with a first-ever Division I tournament appearance.
The Lopes will pose a big challenge. Hayford specifically mentioned the twin towers in forward Alessandro Lever and the nation’s field goal percentage leader, center Asbjorn Midtgaard, as well as a bevy of talented guards. But first-year coach Bryce Drew will also have to prepare for Trammell, the first WAC sophomore to average 20 points or more per game (20.9 PPG) since Luke Babbitt in 2010.
His twice-over teammate, Udenyi (8.0 PPG, 8.1 RPG), is part of a cadre of athletic big men that surround the Redhawks’ dynamic, diminutive star. Udenyi put up an impressive double double (10 points, 14 rebounds) against CBU and its imposing big man, Gorjok Gak. Hayford talked about the types of lineups he can run out in an interview earlier this year.
“We don’t have that 6’10 or seven foot post but you go look out there sometimes and we’ll have four 6’8, 6’7 guys with Darrion on the court and it’s just kind of unique,” he said.
An on the mend Robinson adds another layer of March intrigue. The junior guard — who is no relation to the player of the same name that had a historic career in the same city at Washington — suffered an ankle injury before the team’s first game in November and missed 12 games. He started playing again regularly in early February, and ramped up into a 40-minute outing in the semifinal win.
He talked about the difficulty sitting out after the game.
“Over the past couple of months it’s been hard. With going down early, and then seeing some games we’ve lost and you feel like you could’ve helped out. You just have to trust God’s timing, and I’m moving forward on to the next game,” Robinson said.
A healthy Robinson adds a slashing threat to a Redhawks’ offense that has been more reliant on the three this year than the past two seasons, and is especially important with senior guard Aaron Nettles missing due to injury. His 27 points against CBU were higher than his career high at CCSF (24 points against Ohlone), just as the 23 points Trammell scored against the Lancers topped his own best for the Rams (22 points against Las Positas).
The trio now seeks to continue Seattle’s push to its most important number three: three wins in three days.