For the first time since the 2012-13 season, the UCCS Men’s Basketball team did not make it into the postseason.
The Mountain Lion’s season started strong, cruising through the first five games without a loss, giving hope for another title shot. However, a string of injuries and attrition shot down their championship dreams and left them trying to claw their way into a playoff spot. Then, in a four-way tie for an RMAC tournament berth, MSU Denver and Regis bumped UCCS out of the competition.
The injuries began in the fall term at the Big Island Holiday Classic, where head coach Jeff Culver called freshman Jayden Washington to action after a UCCS player suffered a season-ending injury. Culver said, “He really stepped up to the challenge knowing that his mindset was set on a redshirt year. He was able to step in and help us out quite a bit.” Washington scored his first collegiate basket in style with a slam dunk against Hawaii-Pacific.
The Mountain Lions’ first conference loss didn’t come until meeting then No. 6 Black Hills, where they lost a close game by only eight points. Then, despite a couple more tough losses to Colorado Mesa, and No. 15 Fort Lewis, they still held their own heading into the Jan. 14 matchup against No. 6 Colorado School of Mines with a 13-4 overall record.
However, the plague of injuries and attrition the Mountain Lions suffered began to show its effects following a nine-game losing streak that brought their conference record down to 7-13. They did not break the streak until their final home game on Feb. 17, blowing Western Colorado 90-66.
“When you lose nine games in a row, it’s easy to fall into the thought that the sky is falling,” Culver said, “but the guys did a good job of staying mentally focused and understanding that even though we were losing, we were still in the race.”
With the season’s last two games on the road, and the race for a tournament berth growing tighter, UCCS needed to win these last two games to secure their spot.
Although they locked in the first win against CSU Pueblo, they lost their last game against New Mexico Highlands, putting them in a four-way tie for the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds with Regis, MSU Denver and New Mexico Highlands. Although UCCS had the best overall record, their 9-13 conference record held them in the tangle.
Despite the disappointing end to the season, Culver said they came out of it with lessons for next year and are excited about the upcoming season.
He emphasized that the strong foundations the team has established will still guide them in the next season. “We are certainly always looking to improve and make tweaks on how we do things here and there, but our overlying support of the structure and the pillars we have remain intact, and we feel great about the direction we are heading,” he said.
With a few recruits already having signed letters of intent, Culver was already at work last week scouting out the Colorado High School State Basketball Championships.
The lone senior on the team — starting guard Jon’il Fugett — graduates this year. As an RMAC second-team recipient and one of the leading Mountain Lions, Fugett leaves large shoes for the team to fill, but Culver is confident his veteran players are up to the challenge. “We got a handful of returners that I think from a leadership standpoint are there. They are ready to lead, and they are ready to provide a great example [for the new players].”
Outside of basketball, Culver ensures his players are as active in the community as they are in the classroom and court. Last winter, the Mountain Lions put on a three-day youth basketball camp and partnered with Team IMPACT to sign 11-year-old Joshua Ndahayo as an official Mountain Lion.
“This is a great opportunity for the players to give back to the game and act as role models to young kids that love the same sport they do,” Culver said.
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Photo from gomountainlions.com.