FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) The UAF Men’s basketball team saw themselves trailing 49-33 with 14 minutes to go after Western Oregon hit a free throw in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference opener Thursday night at the Patty Center. That is when guards Jalon McCullough and Markel Banks checked into the game for the Nanooks for the first time, while leading scorer Shadeed Shabazz strapped on his hot hand. Over the next 14 minutes, the Nooks would go on to outscore the Wolves 39-17, led by Shabazz, who had 20 of his 27 points in those last 14 minutes. The combination of suffocating defense from the substituted guards and the increased pace of offense, the Nanooks were able to stun the Wolves 72-66, who entered the game undefeated, and open GNAC play 1-0.
"I thought today, we did a good job coming out of that hole, staying at it and bringing energy and believing in each other,” McCullough, the former Monroe Catholic High School standout, said after the victory. “Down the stretch, we had guys really getting after it on defense and taking some pride, like coach said in the locker room."
Banks and McCullough finished the game with +22 +/-, meaning the ‘Nooks outscored the Wolves by 22 points with them on the floor together.
“I thought Jalon came in and was a bit of a calming factor and got us into our stuff and got us good looks,” Head Coach Greg Sparling said. “Markel came in and really defended for us, I thought he really helped us.”
After a Mawich Kachjaani steal, Shabazz attacked the rim on the fast break, missed the layup, corralled his own rebound and kicked it out to McCullough on the wing. The senior nailed the three-pointer, to give the Nanooks their first lead since the first half to help secure the comeback victory.
“Honestly, it gave me such a good feeling, I haven't felt that all season,” Shabazz said of McCullough being able to connect on the trey. “For him to make a good shot, because, man, he lives for these types of moments. I believed in him when I passed it to him, I didn't just pass it to him for no reason or because he was open. I was happy for him the whole time.”
The Nanooks hung around with WOU for the first 17 minutes, before the Wolves closed out the half on an 8-0 run, and carried that momentum into the second, before UAF rallied to erase the deficit.
“If we stay together in the toughest times, we can overcome anything.” Shabazz said.
Kachjaani, a true freshman from South Sudan, finished with 21 points, including scoring the first 10 points for the Blue and Gold to open the game. The 6-foot 11-inch big man knocked down clutch free throws down the stretch to secure the win in his first game at the Patty Center.
"I just said to myself ‘I got to make these.’ I said ‘we're going to win these we got win through free throws.’” Kachjaani said at the postgame press conference.
The Nanooks displayed a gutsy performance in their home opener, after a rough 1-7 start out of the gates, including dropping their last six contests.
“This is the best feeling ever,” Kachjaani said after coming up with a win “You can see how everybody finally comes together and is excited for each other, even guys that didn’t even step on the court, they were happy as well as if they played throughout the game.”
The Nanooks will look to send the crowd home happy once again when they take on Concordia University (0-1) Saturday. Tip-off is set for 3:15 p.m. at the Patty Center.