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California trip leads to strong start for Falcons

December 7, 2016

The Falcons men’s basketball team continued their hot start to the season by winning the Lee Fulmer Memorial Classic in California this past weekend.

UW-River Falls made the journey to Redlands, California, to play two games and attempt to improve upon its 4-1 record to open the season. The team left Wisconsin on Wednesday and got a day of practice in before its first game against the University of La Verne Leopards on Friday.

Head Coach Jeff Berkhof was impressed with his team’s overall performance, considering the unique situation the West Coast trip was for the team.

“When you do these trips, you’re a little cautious because of the time change and our players aren’t used to flying for games,” Berkhof said.

The Falcons responded with a 71-69 victory over La Verne. UWRF jumped out to a 12-point halftime lead and held on for a tight victory. That was in large part to the efficient play of senior forward Garret Pearson. His 10-13 shooting and 4-4 performance from the free-throw line was good for a team-high 25 points to lead the way for the Falcons.

“We started off really slow and only shot 1-17 from the three-point line against La Verne, but still managed to hang in there to get the win,” Pearson said.

UWRF came back the next night to face the host University of Redlands Bulldogs to decide the champion of the tournament on Saturday night. River Falls came out red hot from the three-point line, knocking down seven three-pointers in the first half to build an eight-point halftime advantage. The Falcons took advantage of big runs in the middle of the second half and the closing minutes to come out on top 81-58.

“Saturday night, I was extremely happy with how our guys came out and how they showed a lot of energy defensively. We also saw some things on the offensive end through movement and hitting open players for jump shots that we’ve been working on all year,” Berkhof said.

This dominant performance was once again spurred by the offensive play of Pearson, this time shooting 8-13 and 3-4 from beyond the arc to pour in 19 points. He finished the tournament averaging 22 points per game and shooting 63 percent from the field.

“Everybody is playing with better chemistry this year, even with all of the new guys. These were definitely good wins for us,” Pearson said.

Another huge impact was the play of fellow senior Grant Erickson against the Bulldogs. Erickson put up 11 assists in the game, which is the most by a Falcon in over 15 years, according to uwrfsports.com. But even more impressive was his control of the ball by committing zero turnovers in the game.

“The biggest thing this year is being unselfish and how we’re moving the basketball. We’ve been buying into that system as the success keeps going and not looking at the box score after the game but instead working together,” Erickson said.

Berkhof had plenty of praise for his starting point guard.

“Grant was a very active leader for us that night and got us moving offensively. He’s the kind of vocal leader that we need,” Berkhof said.

This veteran leadership has complemented the new additions to the team well and has helped pave the way for the strong start for the Falcons. After Tuesday’s win over UW-Superior, the Falcons stand at 7-1 and are closing in on the d3hoops.com top 25. Berkhof has been satisfied with the way they’ve handled different nonconference opponents.

“Playing nonconference games is good because you get to the point where you learn to guard everything that’s thrown at you. We saw two very different styles this weekend and that helps in getting prepared for the conference season,” Berkhof said.

Erickson and Pearson both believe the close wins in nonconference play will go a long way once WIAC play begins in January. Both captains have been around for multiple seasons and described the Falcons as a team that usually comes up short in those situations. But this year has been different.

“Our experience in those close games has really shown us how to handle those situations. We trust everyone to make plays to come out with the win,” Erickson said.

There are many positives in the early part of this season, but changes still need to be made as the team continues to grow and develop.

“We need to emphasize great team defense and keep looking to constantly improve our half-court offense and motion. We’d like to think we will be better in February compared to December so that we’re playing our best basketball at the end of the year,” Berkhof said.

Even with all of the success, UWRF knows it can’t get complacent this early in the season.
“We can’t be content with where we are right now. Even though we’re winning games, we’ve still made a lot of mistakes in those games. And that’s exciting because we still have a ceiling to reach by getting better throughout the season,” Erickson said.

The Falcons now take to the road to face MIAC opponents Hamline and Carleton next week before getting a short break from the action for Christmas. They return to Karges on Dec. 30 to host St. Olaf before tipping off WIAC play against UW-Eau Claire at home on Jan. 4.