Sonoma State University basketball teams to celebrate return to remodeled gym

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The saying “there’s no place like home” has a different meaning for everyone, depending on what and where you call home.

For the Sonoma State University men’s basketball team, they call “The Wolves’ Den” gym home. And Friday, for the first time in three months (after playing 15 “home” games elsewhere) the Seawolves will return to their den.

When Sonoma State scheduled a remodeling project during the basketball season, the Seawolves were forced to play six of their home games at College of the Marin and Santa Rosa Junior College this season.

“At first it was a little frustrating,” center Luke Cochran said. “We felt on our own out there, but it brought us together. It made us play for ourselves and each other only.”

Not only did the Seawolves’ home court situation start out rocky, but they started the season with three consecutive losses.

“We felt like we didn’t really get beat; we gave those games away on our own,” guard Jackson Gion said. “It made us focus and we spent a lot of time in practice working on late-game situations to hone in on closing games out.”

Whatever they did it seemed to work.

After an early wakeup call, the Seawolves went on to win four of their next five and have now won nine of their past 12. Before the Seawolves’ recent loss to nationally ranked San Francisco State, the Seawolves had won five consecutive games. They have since won two in a row.

Their record now stands at 13-5 overall and 9-3 in the CCAA conference, one of their best starts since the 2005-06 season — the last time they won their conference and qualified for the NCAA Division II tournament.

The Seawolves are currently tied for third place in the CCAA, which is packed full of tough competition this season. The top six teams all have .500 or better records — and two of the teams are nationally ranked.

Defense has been a staple in the team’s success. The Seawolves have the best defense in Division II, holding opponents to only 58 points per game.

That’s two points lower than the next-best team, Northwest Missouri State.

Earlier in the season, the Seawolves’ defense held Cal State East Bay to only 38 points, the lowest single-game total by an opponent in Sonoma State history.

Gion said he knew when he transferred to Sonoma State that he was going to have to defend.

“We spent a lot of long practices where we didn’t even touch a basketball, working on defensive game-planning in film,” Gion said. “All the stats and records are just a credit to our coaching staff for how hard they’ve worked getting us prepared.”

Analy product Nathan Molony-Benjamin has been the anchor in the middle of the Sonoma State defense. The senior center is the university’s all-time leader in blocks — breaking Chris Oliver’s record that stood for 14 years during a game on New Year’s Eve with three blocks against Cal State East Bay.

Molony-Benjamin has 88 blocks in his career — especially impressive because he has racked up that total over only three years.

He did not record a block his freshman season, when he only played in 35 minutes the entire year.

He leads the team in blocks and steals, with 32 blocks on the season to go along with 16 steals.

Gion said Molony-Benjamin’s blocks impact the game a lot more than just wiping two points off the opponent’s scoreboard.

“He’s a game-changer,” Gion said. “It’s a big-time momentum swing when he blocks a shot. It gets us fired up and can intimidate the other team.”

The Seawolves are balanced on the offensive side, with only one player averaging double digits in points per game. Transfer guard Jimmy Golden leads the team in scoring with 11.9 points per game.

The Seawolves have six players shooting over 40 percent from beyond the arc — guards Jordan Fleck and Gion lead the way with Fleck shooting 46 percent and Gion shooting 45. Senior point guard Khalid Johnson is leading the team in assists with 37.

“No one on this team feels pressure to put up big numbers. It’s nice playing on a team that isn’t a one-man show,” Gion said. “Our numbers really speak to our unity.”

The Seawolves get contributions from up and down their roster. They have had a different leading scorer in four of their past six games. Even senior sixth man Ronnie Harris has led the Seawolves in scoringin a game.

“Our bench is so deep,” Cochran said. “It’s nice having a group of guys who can come off the bench and contribute, and even sometimes do better than the starters. “

The Seawolves are on a two-game winning streak coming into their return to the remodeled Wolves’ Den.

The first game back on campus is also Sonoma State’s annual “Pack the Den” night. The gym’s re-opening will be marked by festivities, including T-shirt giveaways, foam Seawolf claw giveaways and free pizza for students. During the Les Schwab Shootout at halftime, three fans will have the opportunity to win gift cards by making shots.

In addition, all students and children under 12 will get in free. The Sonoma State Athletic Association will also be hosting a beer garden for its members.

Assistant athletic director Brandon Bronzan said the game is generating the most buzz he’s heard about a campus event in his 15 years at the university.

“It’s amazing, almost a completely new-looking gym,” Bronzan said. “It has been my dream to hang a ‘sold out’ banner at the ticket window, and I think it’s a possibility Friday night.”

The Seawolves will be playing rival Chico State, in first place in the CCAA, ranked No. 20 in the nation and and on a two-game winning streak of its own.

The game figures to have massive playoff implications for the Seawolves. To say the players are excited is an understatement.

“It’s really our first real home game of the season,” Cochran said. “We’ve been waiting for this all year.”

“I’m really looking forward to that environment in our own gym,” said Gion. “I heard Sonoma State can get a little rowdy.”

Pack the Den night begins at 5:30 p.m. with the women’s game, followed by the men’s game at 7:30 p.m.

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