On Thursday, Nov. 15, the Macalester Scots men’s basketball team took on the Crown College Storm at the Leonard Center. The game offered the Macalester community a chance to have a look at new head coach Abe Woldeslassie as he coached his first home game. The community responded by filling the Leonard Center with a crowd that included everyone from students to Provost Karine Moe. Before tip-off, the atmosphere had a notable spark to it. Division-III athletic events feel different than their Division-I and professional counterparts, before and during games. With the exception of playoff games, fans enter for free. They can sit wherever they like, either behind a team’s bench or in the last row of stands, where they can engage with a game, yelling encouragement at players and invectives at referees, or sit back and treat it as a social event. Macalester sporting events — across the 19 varsity sports played on campus — tend to feel more like social events, with students attending in groups, chatting with each other or doing homework.
The Crown game felt different. Maybe it was the constant soundtrack from the student DJ, or the rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by Hannah Hoffman ’19, or just the desire of a crowd that had gone eight months without watching a competitive basketball game on campus to watch basketball again. The crowd was engaged and ready to get into the game. They stayed locked in for all 40 minutes.
For players like Carl Salvino ‘19, the difference was evident from the start: “The Crown game was the most excited I’ve been to play basketball since high school. It was probably the biggest crowd we’ve had since I’ve been here.” As tip-off approached, Crown sent out a veteran line-up. The Storm started three juniors and two seniors, while the Scots sent out a younger starting five — Macalester only had two upperclassmen, Wyatt Ferm ’19 and Nikhil Smith ’20, to go with two sophomores, Jackson Henningfield ’21 and Gabriel Ramos ’21, and a first year, Eric Sathy ’22. In the game’s early-going, the Scots looked to create offensive looks for Ferm and Henningfield.
Every time Macalester created a good shot or had a strong defensive possession, the bench was up and encouraging their teammates — something everyone from the 6th man to the team managers made an active effort to do.
“I want to win,” Mike Babb ’19 explained. “I’m tired of being here and losing games, it’s not fun, and everybody wants to win. It’s a lot easier to win when you’re doing it together.”
Although Macalester gave up some offensive rebounds in the first few minutes, they also managed to find Henningfield open in the post. The teams traded buckets, and Crown opened up an early lead thanks to several defensive breakdowns. With the Storm ahead 12-7, the crowd had its first chance to get into the game as Ferm recovered from making a bad pass to block a dunk attempt. Despite the momentum generated by the block, the balance of the game stayed stagnant. The Scots called a timeout with 11:35 left in the first half, down 22-18, and in the huddle Woldeslassie and assistant coach Conner Nord called on the players to “stay in front” of their men, and “take pride in their defense.”
Despite the timeout, Crown kicked off a run that ballooned their lead to 38-22 by the seven minute mark of the first half, when it seemed like both teams settled into a pattern the rest of the game followed. Over the final 27 minutes, Crown maintained a commanding lead, which never shrank below seven points or exceeded 17.
Despite the deficit, Woldeslassie stayed focused, observing intensely from the sideline while remaining reserved in his coaching involvement. In Ferm’s eyes, he can have a greater impact on the game with that demeanor than he would by yelling.
“Just because Abe’s not yelling or getting really emotional, doesn’t mean he’s not being critical. You come off, and he’ll tell you ‘you’ve been dribbling way too much.’ It’s just matter of fact. I think that’s the most productive way to do that,” Ferm said.
Woldeslassie’s composure was juxtaposed with the reactions on the bench, where players rose to their feet after nearly every basket, and, when seated, almost tipped their folding chairs over with anticipation. When Nick Scibelli ’22 had an and-one early in the second half, the Macalester bench erupted, bringing the game back into life after the break.
The crowd matched the intensity on the bench. With every call and shot they were as lively, cheering and jeering in unison. A first-year wearing a cardboard box with “Macalester” stitched on its felt cover was among them, banging a large can anytime Crown shot free throws. Crown’s lone fan was a man in the guest bleachers, who yelled at Macalester players. Every time Crown made a free throw, he screamed “swoosh!”
During this stretch, which covered much of the first half, and most of the second, coach and team focused on executing specific offensive plans. Macalester had Ferm bring the ball up-court. The 6’7” wing does not look like a stereotypical ball handler, but, by having their second tallest player start a possession with the ball in his hands, the Scots can create an advantage at the start of the shot clock.
Concerning Ferm’s role taking the ball up, Woldeslassie said: “The guy guarding him, usually isn’t as quick as him. He’s so versatile . . . a bigger guy can’t keep up with him, a smaller guy that is quick enough, is shorter.” By forcing the opposing team into a mismatch at the start of the shot clock, the Scots have a better chance to create a good scoring look.
Even with an offensive plan in place, Macalester still faced some issues when trying to close the scoring gap. Coming off of a strong performance from beyond the three-point line in a victory over North Central University to start the season, Macalester saw a disappointing drop in 3-point percentage, only making 20.8 percent compared to the previous game’s 32.4 percent.
Despite the shooting woes, the Scots stayed focused on doing what they wanted. The team knows Henningfield is one of the best big men in the MIAC, and looks to get the ball in his hands whenever possible. They came up against opposition from Crown, who knew how important he is to Macalester’s offense.
“Going to Jackson was more difficult, and it’s only going to get more difficult as the season progresses, because people know he’s a threat,” Ferm said. “But we’re always looking to go to Jackson, he’s an unbelievable basketball player. He’s going to be one of the best big men in the MIAC, if not the best this year, and he’s only a sophomore. He’s great to play with, and when he’s rolling, we’re all rolling.”
In the second half, the Scots looked to get back in the game. They worked to find Henningfield in space in the post and got several good scoring looks from Sathy, whose baseline drives Crown could not contain. Yet, despite some strong offensive play — Macalester ultimately shot 50.8 percent from the field — they could never make it a two-possession game.
In the closing minutes, the Scots hit some shots. They ultimately closed the deficit to 86-77, but failed to play the perfect stretch of basketball needed to turn things around and win. When trying to come from behind, a team has to not only make key baskets, but also needs strong defensive stops, the opposing team to miss some open looks, and a couple of lucky bounces. Those bounces went against the Scots late on. With just over two minutes left, Macalester got the ball to Henningfield inside but he was called for a travel, and the comeback attempt fizzled out.
As the large crowd filtered out of the Leonard Center, the mood was far more subdued than it was pregame. Still, the locals seemed pleased by what they’d seen. Although Macalester struggled on defense, they had scored 83 points while shooting better than 50 percent from the field. Had they cut out a couple of bad turnovers and improved on their dismal 3-point shooting performance, the outcome might have been different. Ultimately, it was a far cry from the last time the Scots took the floor at home when they fell 103-59 to Bethel to bookend a 3-22 season.