In the first pseudo-normal basketball season since the pandemic started, the Bellevue College men’s team took home an incredible success. In a grueling five-month season, the Bulldogs showed consistent displays of superiority that led them to a 19-7 regular-season record. Their place in the standings was solidified early when they went 2-1 in November and then a stunning 8-1 in December. A 2-1 January was followed by their worst month of the season. They went just 4-4 in that time, dropping three games to the other three playoff-qualifying teams in their division, plus a brutal 98-76 loss to Shoreline. However, going 3-0 in early March solidified third place in the North Division and a place in the championship tournament.
The Northwest Athletic Conference championship brought the top four teams from each division in a 16-team bracket to decide the best team in the league. Their first challenge in the “Sweet 16” was to Umpqua, who went 22-4 and finished second in the South division. The two teams took to the court in a fierce battle, swapping the lead regularly through the first half. Bellevue took a 23-18 lead that was maintained for a full minute, but Umpqua still clawed back to a 26-25 lead of their own. Once the dust settled, the Bulldogs were ahead 40-36 at the end of the first half. While close the entire way, they never saw a deficit again. The final score was 82-78, sending Bellevue to the “Elite 8” off the back of Sze’s 26 points.
Meanwhile, the East Division’s fourth-place Spokane upset the West’s first seed Lower Columbia 64-63 and moved on to act as Bellevue’s next opponent. Two of Bellevue’s division rivals also advanced, with Peninsula dropping their first-round game to the South Division’s second-seeded Lane. It only took the Bulldogs nine minutes to take control of this one, going up 12-9 and expanding it to 16-9 before facing any resistance. Spokane didn’t roll over and fought back to an 18-17 lead but Bellevue buckled down and commanded the rest of the half, holding a 35-27 lead at the break. Spokane never sniffed the lead after that, eventually losing 60-65 and granting Bellevue safe passage to the final four. Sze again came away a step ahead of the competition, putting up 28 of his team’s 65 points.
And then there were four. The East’s Yakima Valley unseated Lane and faced off against Olympic, who were fresh off a domination of Tacoma. Bellevue’s next opponent was fresh off beating Skagit Valley 99-92 and was the reigning division lead in the South. Wenatchee Valley boasted a 15-1 division record in the regular season and was the next threat to Bellevue’s championship run. Nothing in this tournament comes easy, and it was yet another fierce battle throughout the first half. The lead swapped countless times, but Bellevue emerged with a narrow 39-36 lead heading into the second half. The lead was short-lived, as it took Wenatchee less than a minute to retake a 41-39 lead, but Bellevue turned it up a notch. Wenatchee was prevented from scoring for a minute and a half, while the Bulldogs turned the tables. The score was 45-41 and Bellevue held that lead for 13 minutes before an Isaac Jones free throw put Wenatchee up 72-71 with five minutes to go. However, Nate Johnson took the lead back just 15 seconds later and they would never lose the lead again. Sze’s 24 points led Bellevue to an 84-76 win and the right to battle against Yakima Valley for the state championship on Mar. 27.
I shouldn’t need to detail the first half again. It was 34-32 at the break and the pattern would dictate that Bellevue was en route to another hard-fought victory. But patterns don’t always hold true. Yakima Valley took a two-point lead, and then four points, then six, then eight. The deficit kept growing. Halfway into the second half, the score was 52-41 Yakima Valley. It got no better as Yakima would eventually take the championship by way of a 70-57 rout of the Bulldogs. While ultimately coming up short, Bellevue represented the state well with their silver trophy. Most importantly, it was a great leap from the last official NWAC season, where Bellevue went 3-25 and posted the worst record in the league. With just two years in between, Bellevue completely revamped their roster and managed to pull off an incredible turnaround. With a team coached this well, it’s easy to imagine similar success next year.