Tiebreaker Heartbreak: A Look Back at CSUEB Men’s Basketball’s Season

Jared Darling, Sports Photographer

The 2022-2023 basketball season was a tale of two halves for the East Bay Men’s team. An underperforming team with glimpses of promise in the first half, the Pioneers came together in the latter half, adopting an all-or-nothing attitude that would spark a remarkable transformation for Head Coach Bryan Rooney’s squad. 


Since the roster overhaul at the beginning of the season, Rooney entered the campaign with five familiar faces and a group of incoming freshmen and high-level transfers, who became the core of the Pioneer rotation. 


No acquisition was more impactful than East Bay’s newest floor general, Garrett Pascoe, who logged the most minutes on the team, appearing in all 28 games for the Pioneers —  27 of which he started at the point guard position. 


Bringing Division I experience to the Pioneers, Pascoe quickly became the on-court extension of Coach Rooney as the primary playmaker for the East Bay offense. Pascoe led the Pioneers and was second in the California Collegiate Athletic Association with 131 total assists, showcasing his gift of facilitating his teammates’ success with high-quality shots. 


While Coach Rooney toiled away at crafting the ideal player rotation, the Pioneers struggled to find consistency as the season neared the halfway mark. After losing a couple of closely contested games, the Pioneers dropped in the CCAA standings with chances of making the playoffs slimming. Down on their luck, East Bay team needed an out and needed one quick. 


Coach Rooney believes that CSUEB’s resurgence in the second half of the season came during a trip to southern California in a matchup against California State University, Los Angeles. The Pioneers lost their star center to injury in the previous game against California State University, San Marcos and were already nursing multiple other injuries, forcing the team to head into Los Angeles short staffed. Knowing he had a depleted roster, Coach Rooney instilled an uplifting mentality by encouraging the team to play for each other.. 


Due to injuries, we went into that game with only eight healthy players and we knew that the only way we were going to be successful that day was to fully play for one another. In the locker room after that win, we talked about being that team for the rest of the season. In many ways, we were. I am incredibly proud of the fight our team demonstrated,” said Rooney.


Prior to the matchup versus CSULA, the Pioneers held a record of 4 wins and 13 losses, with six of those defeats sustained at home resulting in a winless record on the hilltop. Looking to put the early season woes behind them, the Pioneers returned to the hilltop looking like a new team, figuratively and literally. 


In an attempt to shake off their home court struggles, CSUEB came back sporting their away black uniforms instead of the standard white ones donned at the start of the season. While seemingly trivial, shedding their old jerseys proved to be the catalyst for an astonishing transformation as the Pioneers regained their spirit and appetite for a playoff spot. Showcasing their new appearance and mentality, the Pioneers came back to the Bay and caught fire, securing  three consecutive home wins before losing to the eventual CCAA Champions, California State University, San Bernardino and number four seeded California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt. 


The Pioneers weren’t phased by the losses however, as they quickly racked up four monumental wins in a row, among which was a victory over the number two seeded California State University, San Marcos. By the end of the season, the Pioneers mounted an impressive turnaround from their 0-6 start by closing out with a record of five wins and seven losses.  


Following their hard-fought victory in the penultimate game over California State University, Monterey Bay, the Pioneers headed into their final regular season game with a playoff berth on the line, brimming with hope as the script turned on the otherwise turbulent season, the assignment became clear: win and they’re in. 


The Pioneers entered the game riding high from their four-game win streak, although East Bay found a difficult opponent in San Francisco State University’s Gators, who were sporting a three game win-streak of their own. The game was a back-and-forth duel with both teams playing like their season was on the line. Ultimately, the Pioneers fell to the Gators in an overtime thriller, leaving them in a tie for the sixth and final playoff spot with Chico State. Due to the CCAA rules and Chico State’s wins over CCAA opponents that East Bay did not record victories against, Chico State held the tiebreaker over the Pioneers, ending CSUEB’s season on the final day of the season. 


Despite the heartbreakingly abrupt ending to the season, Coach Rooney was proud of his team’s fight down the stretch and is eager to build upon this success: “We faced a great deal of adversity this season and the way we played down the stretch revealed some very positive character traits of our players and the group as a whole. The way we finished our season is one of the main reasons we head into our spring workouts and next season with optimism and motivation,” Rooney said, adding that “Our returners gained valuable experience, which should serve us well going forward. Additionally, we had several student-athletes who redshirted this year, who we expect to make major impacts on the court.”


Among these redshirts are guard Maxwell McCall and forward Christian Littlejohn, who look to become key contributors to next year’s team. McCall expressed his excitement to get on the court after watching this year’s team, “After our push for playoffs this past season, it made me even more excited than I already was to play, especially since it’s been over a year since I’ve played in a game. I think that’s gonna be a big motivator for me personally too, just to get better and do my best to contribute to a playoff run next season.” 


Littlejohn echoed his teammate’s sentiment by stating, “I can’t wait to get on the floor and put on a show next year. We all have the goal of winning it all next year and I’m gonna make that a reality.”


Even with the team falling short of its ultimate goal, a Pioneer duo was honored with end-of-the-year CCAA awards. University of California, Berkeley transfer Dimitrios Klonaras received All-CCAA honorable mention, while freshman standout Grady Lewis received All-CCAA First Team recognition.


As a freshman star, Lewis led the CCAA in field goal percentage at an impressive 61.3% clip, setting a new East Bay record along the way. For Lewis, this was a huge accomplishment given the amount of competition around the conference, “It means a great deal to me to be named. There are a lot of really good players in this conference and I’m honored to be considered among the best,” Lewis shared. 


After his First Team selection and record breaking season, Coach Rooney had high praise for his star center: “Grady was fantastic this year. We asked him to consistently produce at a high level and he answered the challenge in a big way. I firmly believe Grady has the talent, drive and opportunity to be one of the best players ever to wear a Pioneer uniform. I absolutely love coaching him,” beamed Rooney.


With the team roster solidified, tested, and rearing to win after a remarkable season, the Pioneers are setting their expectations high heading into the 2023-2024 season. The Pioneers are poised for a return to the CCAA tournament and a strong 2024 campaign, with another year of Coach Rooney at the helm for East Bay and a full offseason to reflect and improve on the horizon.