In their 52-47 non-conference victory at Port Townsend on Dec. 27, Sam Sylliaasen and the Granite Falls boys basketball team reinforced the axiom that the difference between winning and losing often comes down to matchups.
Taking advantage of the 6-foot-2 opponent guarding him, the 6-6 Sylliaasen was the game’s dominant force. He scored 21 points and grabbed 15 rebounds for the Tigers in the win.
Sylliaasen is playing the most consistent basketball of his career for the Tigers this season as a senior.
Although it hasn’t translated into success in the standings — Granite Falls was 3-11 overall and 1-4 in the North Sound Conference through Monday — he’s figured out how to take advantage of the size advantage he often owns over his opponents.
“We knew we had an advantage inside, and we’ve had it most of the year, with Sam and (6-3 senior) Ryley Mayer,” said Granite Falls coach Aaron Nations, whose arrival for the 2016-17 season coincided with Sylliaasen’s freshman year. “We really wanted to get those guys going early that night, and Sam took that responsibility. That was big for Sam. He knew we needed him and he stepped up.”
Sylliaasen and the Tigers trailed Port Townsend 23-22 at halftime, but they didn’t deviate from the plan to feed the post.
“We were going to keep making them play us inside, and Sam kept making the shots. He hit the offensive glass and got a few easy buckets. He was very active,” Nations said. “And when we had some foul trouble, we had him switch off onto their big scorer, and he did it on the defensive end.”
For his efforts, Sam was voted the Herald’s Athlete of the Month for December by our readers, and we caught up with him last week to talk about his eye-opening AAU season, this year’s quirky North Sound Conference schedule and his impressive hair.
Almost 400 people voted for you in our Athlete of the Month poll, and that’s after you were voted Athlete of the Week. How does it make you feel to have that kind of support?
It’s really honoring. It made me feel really good. This is such a small community and it means a lot to have that many people come together and vote.
Going back to that game against Port Townsend, what was working well for you that night and what led to such a good individual game?
I had a big size advantage on the guys that was guarding me. Before the game, we generally like to go over the rosters and game plan that way. Seeing that they were all smaller guys, we had a plan to go inside-out and get the ball to our bigs.
What aspects of your game do you feel are most improved from the end of last year to now?
I’m a lot better at finishing, and my confidence in my inside moves has gone up. I’m better at offensive rebounding and finishing through contact also. I played with an AAU team, North Sound Elite, last spring and summer, and getting in the gym and playing against a whole bunch of other guys helped me a lot.
You’re 6-foot-6. How are you able to use your height to your advantage?
Just being a lot longer than everyone helps. I might not have that much strength, but I can use my leverage.
What’s the mindset of the team right now? You guys are going through a little bit of a tough stretch in terms of wins and losses. Is it hard to stay positive when things aren’t going your way?
We normally all show up ready to go. We’re all really close friends and we grew up playing together, so we don’t really change all that much. We do get a lot more focused when we start winning and we have downfalls when we lose. There’s been multiple occasions where we’ve lost to competition we know we’re better than.
We heard you’ve got pretty impressive hair. How long have you been growing it out?
Probably since the middle of last basketball season. I’ve never really felt interested in getting a haircut, and I like having long hair now. I play with a headband.
We wrote recently about King’s playing a different league schedule than the rest of the teams in the North Sound Conference. What are your thoughts on playing them only once this season?
It doesn’t really bother me, and I don’t think it really bothers the team that much. When we found out about it, we had a little bit of a chip on our shoulder about being considered weak, but I get it. King’s feels like it has to play better teams to get a better ranking for state. It’s understandable.
What are your plans for next year?
I would like to keep playing basketball if I could. (Nations) said he’s been contacted by some coaches, but I don’t know who yet. I haven’t put a lot of thought into what I’d like to do, but I’d like to stay involved with sports and maybe be an athletic trainer.
What else are you passionate about?
I played three years of varsity football, but my main passion is basketball. I fish, and living out in the woods I just kind of grew up outside.