Heading into its two-game series with visiting Cal Maritime Academy to officially open the 2023-24 season, the University of Alaska Anchorage men’s basketball team vowed to “put on a show” for the more than 2,600 Anchorage School District fifth graders who would be in attendance.
In the inaugural Slam Dunk for Education event Friday afternoon, the Seawolves delivered on that promise with a commanding 86-69 victory over the Keelhaulers in front of a rowdy crowd filled with young Alaskans.
“The energy was great and it was electric,” UAA junior guard Jaron Williams said. “We knew that there would be a whole bunch of kids on sugar just ready to see basketball and ready to see us win the game, and it was awesome.”
According to UAA Athletics, a total of 3,200 people attended the game, marking the second-largest crowd for a men’s basketball game or event in the 10-year history of the Alaska Airlines Center. The energy the crowd provided was palpable as it invigorated players on both teams — but especially the Seawolves.
“It was a great atmosphere for us, but it was also great for them,” UAA head coach Rusty Osborne said. “(Cal Maritime) played a game last week in a gym with bleachers only on one side and only 75 people at the game. ... It was a competitive game and both teams played hard.”
While this marked Williams’ second year with the program since transferring in the spring of 2022, it marked the first time he got to see several of his old teachers after the game, as he was swarmed by kids from Russian Jack Elementary wanting autographs, handshakes and high-fives.
“It was crazy because I hadn’t been to Russian Jack in years,” he said. “(My teachers) being here and staying with me throughout middle school, high school, when I was at my (junior college) in Spokane is big time and I greatly appreciate it.”
The Bettye Davis East Anchorage alumnus is one of seven Alaskans on this year’s team, and he expressed that they all were grateful for the opportunity to play in front of potentially the next generation of Seawolves and give them a memory they’ll cherish.
“All week we were grinding and going hard,” Williams said. “We wanted to make a good show for all of these kids.”
His eight points were tied for the third-most on the team but led all Alaskans in green and gold. The Seawolves outshot the Keelhaulers .516 to .460 and were led by the sharp shooting of junior guard Dillon Barrientos, who was lethal from behind the arc. He went 4-of-9 from 3-point range and 7-of-13 shooting from the field overall to finish with a team-leading 20 points.
“It was an amazing atmosphere. I’ve never played in anything like that, and it was really fun to play in that kind of environment,” he said. “I felt good coming into the game with a lot of energy, my body was good, and my teammates were on point.”
He helped spark UAA’s offense by knocking down a pair of long balls in the opening minutes to get the scoring started and had 14 points by halftime.
“Dillon is a kid that plays with a lot of confidence,” Osborne said. “He battled a few little ankle injuries in preseason but he’s finally starting to get healthy and has a lot of confidence in himself.”
The only other Seawolf to reach double figures in scoring was senior guard Tyson Gilbert, with 12 points. UAA did a good job spreading the wealth offensively, resulting in 13 different players getting on the score sheet with at least one bucket.
“We’re unselfish and like to move the ball around,” Barrientos said. “We like to get good shots and pass up open shots for great shots.”
Even though the game was an exhibition, it served as a glimpse of just how high-powered UAA can be when they start fast and get hot.
“It was really cool to start the season, especially with a big crowd like this and having my teammates be with me through it all,” Barrientos said.
Opening the season on such a high note is a significant confidence booster for the team as the Seawolves look to round into form before they begin facing Great Northwest Athletic Conference competition at the end of the month.
“We’re excited,” Osborne said. “It’s just the first one, and we’re learning roles and who can do what. That’s what this is all about — getting us ready for when we go into the Division II season.”
The two teams match up again at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Alaska Airlines Center.