Tigers grab LO’s Pearson by the tail

It’s been a whirlwind ride for Morgan Hill’s Drew Pearson. Just
four years ago, the 2003 Live Oak grad was struggling to prove
himself on his high school basketball team
It’s been a whirlwind ride for Morgan Hill’s Drew Pearson. Just four years ago, the 2003 Live Oak grad was struggling to prove himself on his high school basketball team. Today, he’s playing for one of the nation’s Top 20 college hoops programs with a guaranteed spot in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

Pearson, who by his own admission had no realistic aspirations of playing collegiate basketball when he was an ultra-thin high school junior, is a redshirt freshman forward on the surging University of the Pacific men’s basketball team.

Led by Big West Conference Coach of the Year Bob Thomason and Player of the Year David Doubley, the 17th-ranked Tigers (25-2 overall) own the nation’s longest active winning streak. (The team’s program record 21-game unbeaten string became the longest active streak in the country after No. 1 Illinois lost on Sunday.) And, after capping a perfect 18-0 conference regular season by beating UC Riverside 64-48 on Saturday, the Tigers head into their conference tournament as the top seed. The team has a bye into the tourney semifinals, and will play on Friday in Anaheim. If, as expected, UOP advances to Saturday’s Big West tourney finals, it would play before a national television audience on ESPN. (The game is scheduled for 9pm.)

A conference tourney title would likely earn the Tigers at least a sixth seed in the NCAA tourney beginning March 17. It’s the second straight March Madness appearance for UOP, which shocked the nation last season as a No. 12 seed by advancing to the tourney’s Sweet 16 before bowing to Kansas in the Midwest Regional semifinals.

Pearson, who redshirted last season after making the team as a walk-on, sat on the Tiger bench in street clothes during last season’s tourney run. And, despite playing sparingly this season, Pearson will be in uniform as UOP tries to improve on last year’s postseason success.

On top of the collegiate hoops world, Pearson is having a blast, especially because he knows just how far he’s come.

“It’s been pretty cool,” Pearson said. “As a junior in high school, I wasn’t really looking at college basketball. I was worried about making my high school basketball team. I didn’t expect any of this to happen.”

For Pearson, the turnaround came during the offseason between his junior and senior seasons in high school, when he started playing for an AAU club team. His game and his confidence improved so much that he enjoyed an outstanding senior season, helping the Acorns to a league title and earning all-league honors.

Another benefit of his AAU experience was his friendship with club teammate Michael White, who starred at Monte Vista Christian High in Watsonville before signing to play for UOP. White talked up the Tiger program to Pearson, who visited the Stockton campus and liked the atmosphere enough to try out for the team as a walk-on.

Pearson’s game has been elevated further by his regular practice battles against UOP’s strong post foursome, including senior Guillaume Yango, Christian Maraker, Tyler Newton and Matt Kemper. It’s a group Pearson calls “some of the best talent down low in the nation.”

“It’s been challenging,” Pearson said. “I’ve gotten a lot better playing against top-notch competition. It wasn’t that fun when I was getting my butt kicked in practice. But it helped me improve a lot.”

One of the highlights of his season was a trip to Lawrence for a rematch with Kansas. Despite UOP’s 81-70 loss to the Jayhawks, Pearson said it was a huge thrill playing at Allen Field House, “which I consider the best college basketball atmosphere in the nation.”

A foray deep into the NCAA tourney could surpass that early season highlight, and could also earn the Tigers a little more well-deserved national attention. UOP’s basketball program is anything but a household name.

But don’t bet against UOP in its bid to exceed expectations. Like Pearson, the Tigers know what it takes to succeed against the odds.

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