In his basketball cathedral, Isaiah Stevens is a maestro.
Always in control, calmly conducting his teammates through the chaos, and calling on the right section to play their part, Stevens’ ability to feel the moment and consistently lead his teammates in harmony is incredibly special.
Coming into Friday’s game, Stevens already had more assists than any basketball player in school history. The four-year starter broke that record in the ‘Orange Out’ win over Wyoming last week.
On Senior Night though, playing in Moby Arena for potentially the final time, Stevens did something he’s been trying to do for years, which is set the single-game program record for assists (13).
Going back to his freshman year, Stevens had tied the previous record four different times, including twice in league play this season. In a late-night win over the Lobos, Stevens, with the help of his teammates, finally was able to achieve the feat.
“I can’t even keep them straight anymore, how many assist records he’s gotten,” Niko Medved said postgame.
The fifth-year Rams coach continued, explaining that it’s hard to put into words just how much Isaiah Stevens means to him.
“What he means to me, personally. What he means to this program. The kind of person that he is. I will never have another one like that,” Medved said.
“We have a lot of great players but not like that. He just has the ‘it factor’ all the way around. You could just tell early on in this game, there was no way he was letting us lose this game tonight.”
Considering he is a three-level scorer with the ability to drop 30 any given night, it would be easy for Stevens to play with a me-first mentality, especially in a season that has not gone according to plan. A more selfish individual would have just focused on making sure that they got theirs, regardless of whether it was actually conducive to winning basketball.
That’s not Stevens though. That’s never been his m.o. He’s the savviest point guard to ever don the Green & Gold. And as skilled as he is as a scorer, it’s his selfless mindset and work as a facilitator that really elevates the Rams when things are clicking like they were in the 92-84 win over the Lobos.
Along with finally getting lucky number 13, Stevens scored 17 points and pulled down five boards for his seventh double-double of the year. In 24 games played this season, Stevens has finished with double-digit scoring figures in every appearance.
While neither Stevens or John Tonje have come to a decision yet on playing a fifth season for the Rams, the hope is that the two will at least have a few more games in a CSU uniform.
When asked what their mindset is regarding the possibility of a return, Stevens said that a lot of stuff is moving fast right now and he’s really trying not to focus on it, but he’s all the way in with the Rams until the ball stops bouncing for them.
“I’ll make that decision for myself whenever the time is right,” Stevens said. “But I’m trying to go out there and continue to win some games. Maybe mess up some people’s seasons and prolong it all. I’m excited to get to Vegas, man. I want to go out there and see what we can do.”
Tonje did not go in depth with his answer but smiled and responded with “retweet” after Stevens’ response. Much like his running mate, Tonje had a monster performance on Senior Night with a team-high 24 points on 7-of-12 shooting. He surpassed 1,000 points for his career in the win as well.
“It means the world to me because I just wanted to be the last guy on the bench on a Division 1 team,” Tonje said of the feat.
“I never would have thought that I would hit 1,000. I was surprised in high school when I got it, so for me to get it in college was a surreal moment.”
With a smile on his face, Medved had extremely high praise for Tonje and how far he’s come over the last four years. From a role player that averaged less than 10 minutes per game as a true freshman to one of the better scorers in the Mountain West, everything Tonje has achieved is a testament to his work ethic.
Medved explained that Tonje really did not have a lot of recruiting interest but the staff saw something in him during his senior year at Omaha Central High School. They believed in his abilities as a player, but more importantly they believed in who he is as a person. They thought he was their type of guy.
Tonje was not the player he is today when he first got to campus. It took time for him to find his footing and to gain the confidence that is necessary to play at the D1 level.
By his sophomore year though, Tonje was a key sixth man on a really talented team that came up just shy of making the NCAA Tournament. And by his junior year it was clear that he was one of the more dangerous scorers on the floor. In the season opener against Oral Roberts, he actually dropped 31 in his first career start before returning to his role as a sixth man for majority of the year — something that Medved still jokes about and refers to himself as a bad coach for.
“He never complained about it,” Medved said. “He just accepted the role on his team.”
With David Roddy no longer in the mix this season, the Rams needed Tonje to be more than just a spark offensively. CSU needed him to legitimately be one of the go-to players on the floor each possession. And to Tonje’s credit, the 6-foot-5 guard has really played well, particularly in the conference slate.
“Boy, down the stretch, he’s really been playing the best basketball of his career,” Medved said. “Isn’t that kind of the old fashioned way? You come in as a young player and you keep working, working, working, getting better and better, and then you get the results that you want. He’s just a great young man and has grown off the court tremendously. So again, it’s kind of the old fashioned way to do it. And I kind of like it.”
We do not yet know who CSU will play in the first round of the 2023 Mountain West Tournament. While we do not officially know yet what the future holds for these two individuals either, it’s been one of the great joys of my career getting to cover people as talented and as genuine as Isaiah Stevens and John Tonje.
We’ll see if they have a little magic left up their sleeves for one more run this spring.