Hungry to gain an advantage in the SCIAC title hunt, the Pomona-Pitzer (16-4, 9-2 SCIAC) and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (16-4, 8-3 SCIAC) men’s basketball teams did not fail to put on a show Wednesday night.
Though the scorching Sagehen attack ultimately prevailed, 81-76, both teams came out slow on the offensive end. Through 10 minutes of play, the score was 13-11 in favor of P-P, and at the half, it was tied at 31.
Both teams went into the second half in attack mode. CMS came out with a quick seven points in the first two minutes. However, contributions by Johnny King PO ’23 quickly stopped the bleeding — the first-year center came in and added two putback layups and two free throws, giving the Hens a 40-38 lead.
From there, the teams traded buckets, but P-P maintained its narrow lead to close out the game. With the win, P-P took control of the no. 1 spot in the SCIAC standings with weeks to go before the SCIAC Tournament.
With big men Alex Preston PO ’21 and Pavle Rohalj PO ’21 out due to injury, forward Matthew Eberle PO ’22 and guard James Kelbert PO ’20 stepped up for the Hens. Eberle put up 18 points on five threes, while Kelbert recorded 20 points and nine rebounds and made several crucial free throws down the stretch.
Miles President HM ’20 and Mitchell Kirsch CM ’21 led the way for the Stags, scoring 19 and 17, respectively. CMS also enjoyed 15 points from Josh Angle CM ’23 off the bench, including eight straight in the first half.
P-P cruised through December and January with an 11-2 overall record. Their only losses were to conference rivals Whittier and Occidental.
The Hens have been able to maintain their high-powered offense throughout the season in part due to the team’s consistent three-point shooting. P-P posted blowout wins against Bethesda (96-51), La Verne (88-63 and 109-83), Cal Lutheran (70-48) and Caltech (101-62), and have averaged nearly 87 points per game on the year.
“We shoot the ball well, and we take good shots,” Adam Rees PO ’20 said. “We practice a lot of shooting, and everybody’s ready to catch and shoot when it’s open, especially from three.”
P-P’s success has come even with key contributors Preston, Rohalj and Jack Boyle PZ ’20 all sidelined temporarily due to injury.
In their absence, other members of the squad, like Eberle and Brendan Mora PO ’23, have stepped up and shined.
Mora posted a career-high 20 points and eight rebounds Jan. 29 against La Verne. Against Caltech, he put up 19 points on a perfect 8-of-8 from the field.
Eberle provided instant offense off the bench against Whittier, dropping 17 points in only 16 minutes on an impressive 5-of-8 from beyond the arc. A week later, he recorded 18 points on a flawless 4-of-4 from three against Caltech.
“We’ve had some good contributions across the board. A lot of guys are stepping up and playing well. I think we’ve been playing hard and playing together,” Rees said.
Micah Elan PZ ’20 has also ramped up his game. The senior dropped a whopping 41 points against La Verne and 31 against Chapman, bringing his season averages to 21.2 points and almost five assists per game on an uber-efficient 49.8 percent from the field, 44.5 percent from three and 85.3 percent from the free throw line — nearly earning him a spot in the highly coveted “50-40-90 club,” in which a player shoots at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three and 90 percent from the free throw line.
Elan also hit a game-winning three to vanquish the Stags in the 5C squads’ first Sixth Street Rivalry game earlier in the season.
However, in order to secure the SCIAC title, the Hens cannot afford to repeat the way they played against Oxy Jan. 25, a game in which “we played really poorly,” Rees said, and lost 87-73.
“Every single game is really important,” he said. “A loss can change where you are in the standings drastically.”
“We have to make sure that every single game, we come out with a lot of focus, a lot of energy, and just work hard every single game. Nothing is easy,” Rees continued. “You can lose games that, coming in, you think you have no chance of losing.”
Across the street, CMS had a scorching run in December and January, winning 12 of their 14 games.
The Stags’ calling card all year has been their tenacious defense. They are currently holding opponents to only 64.3 points per game, 19th best in all of Division III. Earlier this season, they held P-P to only 51 points.
“What makes us good is that we have a bunch of set defensive rules that we almost never break,” Jeremy Horn CM ’20 said. “We fight through every ball screen, we hedge every screen. … What’s good about playing good defense is that defense travels. Even if we’re on an away hoop and we aren’t shooting well, we can always play our good defense.”
CMS has also benefited from its depth. Players such as Angle and Kele Mkpado CM ’20 have provided multiple double-digit scoring performances off the bench.
“What’s cool about our team is we have lots of different players who can step up on any given night,” Horn said. “It makes us a lot harder to scout and guard when we have so many contributors.”
Brian Kenyon CM ’23 has also played a significant role on the team. Often tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best perimeter player, the first-year guard has started 17 of 20 games.
“Even at open gyms in the off-season, he’s just a defensive dog, and that’s why the coaches love playing him,” Horn said. “He’s able to step in and play such a significant role as a freshman. … He does a lot of the little things and plays great defense, which helps the team win, although it might not show up in the box score.”
The Stags have enjoyed a balanced offensive approach, with seven players averaging at least five points per game. No one player is averaging more than 12.
“We always try and keep building and improving as the season goes on, especially with how we run our offense. We don’t run a ton of set plays, so a lot of it is focused on having good chemistry between the guys,” Horn said.
CMS’ only two in-conference losses this year have come against P-P (51-48) and Chapman (75-72), both of which were nail-biters.
“I think we just have to sharpen up on and double down on what we do best. That means keep playing our Stags defense and keep working it inside and working it inside-out to get good shots,” Horn added.
P-P will next take on Redlands on Saturday. CMS will face off against Caltech the same day.