After the Pomona-Pitzer men’s basketball team’s loss in the second round of the NCAA tournament March 2, head coach Charles Katsiaficas lamented the unfortunate reality of the “Big Dance.”
“The thing about tournaments is everyone who gets into them had a great season and earned that opportunity, and only one team’s going to end on a win, so for almost every team at some point you have a very big disappointment,” he said. “Tonight was ours, but that doesn’t diminish how proud I am of what our team has done this year and how well we played tonight.”
After defeating UT Dallas (24-5) 58-37 in the first round, the Sagehens (26-3, 15-1 SCIAC) fell to No. 2 Whitman (28-1) 83-74 in Walla Walla, Washington. The P-P women (22-6, 14-2 SCIAC) fell 72-46 to No. 13 Wisconsin-Oshkosh (26-3) a day earlier in the first round on the Titans’ home floor.
The men found success in the tournament thanks to their defense, which had been a focus all season. After holding UT-Dallas to a season-low 37 points, the Sagehens held Whitman to just 30 percent shooting in the first half.
“It didn’t stand out compared to any other game this year, or any other practice,” Micah Elan PZ ’20 said of the defensive performance. “That’s where all of our energy is, that’s where all of our pride is, is on the defensive end.”
P-P took a 36-34 lead into the half against Whitman before falling behind in the second. While the defensive effort was strong, the Sagehens committed 23 turnovers to the Blues’ 14, and allowed Whitman to get to the free throw line 32 times compared to P-P’s 12.
The Sagehens were led by 20 points and six rebounds from Daniel Rosenbaum PO ’19 in his final game with the team. Rosenbaum ended his P-P career as the program’s second-leading scorer with 1,744 points over four years.
The women’s team entered the tournament on the heels of a dramatic, 60-57 win over Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (24-3, 15-1 SCIAC) to clinch the team’s first ever SCIAC championship.
“I was really excited to just be in the NCAA tournament and excited to travel across the country to play against Oshkosh,” said Carly Leong ’22, who hit a clutch three-pointer with 46 seconds left in the SCIAC title game. “No one thought we would have got this far and we were just excited to keep exceeding expectations.”
After jumping out to a 19-18 lead at the end of the first quarter, P-P’s offense sputtered the rest of the way, managing only 27 more points, including just four in the second quarter. Leong led the team with 15 points, but no other Sagehen scored more than seven.
Leong said playing a team from across the country was the main difficulty in preparing for the tournament.
“It was different because we knew nothing about the team and they knew nothing about us,” she said. “With the SCIAC teams we felt very familiar with all of them, we knew their tendencies and how they played.”
Katsiaficas felt similarly about the teams the men faced.
“When you get to this level in the season, you don’t know the teams quite as well as you know your conference opponents who you see year after year,” he said. It’s important to “just rely on … the principles of what you’re going to work with everyday.”
Despite their early exits from the NCAA tournament, both teams had historic seasons. The men’s team strung together an 18-game winning streak on their way to a program-record 26 wins. They won their first SCIAC championship since 2008, and their first NCAA tournament game since 2003.
The Sagehen women completed a full program turnaround, going from a one-win season in 2016-17 to a conference championship just two years later. After breaking a streak of 12 straight losses to the Athenas, the Sagehens made their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2002.
Despite the accolades, ending the year with a tournament loss stung, particularly for the seniors.
“When I talked to Coach Kat [during recruiting], the biggest thing he said was that it’s the people here that are going to make it special,” Rosenbaum said. “And the reason this sucks so much for me right now is because the people have been incredibly special throughout my four years.”
Still, the seniors helped create a winning culture for P-P basketball that they hope has set the foundation for continued success. Leong is optimistic about her next three seasons with the team.
“I know that we have a bright future ahead of us,” she said. “We have great new recruits coming in and a great coach to lead the way for us.”