Hours after their female counterparts clinched the team’s first SCIAC title in program history, the Pomona-Pitzer men’s basketball team’s chances of securing a Sagehen sweep looked bleak.
P-P trailed Occidental 16-2 about a quarter of the way through the SCIAC championship game Saturday night at the Voelkel Gym, and everything the team tried was thwarted by a hungry, swarming Tigers defense. The Sagehens’ outside shots weren’t falling, and Oxy looked on pace to beat P-P for the second time this season.
But the Hens (24-2, 15-1 SCIAC) proved why they’re conference’s top team over the final 30 minutes of the game, outscoring Occidental (22-2, 12-4) 66-29 the rest of the way to ensure a blowout 68-45 victory in front of a raucous crowd and clinch a spot in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“The run we went on at the end of the first half was one of the best stretches of basketball our team has played together,” said Micah Elan PZ ’20, who was named the tournament’s MVP. “It was an incredible experience to feed off each other and the crowd’s energy.”
The comeback was sparked by the hot shooting of Sagehen guards Elan and Daniel Rosenbaum PO ‘19, who had 21 and 14 points respectively, while combining to shoot 7-of-18 from three. James Kelbert PO ’20 added energy and hustle off the bench and finished with eight points on 4-of-6 shooting and three steals.
“We talk all the time about it being a 40-minute game,” head coach Charles Katsiaficas said of the team’s early-game struggles. “So we reminded each other that its a 40-minute game.”
By the time those 40 minutes were over, Katsiaficas’ starters were enjoying the victory from the bench, courtesy of a large second-half lead. The reserves were subbed in with 2:35 remaining after forward Alex Preston PO ’21 extended the margin to 65-40 with a thunderous dunk that sent the crowd into a frenzy.
Preston finished with 12 points, three rebounds, two blocks and two steals. Guard Corbin Koch PO ’19 chipped in a strong all-around effort, with eight points, eight boards, four assists and two steals.
P-P took a nine-point lead into halftime, and Oxy never seriously threatened again. The Tigers’ last-gasp push came with 12:30 remaining, when they scored five straight to cut the lead to 13, giving the vocal Occidental contingent — which nearly rivaled the home P-P crowd in size — something to cheer about. But out of a timeout, Elan and Rosenbaum nailed three of their next four attempts from beyond the arc to slay the Tigers for good.
“I’m happy for the guys more than anything,” said Katsiaficas, watching his team pose with their SCIAC championship T-shirts. “They deserve it, they earned it, they went out tonight and took it.”
The team, which won the conference title for the first time since 2008, will learn the identity of its first-round NCAA foe Monday.
Saturday’s game capped a historically dominant season for the Sagehens. Katsiaficas, named the SCIAC Coach of Year, led the team to a program-record 25 wins this season, which included an impressive 18-game win streak and 16 conference wins.
Last year’s bitter loss to Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in the SCIAC title game left the returning Sagehens eager for revenge; after letting a championship slip through their fingers, they knew the amount of work and dedication it would take to get a second chance to vie for an automatic NCAA berth.
On Friday night, the Sagehens were locked in a close battle with Redlands (15-11, 10-6 SCIAC) until the very last seconds in the SCIAC semifinal game, straining to hold off a late charge from the Bulldogs. P-P ultimately secured a spot in the finals with a 79-77 win.
The full team effort displayed Saturday night was a perfect representation of the fiery spirit that fueled P-P basketball throughout the entire season.
“We have been working really hard, not just this season but over the summer and in the offseason to be able to get to this point,” Rosenbaum said. “The game last night was a culmination of all that work that everyone got to see.”
The Sagehens’ recent grind brought the team closer than ever. As the P-P student section began to sing farewell to the Tigers during the final minutes of Saturday’s game, the subtle smiles exchanged by the players made this clear.
“I love and trust every guy on the team, and we all play for each other,” Elan said. “That is something that makes this team so special.”