With 46 seconds remaining in the women’s basketball SCIAC title game, the Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens (22-5, 16-2 SCIAC) were on the verge of winning the conference tournament for the first time in history, clinching a trip to the NCAA tournament and defeating archrival Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (24-3, 16-2 SCIAC). Leading by two, they needed one more bucket to ice the game.
Enter Carly Leong PZ ’22.
After streaking to the corner, Leong caught a skip pass from point guard Keilani Ikehara PZ ’19. With a defender in her face, the first-year guard rose up and drained a dagger three in front of her own bench.
“That’s what she does,” P-P head coach Jill Pace said. “Carly has ice water in her veins.”
The Athenas did everything they could to fight their way back into the game, scoring six points in the final minute, but ran out of time. When a Maya Love CM ’20 60-foot heave fell short at the buzzer, P-P erupted in celebration of the 60-57 victory.
The loss snapped a 20-game win streak for CMS, which hadn’t fallen since Dec. 1, as well as a 12-game win streak in the Sixth Street rivalry dating back to 2013. The championship win came in the Sagehens’ first appearance in the postseason since the SCIAC tournament began in 2007.
“We always talk about focusing on each game,” Pace said. “This was the SCIAC Championship, so we were focusing on it being the SCIAC Championship. But it makes it a little sweeter with the rivalry to also get the win over CMS.”
CMS defeated P-P twice during the regular season, 85-74 Dec. 5 and 78-55 Jan. 24. The deciding factor in each contest was rebounding — the Athenas outrebounded the Sagehens 99-35 in both games combined.
Determined to not allow the Athenas to control the glass, Pace said the Sagehens doubled their focus in preparation for the title game.
“We learned we needed to rebound,” she said. “Rebounding was something we really emphasized in practice.”
While CMS finished with a 43-34 rebounding advantage, the Sagehens’ inside play was enough to neutralize the Athenas’ strength in the post. Amara Chidom PZ ’22 was a big part of the effort, finishing with nine points, 11 rebounds, three assists and six blocks in 31 minutes.
“Amara is a beast down low,” Leong said. “She gets really gritty rebounds, and she’s also a great passer.”
The title game was tightly contested throughout. Neither team led by more than six, and the rivals combined for 14 lead changes. Heading into the fourth, the game was deadlocked at 36.
Love opened the final quarter with a layup to give the Athenas the lead, the last time CMS would find itself in front. Cameron Edward PO ’22 drilled a three-pointer with 7:52 remaining to give the Sagehens a 41-38 lead that they never relinquished.
CMS twice cut the lead to one, but couldn’t manage to stop Leong on the other end. Corinne Bogle KG ’19 hit a jumper at 4:25 to make it 47-46, but Leong answered with a pair of free throws. Gloria Bates CM ’20 cut the lead back to one after scoring in the paint two minutes later, but Leong hit a layup and got fouled on the next possession. A minute later, Leong hit the dagger three to ice it.
CMS captain Ellery Koelker-Wolfe CM ’19 said the Sagehens’ ability to capitalize on the Athenas’ errors, along with P-P’s energy, was tough to handle.
“They came in really pumped up, playing like they had nothing to lose,” she said.
Ikehara, who received tournament MVP honors, led P-P in scoring. She poured in 16 points while adding four assists and four steals, and played almost the entire game, only taking a seat on the bench for the final six seconds of the second quarter.
“[Ikehara] is the best point guard I’ve ever played with,” Leong said. “She makes amazing passes, she hustles, she’s a leader, she gets clutch steals. She does everything for us.”
Leong, the SCIAC Newcomer of the Year, added 15 points — 10 of which came in the final quarter of play.
Love led the Athenas all night, and finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds on 8-of-22 shooting. Bates was the only other Athena in double digits, scoring 13 points in 21 minutes.
The SCIAC tournament title is the culmination of a rebuild Pace has orchestrated since she took over as head coach three seasons ago. In her first year the Sagehens finished a dismal 1-23. They improved to 8-17 last year, but their emergence this season, at least on paper, appears to be ahead of schedule.
Pace credits their rise to the first-year class, led by Leong.
“[The first-years] are sponges, they’re thirsty to learn, and they’ve taken everything that we’ve taught them — not just the coaching staff but the upperclassmen — and implemented it in practice and in games,” she said.
Leong said finally knocking off the Athenas, after the seniors had lost to them eight times in four years, was the best feeling after the win.
“It feels so good,” she said. “The seniors 110 percent deserve it; they’ve been through so much adversity.”
With the win, P-P received the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Sagehens will find out who they’ll be playing in the first round when the bracket is released Monday.
CMS will wait for the bracket’s release to see if its season is over, or if a 24-3 season is enough to secure an at-large bid. After losing the SCIAC title game last season to Chapman, the Athenas (23-4) were not selected to advance.
“We’ve been very consistent all year with our defense and ability to win games, and I would hope the [selection committee] takes that into account,” Koelker-Wolfe said. “The level of play in the SCIAC has also elevated in recent years, and it’s not unreasonable to have two teams from Southern California in the NCAA tournament.”
The Sagehens’ win could signify a rebirth of the Sixth Street rivalry for women’s basketball, which the Athenas have dominated since the turn of the century. CMS had won the last 12 matchups, and since 2000, P-P has only won six times in 40 tries.
With P-P’s emergence, Pace said the rivalry is back in a big way.
“It’s really fun,” she said. “To see a game that had a great crowd, and was a back-and-forth game the entire time, is really what you want in a rivalry, and also represents our colleges so well.”