Spring approaches and the Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens meet the CMS Stags in the SCIAC Championship game. For graduating seniors, this match-up is nearly as regular as the change of seasons.
On Saturday, Feb. 27, the Sagehens walked across Sixth Street to face the Stags after already having swept the season series. This time, however, a strong second half propelled the Stags to a 57-53 win.
In 2008, the Sagehens won the championship, before CMS stormed back to win the title in 2009 and 2010. And with both teams sporting a senior-heavy roster, this match-up took on that much more importance.
The loss left many of the senior-laden Sagehen squad especially unsatisfied.
“It’s hard to describe the feeling of years of hard work not paying off the way we hoped in terms of winning the SCIAC championship,” said David Liss PO ’10. “It’s surreal actually: it hasn’t set in yet that it’s over, and I don’t expect it to for a while.”
P-P had been playing its best basketball of the season going into the championship game. Needing two wins, the Sagehens beat CMS and Occidental—then the top two teams in SCIAC—in consecutive games to qualify for the tournament. After some intense bracketology, the Sagehens ended up with the second seed, while CMS retained the top spot.
In the SCIAC semifinals, P-P was able to win a thrilling game over what Liss called the “hottest team in the league,” Cal Lutheran.
The Sagehens’ resiliency was on full display in this game. After falling behind in the first half by as much as 12 points, the team fought its way back with timely three-point shooting and excellent play in the paint.
After Justin Sexton PO ’10 missed a short go-ahead jumper, the Sagehens and Kingsmen ended regulation tied. The first overtime period again ended with a tie after the Kingsmen missed a deep three-pointer at the buzzer. In the second overtime, the Sagehens finally put their opponents away, finishing with a 74-71 win.
Sexton led the team with 29 points but fouled out late in the first overtime. However, big performances in the second overtime by Adam Chaimowitz PO ’10, who hit a clutch three-pointer to put the Sagehens up two, and Donald Okpalugo PO ’13, who had a monstrous block and a nice post move to cut the deficit to one, allowed the Sagehens to march on to play their arch-rivals in the championship.
Coach Charles Katsiaficas said he was particularly impressed by his team’s play down the stretch, and the players’ ability to keep focus throughout a heart-stopping season. “It seemed like virtually every game came down to the final closing seconds. Won some of them, lost some of them. Those losses can be crushing, and the wins can swing a group too high, but the guys managed to maintain their focus and make it through that amazing stretch run.”
The championship game took place at CMS because the Stags boasted the top seed in the league.
As always, the game between the Sagehens and Stags was hotly contested. The atmosphere created by the dueling student sections was even more electric than that created the previous week in Ducey. The pressure of the moment seemed to affect both teams at the start, but the Stags settled in slightly earlier than P-P and took an early advantage. However, the Sagehens managed to shift the momentum and took a 33-29 lead into halftime thanks to shooting above 50 percent from the floor.
Unfortunately for P-P fans, the Sagehens couldn’t match their hot shooting after halftime. The Stags responded by turning up the intensity and hit a number of deep shots. It seemed as though the Stags would run away with the game, as they pushed the lead to double digits with under 10 minutes to go. However, despite shooting poorly, the Sagehens maintained their defensive intensity, which allowed them to hang around.
It would have been easy for the Sagehens to give up in the face of this seemingly insurmountable deficit. Instead, true to the never-say-die attitude that had gotten them to the playoffs, P-P battled back. Sexton pointed to Kael Kristof PO ’10 as the spark of the run that brought the Sagehens back, a sentiment echoed by Coach Kat.
“Kael stepped up for us, especially with us really struggling to score in the second half,” Sexton said.
Kristof scored five points, including an impressive three-point play, to ignite a run that brought the Sagehens to within 55-53 with under a minute left.
The game came down to the final play, with the Sagehens inbounding in front of their own bench with less than 15 seconds left. Liss caught the inbound and passed to Colin Reinstadt PI ’10 under the basket. Unfortunately, the ball—and with it the Sagehen’s hope for the SCIAC championship—slipped from Reinstadt’s grasp.
The Sagehens will graduate four senior starters—Liss, Sexton, Reinstadt, and Chaimowitz—as well as fire starter Kristof. Without this familiar group, the Sagehens will have a long road back to the title game. Next year’s team will be a young one, with only two juniors listed on the current roster to take over as senior leaders next year. Shawn Stephan PO ’11 will retain his starting spot. However, the team will attempt to cultivate its underclassmen talent to make a run of its own.
Until next year…