Kyle McAndrews PO ’15 got to the rim at will. Michael Cohen PO ’15 showed off his smooth handles and stroke. Jake Klewer PO ’14 looked like he controlled the court. Donald Okpalugo PO ’13 perfectly timed his leaps twice and then pulverized Afghani layups. Po Grant PZ ’13, of course, took three-pointers. Despite the result of the Pomona-Pitzer men’s basketball season opener, a 60-57 loss in an exhibition against the Afghanistan national team last Friday, the Sagehens reminded their sizable fan base of last season’s near-NCAA qualification and how they are among the contenders to win the 2012-2013 SCIAC championship.
There are some differences: Evan Zahniser, who graduated last spring, is no longer starting in the backcourt; key substitutes Greg Wright, R.J. Maki and Danny Brown also have graduated; sophomore Jack Klukas, the 2011-2012 SCIAC Newcomer of the Year, has decided not to play this season because he intends to transfer second semester. In their place, 2010-2011 Second-Team All-SCIAC selection Xavyr Moss PZ ’13 returns following a junior year abroad in China. The Sagehens have also added some needed height through their first-year class, with Reid Callan measuring in at six feet five and both Joseph Knight and Gibsone Farone-Collins at six feet eight.
Against the Afghanistan national team, described by The New York Times as a collection of “young Afghan-Americans with modest doses of collegiate experience,” P-P was dominant at times. But, as expected, the Sagehens appeared rusty as they adjusted to the new season, considering the months since their last competitive game (a defeat to Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in the SCIAC championship game).
“We’re fairly young and relatively new in terms of our personnel,” said Head Coach Charles Katsiafcas. “We lost two starters and a couple of other guys who made key contributions, so I think we’re trying to figure out what our personality to be and what our strengths to be.”
After Bilal Azizi opened the night’s scoring for Afghanistan with a slick, hook-shot fake, the Sagehens answered with a quick ten points. The Afghanis then slowly chipped away at P-P’s lead, the Sagehens’ shooting going cold following their initial spurt. This would be the trend of the first half; P-P would open up a commanding lead only for Afghanistan to put together a few successful possessions to stay within reach of their opponents.
The Sagehens relied upon their long-range shooting and free throws to create a 15-point advantage, the largest of the game, with 2:16 left in the first half. P-P made six of their 14 three-point attempts in the first half and went four of five from the charity stripe. During the same period, Afghanistan shot a terrible 11.1 percent from three and did not muster a single free throw. However, after Cohen’s free throw gave the Sagehens that 15-point lead, Afghanistan responded with two buckets, including a Haroun Arefi layup just before time expired, to change the momentum heading into intermission. Afghanistan’s Safi Mojaddidi came out and sunk a three-pointer 12 seconds into the second half and made all three of his free throws when he was fouled shooting on the next possession.
P-P, who missed all seven of their three-point attempts in the second half and shot 25 percent overall in the final twenty minutes, staved off Afghanistan until a Mostafa Asefi three-pointer finally tied up the game with 9:21 remaining. From there, Afghanistan opened up a five-point lead with 6:17 left. Both teams found it difficult to score, but McAndrews pulled the Sagehens within one by making a pair of free throws and later rebounding his own missed shot and converting the follow-up. After Afghanistan extended its lead to three, Cohen had a chance to tie, but he could not convert his contested corner three.
Katsiafcas struggled to pin down a specific cause for his team’s uneven play.
“The pace of the game slowed down a lot. So there became a much higher premium on executing your half-court stuff,” Katsiafcas noted. “In your opening game or even your first two or three games, you will often see what we call ‘game slippage.’ I thought we really saw a ton of ‘game slippage,’ meaning stuff we were executing really well in practice we just stopped executing.”
McAndrews and Cohen paced the Sagehens, dropping 17 and 16 points respectively. Katsiafcas, however, expects the scoring load to spread across his lineup as the season progresses.
“They are clearly two of our more explosive offense players, but what will invariably happen is that defenses will key on your more explosive players,” said Katsiafcas. “I think that ideally we’ll create a trust and a balance between us where we can get it done in a number of ways.”
The Sagehens now have another full week off before they host Westmont College and La Sierra University next weekend.