Trailing a confident and aggressive Pomona-Pitzer men’s basketball team 26-8 midway through the first half of the SCIAC quarterfinals, No. 1 seed Claremont-Mudd-Scripps looked like it was about to get blown out on its home floor, dashing the team’s conference championship and NCAA tournament hopes.
But just like they have done all season, the resilient Stags excelled in the face of adversity, outscoring the Sagehens 62-38 the rest of the game to pull off a miraculous, 70-64 win Friday night and propel themselves to a home matchup in the SCIAC championship game.
Thanks to a 10-0 run late in the first half, CMS trailed by only five at the buzzer. Center Kendrick Morris CM ’18, who led CMS with 17 points, nailed a turnaround jump shot with eight minutes left in the second half to erase the 18-point deficit and tie the score at 50, sending the packed CMS bleachers in Roberts Pavilion into hysterics.
Moments later, guard Evan Davis CM ’19 drained a pull-up three-pointer to give CMS the lead, and the two teams fought a physical, back-and-forth battle for control the rest of the way.
Morris capped his outstanding night with a monstrous block on guard/forward James Kelbert PO ’20, who was driving to the basket with 44 seconds left in an attempt to get the Sagehens back within three.
P-P point guard Micah Elan PO ’20 missed a three-pointer out of a timeout, but Kelbert grabbed the rebound and scored to make it 67-64.
After Stags point guard Michael Scarlett CM ’18, who had 11 points, missed a shot to put the game out of reach, clutch big man Morris got the putback to go in. Sagehen guard Corbin Koch PO ’19 missed a three with 1.8 seconds left, and the rest was history.
The entire game was chippy, aggressive, and foul-heavy. The Sagehens shot 13 of 18 from the free throw line—one of the main reasons for their first-half success—while the Stags went 12 of 15.
Center Mitchell Finkel PO ’17, who finished with 11 points and eight boards for the Sagehens, also had five fouls, while forward Jack Ely CM ’18 and guard Miles President HM ’20 led the Stags with four apiece. Players frequently dove to the ground fighting for loose balls, and the fast pace and high stakes of the contest led to plenty of turnovers, especially by the Sagehens.
Kelbert was everywhere, stealing the ball and hitting clutch shots. He brought energy and hustle off the bench, tallying 11 points and five rebounds, but was also guilty of three of P-P’s 16 turnovers, which CMS capitalized on to the tune of 22 points. With the score tied at 53, Kelbert attempted a bounce pass to a teammate, but it went out of bounds, prompting head coach Charles Katsiaficas to scream “Don’t thread the needle!” from the sidelines.
Still, Katsiaficas was pleased with Kelbert’s aggressive play.
“He’s a very good defender, and he guarded their best player most of the night, Scarlett, and he did a really good job on him and made Scarlett work for everything he got,” Katsiaficas said.
Koch also had three turnovers, while Elan added four.
Guard/forward Adam Rees PO ’20 led the Sagehens with 16 points off the bench, and Elan, who found Finkel beneath the basket over and over, had seven assists.
Katsiaficas lauded Elan’s passing and decision-making on the night, and said he’s happy with his team’s effort, despite the loss.
“I thought they really competed really hard tonight,” he said. “You can always talk about this play or that play, and how you might have liked to do something different or better, but the bottom line is they came and they left it on the court tonight, and I was really proud of them.”
Versatile forward Riley Hall CM ’17 finished with 11 points, eight rebounds, and five assists for the Stags, and President chipped in 11 points of his own.
CMS coach Ken Scalmanini was elated after his team’s thrilling comeback victory.
“I think those are the best wins, right there,” he said. “The resiliency, how hard we worked. It seemed like things were not going too good at the beginning … and we didn’t panic. I’m really proud of them, ‘cause that’s the hardest thing to do, is when they’re down and to be able to come back and get it.”
The Stags won’t get much time to celebrate. They face the California Lutheran University Kingsmen, who topped University of La Verne 92-79 tonight, at home tomorrow, Feb. 25, in a faceoff for the SCIAC title.