By Hank Snowdon and Kellen Browning
Down 12 points to the No. 1 team in the nation with five minutes to go, in front of a raucous, sellout Whitman College crowd in the second round of the NCAA tournament, it looked like the Stags’ stellar season was over. However, the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps men’s basketball team, as usual, refused to fold.
Miles President HM ’20 and Scott Lynds CM ’18 drilled two threes each, and the Stags were able to cut the deficit to two with less than 30 seconds remaining.
Lynds brought the ball down the floor and managed to sink an acrobatic, spinning layup, tying the game at 76 with 12 seconds left on the clock. Luck was on the Stags’ side — a Whitman player flubbed two free throws with one second remaining, and the game was miraculously sent to overtime.
The Stags’ magic ran out in the extra period: While CMS hung on for dear life, they just couldn’t stop the Blues’ offensive barrage. As the final buzzer sounded, the Stags’ bid to complete an improbable weekend of upsets in Walla Walla, Washington, ended in a heart-wrenching 89-84 loss, snapping a program record 17-game winning streak.
It was déjà vu for the Stags, who fell just short of a Sweet Sixteen birth two days after defeating the nation’s No. 2 team, Whitworth, in a 83-82 nailbiter. In 2017, the team’s tournament draw was exactly the same, and had the same result: a win versus Whitworth, and a loss to Whitman.
End of an era
The difference between this year and last: When that final buzzer sounded, a memorable cast of seniors, including two-time SCIAC Player of the Year Michael Scarlett CM ’18, stepped off the court for the final time.
For Scarlett, the overtime loss to Whitman was understandably tough to swallow.
“I had dreamed of a rematch against [Whitman] and I felt like we had and even stronger team this year,” he said. “It’s tough to be just another shot, rebound, or stop away from making history as a team and advancing to the Sweet Sixteen.”
Head coach Ken Scalmanini also liked his unranked team’s chances of toppling the country’s top two Division III teams.
“We’ve experienced [this]. We’ve done this before. We should be prepared,“ Scalamini thought. “We felt like we had a good chance going up there and winning both games, to be honest.”
It was not to be. But the legacy left by seniors Scarlett, Lynds, Kendrick Morris CM ’18, Jack Ely CM ’18, and Andrew Maddock CM ’18 left will not soon be forgotten. The squad won three SCIAC tournaments, three NCAA Tournament games, and produced some of the most successful teams in program history.
Lynds’ ability to generate offense in the biggest of moments made the difference in many contests. After missing his entire junior season and half of his redshirt junior year with a broken hand, he roared back this year, averaging 16.3 points per game and shooting 39.3 percent from three-point range.
He dropped a career-high 29 points in the Stags’ SCIAC championship game victory over Pomona-Pitzer Feb. 24, and scored 28 and 26 against Whitworth and Whitman, respectively.
Morris will be remembered for his constant post presence; he anchored the Stags defensively, consistently challenged opponents at the rim, and was smoother than butter under the basket, averaging nearly 13 points and eight rebounds a game.
Ely was the x-factor: a gritty defender and rebounder who lit a fire under the squad while agitating opponents.
Maddock, limited by injury, didn’t make as much of an on-court impact, but provided steady leadership from the bench.
But no one had a bigger impact than Scarlett, who averaged double-digit points from his sophomore year on and quickly became one of the most prolific scorers in CMS history.
After putting up 17.5 points per game and shooting a miraculous 46.1 percent from behind the arc in the 2016-17 campaign, Scarlett was named SCIAC Player of the Year, and garnered first-team All-District and honorable mention All-American honors.
That was a difficult season to top, but he did — Scarlett’s senior year was his true masterpiece. The guard led his team with 19.7 points per game, scorched his Sagehen rivals with a season-high 32-point outing in February, and the Stags went 19-3 in games he played. Scarlett was once again named SCIAC Player of the Year, took home first-team All-District honors, and this time was a first-team All-American.
His ability to hit shots from anywhere on the court made Scarlett the focal point of every team’s defensive effort against the Stags, yet he somehow always found a way to give opponents fits. His sharpshooting, combined with his beard and calm swagger, lit up the CMS crowd.
Though his career was full of accolades, Scarlett said none was more important than the memories and friendships he made.
“The accomplishment I am most proud of is making friends that will last me the rest of my life,” Scarlett said. “We pushed each other to become better on and off the court every day.”
“What’s wrong with them?”
Despite its superb finish, the 2017-2018 season was a bit of a roller coaster.
It started off on a low note, as Scarlett missed the first four games with an injury. The team dropped all four contests without him and the Stags, ranked in the top 25 nationally to start the season, quickly dropped out of the polls.
“We didn’t do very good at the beginning,” Scalmanini said. “We lost the first four, we were like 2 and 6, [and] everyone said, ‘What’s wrong with them?’”
CMS found its way as the calendar flipped to 2018. Beginning with a win Jan. 3 against the University of La Verne, the Stags rattled off 14 straight regular-season victories to turn the season around and secure the No. 1 seed heading into the SCIAC tournament.
“[That is] hard to do, when you’re not doing real well, and then turn it around,” Scalmanini said. “Some teams give up a lot, so I’m proud of their resiliency.”
Scarlett attributed the turnaround to the experienced veterans guiding the Stags.
“Having five senior leaders on the team really helped to bring experience to the squad,” he said. “When we had some early season adversity with injuries and a string of losses, there was still a feeling of togetherness and camaraderie in the locker room.”
As the postseason began, they just kept winning.
A convincing 83-72 win over Chapman in the SCIAC semi-finals was followed by one of their best victories of the year: a 86-62 thumping of P-P to win the SCIAC title.
The next day, the Stags received the news that their tournament draw was identical to the year before — they’d be heading back to Walla Walla with a chance for redemption.
“There’s two ways to look at it, I guess,” Scalmanini said. “One is, we’re familiar with the place. … The other is, ‘Man, we have to do the same exact thing again. It’s supposed to be really special for us.’”
Unlike in the NCAA Division I March Madness Tournament, where teams are seeded based on record and success throughout the season, the D-III tournament pits squads against each other based on location, so the Stags’ relative proximity to Washington worked against them.
The game against No. 2 Whitworth was a back-and-forth affair; CMS battled through 16 lead changes, trading blows with the Pirates until the final whistle, and eventually won by one point in what Scalmanini called “our best win of the year.”
Lynds and Scarlett combined for 59 of the Stags’ 83 points, and both hit free throws in the final minute to ice the game.
That all led to the rematch against Whitman. Though the Stags had now won 17 straight, they just couldn’t get past the No. 1 ranked team in the country.
“Looking back now, we have to be proud of our effort and resilience over the course of the season,” Scarlett said. “We battled back from a 3-7 start and a couple early season injuries to go on a 17-game win streak. We beat the No. 2 ranked team in the nation and took the No. 1 team to overtime.”
Scalmanini has now racked up an unprecedented 10 SCIAC regular season titles, including seven in the last 10 years, and six SCIAC tournament titles.
Throughout his 20-year tenure, Scalmanini says he’s been known for physical, defensive teams, and runs a motion offense taught by late CMS coach David Wells. But the real difference for Scalmanini — who surpassed the legendary coach’s total career wins last season — came when he decided to play to his team’s strength.
“We got way better when I recognized, ‘I should let the seniors lead this more, and me shut up,’” he said. “The last four minutes [of a game] … it [isn’t] coach Scalmanini doing it out there, it’s them doing it. Utilizing their discipline and their leadership was a real [change for] me, in a good way.”
Now, Scalmanini’s teams don’t run plays — they employ a “freelance” offense that allows players to make their own decisions, even in the spur of the moment.
“Sometimes, I don’t know what they’re running,” he admitted.
Scalmanini’s system works because of the intelligent, basketball-knowledgeable players he’s able to recruit.
“I’d like to say we utilize the smarts of the Claremont guys,” he said. “We use their minds to not give up easy baskets and to work together to create great shots.”
While Scalmanini is quick to deflect praise onto his players, Scarlett gave him more credit.
“[Scalmanini has] built something truly special with the Stags basketball program — a program that is committed to the success of the team and not just the individual,” Scarlett said. “Even on my visit as a high schooler I saw how the program was distinguished from other programs in the way the guys looked out for each other and were committed to the success of the group.”
Who’s Got Next?
With the five seniors — including four starters playing at least 30 minutes a game — set to graduate, some might think the Stags’ era of success is over.
Scalmanini would beg to differ.
“Three years ago, you would have said the same thing to me. And that team won twice in a row,” he said. “I think people are going to be surprised [by] the guys that I didn’t play this year that then get to play next year.”
After all, he reminds potential conference challengers, two of the most dominant players in the conference, Lynds and Scarlett, didn’t play much their first years.
“We have a lot of younger guys ready to fill in and step up for next year, and I’m looking forward to it,” President said.
President, the only non-senior starter, averaged nine points per game this year, and is a formidable threat with great length. He is the likely heir-apparent to Scarlett’s place at the top of the offensive stat sheet.
He will be tasked with taking over the team, and will likely be joined by forwards Patrick Myers CM ’19 and Nicholas Segura CM ’19, as well as guard Mitchell Kirsch CM ’21, the most consistent bench threats for the Stags this season.
That’s not to say the five seniors won’t be missed.
“Most people would think that I love graduation, but it’s kind of a sad day for me,” Scalmanini said. “I was sad in the meeting today, talking to the seniors. … I love ‘em.”