Fighting back from a 15-point first-half deficit, the Occidental men’s basketball team defeated traditional Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference foe Pomona-Pitzer 52-51 Thursday night in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.
The victory in front of a raucous home crowd in Rush Gymnasium puts the Tigers (22-5) on a plane to Spokane, Wash., where they will play the Whitworth University Pirates (20-6) at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 8. Whitworth will provide a live audio feed of the game.
Thursday’s game was Occidental’s fourth post-season appearance in six years under head coach Brian Newhall ‘83, who notched his 300th career victory earlier this season.
After splitting their regular season series with each team winning on the road, Thursday’s matchup between the SCIAC Champion Tigers and the SCIAC Tournament Champion Sagehens was sure to be a battle. It was.
"We came out tonight seeking revenge," said senior forward Chris Pitcher, who finished the night with six rebounds, four assists and two steals. "They came into our house and humiliated us during SCIAC play. Tonight we were pumped up and ready to play and we proved ourselves."
A lopsided first half saw the Sagehens jump off to an early lead with a 14-3 run, opening the largest gap of the game, 24-9, with 5:06 to play in the first half. Occidental responded with a 13-0 run of its own to go into the locker room down by only a pair, at 24-22.
Junior guard Huston Conti’s three-pointer at the 13:30 mark gave the Tigers their first lead of the night at 32-31. Oxy and Pomona then swapped the lead nine times, with each team unable to build a margin of more than four points.
Trailing 51-47 with 1:57 to play, senior guard and SCIAC Player of the Year Connor Whitman scored five unanswered points, giving the Tigers the victory. Oxy’s tough defense in the final 29 seconds sealed the deal, capped off by a Conti block of the Sagehens’ final attempt.
Occidental’s aggressive second-half defense forced six turnovers, with Conti and sophomore guard Gyan Alexander playing key roles in limiting the Sagehens to 19-for-55 (34%) shooting from the field. By extending their perimeter defense, the Tigers held Pomona to 6-for-24 (25%) three-point shooting.
The Tigers shot 42.9 percent from the field, making 12 of 28 shots –a marked improvement from their 9-for-27 performance in the opening period. Repeatedly double-teamed, Whitman was shut down in the first half, but came back strong after the break with 15 points to lead the Tigers.
"As a senior you can’t get down about missing shots," said Whitman, who also dished out three assists. "You have to just keep shooting and hope they go in. … It all comes down to execution. Tonight we were able to execute when it came down to the wire."
Senior forward Chris Hunt finished the game with 14 points and five rebounds, while Conti scored 9 points and picked up three rebounds and two assists.
The Sagehens were led by Justin Sexton who was the only Pomona player in double figures with 20. Jabarri Reynolds finished with a game-high 12 boards. Pomona’s season ends with a 15-13 overall record.