LOS ANGELES (Nov. 14, 2015) – Junior David LeBaron (San Diego, Calif. / Francis Parker) shocked Occidental College with a career-high 25-point breakout as the Caltech men's basketball team claimed the 110 Freeway Rivalry trophy, 86-77, on Saturday night.
This marks Caltech's second season-opening victory in the last three years, prior to which the most recent opening-night win over a Division III foe had been in 1948-49. The Beavers are currently the only undefeated school in the SCIAC, having taken an early lead and, after a halftime tie, blowing the game open in a decisive victory to start the 2015-16 season 1-0, while the Tigers open at 0-1.
"To be 1-0 is a terrific feeling – it shows that what we've worked on in practice for just a month translated straight to the game," Head Coach Dr. Oliver Eslinger said. "Conditioning and shooting were two of our points of emphasis this preseason, and you saw them on full display tonight. Defensively, we did our jobs too. Our staff did a tremendous job of anticipating what we would see despite not having a full scouting report."
Caltech outshot Oxy 54-43 percent from the field and 48-33 percent from beyond the arc while also outrebounding the Tigers, 37-32, and crushing the hosts in the paint, 38-20. The Beavers' last victory against a SCIAC foe in its own gym is thought to have been 35 years ago, in 1979-80, when Caltech toppled legendary NBA coach Gregg Popovich's Pomona-Pitzer in 1979-80.
The Beavers came to play with a chip on their shoulders as they intended to build on last year's three SCIAC wins and showed as much from the outset, jumping out to a 5-0 lead on a LeBaron layup and trey from junior Lawrence Lee (Hong Kong / Hong Kong International School), both courtesy of assists by junior Nasser Al-Rayes (Doha, Qatar/ American School of Doha). Oxy junior Andrew Johnson fought through multiple apparent muscle strains to put up 20 points in 26 minutes, including the Tigers' first eight points, but Al-Rayes connected with Lee on a reverse baseline layup and LeBaron on a backdoor cut to put Caltech up 9-4 before LeBaron went off for a three-pointer and fast break layup on his own steal, which preceded 2014-15 leading scorer senior Kc Emezie (Waxhaw, N.C. / Marvin Ridge) creating back-to-back layups for the 19-11 lead at 11:48.
Lee made an excellent cut for a reverse layup at the 10:17 mark, but Oxy clawed back into the mix as Caltech suffered a near-four-minute scoring drought that allowed the Tigers to pull within two at 21-19 with 6:38 remaining in the half. That was the point where freshman Brent Cahill (Laguna Beach, Calif. / St. Margaret's) stepped up, hitting a floater on yet another Al-Rayes assist.
Johnson earned a trip to the charity stripe after an Oxy trey with a chance to take the lead and made good for the home crowd, but Caltech responded with back-to-back treys from Cahill and Lee, punctuated by Emezie making a trip to the line and converting both free throws for the 31-27 advantage.
That would be the Beavers' final tally of the half, however, as the Tigers tied things up at 32-32 at the break on a controversial buzzer-beating tip-in which, according to the play-by-play, came after the horn had sounded.
LeBaron kicked off the second half with a jumper and junior Ricky Galliani (Menlo Park, Calif. / Sacred Heart Prep) followed with his first three of the evening to put Caltech back ahead, 37-34. Just one minute later, he tacked on another to give the Beavers a 40-37 lead which they would never relinquish. Caltech extended the lead to as much as 16 with eight minutes remaining in the game, but Oxy never truly threatened to rally as the Beavers offense could not be contained and the defense executed its gameplan to perfection.
"I can't say enough about how great it was to see alumni – basketball and other sports even – engaged in the game, whether they were here tonight, watching online or texting me," Eslinger said. "We had a heck of a crowd tonight; I looked up from the bench and saw our whole section packed – at an away game – and rivaling Oxy's supporters."
LeBaron led Caltech with 25 points – more than double his previous career high – while Galliani added 17 points and a team-high nine rebounds and Al-Rayes dished out nine assists to go with seven points and rebounds. Emezie chipped in 15 points on an efficient 6-of-8 shooting and added six boards. Cahill and Lee scored 11 apiece.
"Dave has been leading us in practice, has worked his tail off and literally seized the opportunity tonight and commanded our team as we expected from our lead guard," Eslinger said. "He played with a heck of a lot of confidence and no hesitation. Dave and Ricky were both locked in defensively and doing everything right on offense. Ricky's shot was so smooth and calm, I thought every one of them would go in. Finally, Brent was the spark we needed, especially off the bench. He made a high impact in his first collegiate game, including some key plays, particularly that steal in the second half that led to the free throws to get us back ahead by double figures."