Photo by Bob Paz
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (Jan. 6, 2016) – The Caltech men's basketball team rallied from a 16-point halftime and game-high 19-point deficit to defeat defending tri-champion Cal Lutheran University, 70-66, in Thousand Oaks on Wednesday night.
An incredible team display of mental determination fueled the Beavers to shoot an absurd 63 percent from the field, 80 percent from long range and 92 percent on free throws while posting a +12 rebound margin in the second half soto steal their first road SCIAC victory since 1979-80, which came against the Gregg Popovich-led Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens.
"Our performance on each side of the ball in the second half was thrilling to watch," Head Coach Dr. Oliver Eslinger said. "We weren't playing with the energy and effort that makes us who we are in the first half, but there couldn't have been a starker contrast to the second half. We regrouped and got confident – we looked at it as a new half, a new game. We had a decent set of fans there that helped us get there too."
Caltech is in a three-way tie for the top billing in the SCIAC at 2-0 in conference play for the first time since 1953-54, when the Beavers won the only SCIAC Championship in program history. CLU drops into a three-way tie of its own at 1-1 in the conference and 5-4 overall. This marks Caltech's first-ever SCIAC victory over the Kingsmen, which joined the conference in 1991, and the first since the initial meeting between the two foes in 1962-63. The win also brings Caltech's record against SCIAC opponents to 6-4 over its last 10 games dating back to last February.
"All I can say about the historical significance of these wins is just, 'Wow'," Eslinger said. "These guys are accomplishing some amazing things. The fact that we did this on the road is huge. We keep taking it one game at a time, working to get a little bit better every day and it's great to see that translating into some well-earned wins."
The Beavers outshot CLU 53-40 percent from the field and narrowly edged out the hosts from beyond the arc (56-50 percent) and at the charity stripe (83-80 percent). Caltech also posted a +17 rebound margin and blocked seven shots to overcome a 21-10 disadvantage in turnovers.
Caltech won the opening tip and kicked off the scoring with a jumper from junior Lawrence Lee (Hong Kong / Hong Kong International School), but CLU quickly turned the tables with seven unanswered points to lead by five after the first two minutes. The hosts made it a six-point game soon after, but junior David LeBaron (San Diego, Calif. / Francis Parker) clawed the Beavers back within two at 14-12 on a nice post move and dish to junior Nasser Al-Rayes (Doha, Qatar / American School of Doha).
Things began to get out of hand as CLU continued to force turnovers and knock down three-pointers, eventually building a 16-point lead at 41-25 by halftime thanks to 14 Beavers turnovers. With multiple Beavers in foul trouble and unable to truly exert their significant size advantage, the Kingsmen, meanwhile, committed just five turnovers while hitting 6-of-9 three-point attempts to Caltech's one in four.
Far from content to throw in the towel in the face of such a deficit, Caltech stormed back immediately out of the break. Junior Ricky Galliani (Menlo Park, Calif. / Sacred Heart Prep) began the historic rally with a dagger three-pointer, after which LeBaron and Lee hit a layup and pair of free throws, respectively, each to make it an 11-point game. LeBaron went coast-to-coast for a layup that cut the margin to single digits and alternated layups with Al-Rayes to pull within a basket at the 11:59 mark. As the Beavers held CLU without a basket for nearly eight full minutes, Lee nailed a triple to tie the game at 45-45 with 10:53 left to play and suddenly it was a whole new ballgame.
The Kingsmen finally found their shooting stroke again, stretching the lead back out to six at 51-45 and looking set to regain control, but Caltech refused to give in. A Galliani layup cut the deficit to four and Lee made it two with a hard-earned layup in heavy traffic directly underneath the basket. After a turnover and missed shot by each team, freshman Brent Cahill (Laguna Beach, Calif. / Laguna Beach) drove into the lane with a chance to tie. His layup was just a bit off, but Galliani somehow reached up from the crowded block and guided the offensive board in to level the game at 53-53.
Cahill canceled out an ensuing CLU jumper with one of his own late in the shot clock before the Kingsmen appeared to regain the upper hand. Junior Sam Cirillo – who entered the game 3-for-5 from beyond the arc this season – knocked down his second three-pointer of the day to push CLU in front by three. Galliani responded immediately and authoritatively with another trey of his own, however. Caltech finally took its first lead of the game with 2:54 left on the clock as LeBaron grabbed an offensive rebound and laid it in to tie the game at 60-60 before hitting a jump shot to make it 62-60. Cahill then sent the gym into a frenzy with a high-arching three-pointer which gave Caltech a five-point lead with 2:05 remaining.
CLU's leading scorer, senior Dan Wade, made an incredible play in response as he drove and rolled in a shot while falling over to pull back within a basket, but turned it over on the Kingsmen's next possession, giving Caltech the ball with a three-point lead and 58 seconds left to play. Cahill saw an opening in the lane midway through the shot clock and while his effort fell just short, Al-Rayes pulled down possibly the biggest rebound of the game to retain possession for the Beavers. Galliani was fouled, sending him to the line with 33 seconds to go, and he knocked down both to extend the lead back to five at 67-62.
Wade earned a trip to the line and sank his second chance to pull within four. The Kingsmen then gave the home fans a glimmer of hope, forcing a turnover on the inbounds pass before Wade drilled a trey to bring CLU within one at 67-66 with 17 seconds on the clock. Forced to stop the clock by fouling, CLU sent Al-Rayes to the line and the junior big man calmly hit both to stake Caltech to a three-point lead. Almost before anyone could realize, Cahill had the ball in his hands, having surreptitiously intercepted the inbounds pass. Needing to hit just one of his two free throw attempts to ice the game, the rookie kept everyone on the edge of their seats with a miss on the first chance, but hit the second to seal the upset victory for the Beavers.
"I felt great with Nasser at the line in that situation, especially after he did the same thing just last Saturday," Eslinger said. "He wanted them. I'm not sure anyone saw Brent make that play until the ball was in his hands. Incredible heads-up play, and not just for a freshman."
LeBaron scored a game-high-tying 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting and added four rebounds, four assists and three steals. Al-Rayes (10 points, 11 rebounds) and Galliani (12 points, 10 rebounds) each recorded double-doubles while combining to shoot 8-for-11, with Al-Rayes also blocking five shots and Galliani going 2-for-3 from beyond the arc as all 12 of his points came in the second half. Lee chipped in 11 points in just 15 minutes due to foul trouble, shooting an efficient 3-for-4 from the floor and 1-for-2 from long range. Cahill contributed 13 points and four steals off the bench while senior Kc Emezie (Waxhaw, N.C. / Marvin Ridge) dished out four assists and blocked a pair of shots.
"This was a terrific team effort," Eslinger said. "Everyone did something and our bench really got into it to help us overcome that deficit."
Eslinger and the Beavers will take on Occidental College (7-3, 2-0) in Eagle Rock on Saturday, Jan. 9 at 5 p.m. for sole possession of first place in the SCIAC. Caltech opened the season with an 86-77 victory at Oxy to claim the 110 Freeway Rivalry on Nov. 14. The game will be available online via livestream and livestats, both accessible through the team's schedule page at GoCaltech.com.