Photo by Bob Paz
PASADENA, Calif. (Feb. 17, 2016) – Caltech men's basketball won its program-record seventh SCIAC game to force a four-team tie for third place in the conference behind stellar performances by freshman Brent Cahill (Laguna Beach, Calif. / Laguna Beach) and junior Nasser Al-Rayes (Doha, Qatar / American School of Doha) in a 65-61 victory over the University of La Verne on Wednesday night.
"It's extra special to be part of this record-setting team," Head Coach Dr. Oliver Eslinger said. "It isn't something we've talked about pre-game or something anyone has said much about – we've just attacked every game as we always do and stayed in the present. Having now reached that point, just to know that we've accomplished something so meaningful is a notion of pride for all of us."
With both teams now 9-14 overall and 7-7 in conference play, they enter a four-team tie along with the University of Redlands and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Colleges for the third-sixth positions in the conference standings with two games remaining. The top four teams earn berths in the Postseason Tournament, hosted by the higher seeds, on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 26 and 27. The Beavers host newly crowned conference champion Chapman University on Saturday, Feb. 20 before the regular season finale at Pomona-Pitzer Colleges on Wednesday, Feb. 24.
"Saturday will be a lot of fun," Eslinger said. "We expect a great crowd and ballgame, and with it being Senior Night, the stage couldn't be set any better. It is exciting to be in this position and we will approach it as we always do – with prep, optimism and energy."
Cahill poured in a career-high 24 points for the Beavers' third 20+ point game of the season while Al-Rayes posted a double-double with 12 points and 13 rebounds while adding three blocks. Facing a seven-point halftime deficit, Caltech stormed back to outscore La Verne by 11 in the second half as the Beavers shot 50 percent from the field and pulled down 12 more rebounds.
"Nasser was huge for us in many ways tonight," Eslinger said. "Securing those boards was a major factor and he was really an all-out presence."
This was a low-scoring affair in the early going, with the visitors holding a mere 4-1 lead a full six minutes into play. Caltech's offense woke up first to go ahead by five at 11-6, including a two-handed Al-Rayes dunk, with 10:16 on the clock, but the Leopards rattled off a 22-2 run over the next seven minutes to surge ahead by 15 with 3:39 left in the half.
"When we hit that dry spell, I was still confident in our game plan," Eslinger said. "We were still in control of the pace and getting opportunities."
Cahill took it upon himself to create the majority of those opportunities upon re-entering the game with 3:27 on the clock as he led the Beavers to score on their final five possessions of the half. The rookie went coast-to-coast on multiple occasions, blowing by and splitting defenders to lay in three consecutive baskets over a 1:17 span to cut the deficit to 11. Senior Kc Emezie (Waxhaw, N.C. / Marvin Ridge) joined in with a jumper with just under a minute left before the break to cut the margin to single digits and Cahill grabbed a defensive board then went straight down court for a fourth layup to make it a seven-point game. A pair of blocks by Al-Rayes in the final four seconds ensured that the score line remained 30-23 heading into halftime.
"Cahill really provided a boost as he was able to produce some points for us, which generated some momentum heading into halftime," Eslinger said. "He is a catalyst, coachable and just has a knack for making all sorts of plays."
As they have so many times this season, the Beavers wasted little time in tightening the game after the intermission. An Al-Rayes layup brought Caltech within a basket at 33-30 with 17:15 left to play and Cahill soon tied things up at 37-37 with an old-fashioned three-point play as he dropped five points in a 34-second span.
"We started converting our attempts and really locked down on defense thanks to great patience and execution," Eslinger said.
Caltech did not stop there, with Emezie knocking down a second-chance jumper, Cahill laying in another and junior Ricky Galliani (Menlo Park, Calif. / Sacred Heart Prep) converting a tip-in for a six-point lead at 12:13. La Verne immediately cut the difference to three but would come no closer until the 8:17 mark. At 48-46, both teams kept the other off the board over three possessions apiece before Al-Rayes threw down another dunk to give the Beavers some breathing room. That proved key as Khaneal Mason drove for a layup and converted the and-one opportunity to make it a one-point game at 50-49 with 5:23 remaining.
A close-range effort from Emezie rolled out on the next possession, but the ball was tipped out to sophomore David Kawashima (Studio City, Calif. / North Hollywood) who drove hard and lofted up his shot just in time to regain the three-point edge. Leopards star Hakim Arnold kept it a one-possession game on two occasions over the next two La Verne possessions, but consecutive free throws from junior Lawrence Lee (Hong Kong / Hong Kong International School), Al-Rayes and Cahill repeatedly stretched the lead back to four and soon six. Lee extended the margin to seven after a La Verne free throw and Cahill made it double digits following a layup and foul on yet another drive.
La Verne refused to give in, however; Arnold went coast-to-coast after a defensive board and, coming out of a timeout, Mason came up with a steal and hit Arnold for a jam to suddenly pull back within six. The makings of an incredible rally continued to come together when Mason hit another layup to make it a four-point game at 63-59 with 39 seconds left to play, but Emezie earned a trip to the line on the next possession and sank both free throws to ice the game. Mason drove for a quick layup coming out of another La Verne timeout but Caltech held on for the critical 65-61 victory.
Cahill's 24 points came in a 21-minute span during which he shot 9-for-14 from the field. Emezie added nine points and two steals, while Galliani pulled down nine rebounds and made two steals.
Eslinger and the Beavers welcome Chapman (17-5, 11-3) this Saturday at 5 p.m. The team will also bid farewell to Emezie and Robert Anderson (Orono, Minn. / Orono) as the two play the final regular season home game of their careers.