PASADENA, CA – Coming down to the game's final possessions, Caltech charged back for a thrilling season opening 58-55 win over Willamette on Friday evening.
It is the first season opening win for a Beavers squad since the 2004-05 season. Furthermore, it is the programs first season opening win against an NCAA opponent since the 1948-49 campaign.
"I am really proud of the way the guys fought from the opening tip," said sixth year head coach Oliver Eslinger. "Even with all the youth on the team I had confidence we would come away with a victory tonight."
The first half was an offensive struggle for both teams. Willamette went 11-for-29 (37.9 percent) from the floor while the home team converted on nine of their 28 attempts (32.1 percent).
Post Game Video - Kc Emezie, Luke Lango Talk About the Win
The Bearcats never trailed in the first half and held a lead as large as 19-9 but Caltech dwindled down that advantage during the final 9:39 of the stanza. The Beavers finished the first half on a 14-6 scoring spurt to close within 25-23 at the halftime buzzer.
With 12:32 left in the contest, Willamette pushed their halftime lead to 43-31 on an Alex Brown lay-up. Caltech proceeded to dominate the next five-plus minutes of the game. The Beavers made an 11-point deficit into a 51-45 lead capped off by a Bryan Joel three-pointer with 6:46 left in the game. Caltech never trailed the rest of the game but they were challenged.
During the final 4:09, the Bearcats had a chance to tie or take the lead on four different possessions but could not. The game's final minute was especially thrilling. With Caltech holding a 57-55 lead, Avery Manu turned the ball over with 42 ticks on the clock. Caltech couldn't put any points on the board on their ensuing possession but played solid defense to keep their lead.
The Beavers upped their lead to 58-55 when Luke Lango hit one of two foul shots with eight seconds left. Talanoa Smith pulled up at the top of the key with two seconds left but his three-point attempt went off the rim and Caltech's David LeBaron grabbed the rebound as time expired to seal the win
"Even when we were down by 12 I still had confidence in our game plan," Eslinger said. "We were able to pound the ball inside and take advantage of the play underneath the basket."
Evidence of Caltech's solid play down low was their plus-17 rebounding margin while holding an 11-6 edge in second chance points.
Kc Emezie led all scorers with an 18-point effort on the strength of 7-for-9 shooting performance. Lango came off the bench to score 13 and dish off three assists in 32 minutes. Andrew Hogue and Lawrence Lee played huge roles down low as they grabbed 13 and 11 rebounds respectively.
Caltech has less than a 24-hour turnover as they play Pacific on Saturday at 5 p.m.