The Caltech Men's Basketball Team returned from a successful journey to Spain, highlighted by three straight wins against club teams in Catalonia. The international tour, the first for a Caltech athletics program, spanned the Institute's spring break from March 20-29.
After arriving in Barcelona late on Friday evening, the Beavers enjoyed the weekend touring the stadium built for the 1992 Olympics, Castillo de Montjuich, the Torres vineyard, and the sea side town of Sitges.
"The atmosphere, the perspective, the company. Just all too much to even put into words," said Dr. Oliver Eslinger, Caltech's head coach.
On Monday, the team took to Montserrat, a majestic sacred mountain that affords splendid views of the Catalonian landscape. The "serrated mountain", home to the world renowned L'Escolania Choir, was certainly a highlight.
"The scenery was spectacular," said Bryan Joel. "The hike to the Black Madonna along the mountain was like something I've never seen in the States."
By Monday night, it was time for Caltech's first game. Badalona-based Basquet Neus welcomed the Beavers to its gym with fans lining the street as the bus pulled in to park. The game itself opened erratically as Caltech tried to adjust to FIBA rules. With a 24-second shot clock, unaccustomed officiating, and different timeout regulations, the (jet-lagged) Beavers struggled to find a rhythm and found themselves down by as many as 15 points in the fourth quarter. A valiant comeback highlighted by a Bryan Joel steal and 3-pointer got them to within 3 before ending the game down 68-64. However, a jubilant celebration with all of the hometown fans and players from Neus offset any sense of a scoreboard setback.
"I've never had someone ask me for my jersey before," said Joel in reference to the "fiesta" finale.
Hugs and handshakes, photographs, and autographs were all part of the post-game festivities.
"I really didn't expect it, but it was amazing", said Nasser Al-Rayes. "I've never experienced anything like it and I really felt like we won a national title or something. But hopefully it's foreshadowing."
A respite from games on Tuesday provided the opportunity for a full day, well spent in Barcelona. Everyone was able to walk the city, shop, and experience the European way. From the intricate Gaudi buildings to the Port Olimpic to eating Tapas to walking the Ramblas, it was a full day of discovery.
"My favorite thing was being able to explore the city and experience the different culture while interacting with others," said Kc Emezie.
The next three nights featured three games, but Caltech maximized its time in Catalonia and continued its adventure to incredible sights. On Wednesday, the Beavers ventured to the medieval walled town of Hostalric and enjoyed an authentic and festive lunch in the town. From there, the team toured the botanical gardens in Lloret, built in the style of the Villa D'Este Roman gardens.
"We had a ton of awesome laughs," said Nick Buoniconti.
That night, Caltech took on its second opponent in Badalona, Basquet Circol, and it was a game that won't soon be forgotten. Played at the sight of the 1992 Dream Team's practices, a good sized crowd welcome Caltech. After Circol jumped out to a quick lead, the Beavers settled in and found their stride. Led by Al-Rayes' 27 points and 16 rebounds, Caltech claimed a small advantage heading into the second half before Bryan Joel's deep, shot clock beating trifecta helped seize the victory. The crowd was in a frenzy as the teams exchanged exciting plays before Caltech capped the win, 72-69. Joel scored 20 points and Luke Lango had 8 rebounds and 9 assists.
"It was epic," said Coach Eslinger.
Thursday featured a trip to Girona, a beautiful city with ancient Roman walls, rich in historical significance. Players walked and shopped, and simply enjoyed being in such an unbelievable place.
"I loved scaling those Gironian walls," said Lango.
In the evening, the Beavers travelled to Terrassa to take on Sferic Basquet, and they didn't disappoint. A strong first quarter featured 24 Caltech points, led by Lawrence Lee and Joel, and the Beavers maintained control much of the half. But Sferic stormed back and the game was close throughout the second stanza. The Beavers, behind the strong play of Ricky Galliani and Andrew Hogue, muscled their way to victory, 57-52.
"Their physicality really wore on me, but in the end, we were playing the same game with a round orangish thing that bounced on a court with lines," said Lango. "And it all worked out."
Friday was the final full day of the tour and the Beavers spent the day in Tossa de Mar, a picturesque getaway town that features the last remaining fortified medieval town on the Catalan coast. The players hung out on the beach and dined on another delicious, three course lunch highlighted by popular spanish dishes like paella, cured meats, and croquettes.
Friday night, Caltech looked to extend its international winning streak to three games as the team took on Club Basquet Ripollet, the best and most experienced club team it would face. In a standing room only gym, the Beavers translated a spirited warm-up that featured a dazzling display of dunks into the first quarter. On the backs of Lee, Hogue, and Al-Rayes -- who took advantage of the goaltending allowance -- they sprinted out to a 10-point lead, forced an early home team timeout, and never looked back.
Caltech remained in complete control and received tremendous play from everyone, including an offensive onslaught by Galliani. Emezie's driving dunk to begin the fourth quarter brought the crowd to its feet and gave Caltech a 25-point lead. When Ripollet made one last charge, David LeBaron's nifty layup stunted any thought of an American letdown. The Californians claimed a 64-50 win. Every Beaver played in the game, the third straight victory for Caltech.
As the week wore on, Caltech adjusted quickly to the faster paced action and how the games were officiated.
"Being a long way from home, and unfamiliar with the territory, forces a group to unite," said Coach Eslinger. "The officials actually call traveling here if that pivot foot comes up before the ball hits the floor. That was an obvious distinction."
With four, 10-minute quarters, a soccer-based style of play, and the fact that only the head coach can call a timeout via the scorer's table, subtle differences add up to big changes in strategy.
"The competition was great because they played a unique style of basketball," said Buoniconti. "I learned by watching how fluid they played together."
On the week, Lee (13 ppg, 7 rpg) led the team in scoring and shot 53.4 percent from the field. Joel (12.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.3 apg, 2 spg) was 15 of 31 from 3-point range. Al-Rayes (11.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg) was one rebound shy of averaging a double-double.
"Even though I spent most of my life playing international basketball, after only a season of intense, competitive college ball, I was playing within the style I've been developing at Caltech," said Al-Rayes. "But basketball is basketball, it doesn't matter where you are, you just need to play."
Lango averaged 4.5 assists per game while Emezie (9.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg) shot 54.9 percent from the floor and blocked 5 shots.
"The trip was a great bonding experience for the team as a whole," said Emezie. "It helped us build some momentum to carry into next season."
Hogue (6.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg) and Galliani (6.3 ppg, 4 rpg) enjoyed the physical brand of basketball and played great all-around games.
"The best thing about the trip was being able to vacation and play competitive basketball at the same time," said Galliani. "It was a rare, special opportunity."
The Beavers, who out-rebounded every Catalan club, averaged 64.5 points per game and held opponents to 59.8.
"Throughout the trip we were able to get really close off the court," said Joel. "This was very valuable because most of the team is made up of freshmen."
As Caltech has no seniors on the squad, it will return every player in 2014-15.
"Nothing like getting to see the world with my (basketball) family," said Lee.
The international endeavor was made possible thanks to a great number of supporters. The men's basketball program sincerely appreciates all of the efforts and contributions.
For full recaps of all the games, go to caltechbasketballblog.com.
Interviews and Circol highlight segment from TVBadalona: http://tvbadalona.xiptv.cat/5-contra-5/capitol/la-minguella-ho-torna-a-fer
For more highlights, go to facebook.com/caltechbasketball.
Follow Caltech Men's Basketball on twitter.com/CaltechHoops.