PASADENA, Calif. (Feb. 17, 2017) – Locked in a tight game and trading leads with an on-paper superior SCIAC foe on home soil with just over a minute to go in regulation, the Caltech men's basketball team knows this situation all too well. It almost led to perhaps the biggest SCIAC upset of the year when the Beavers came up short to Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Colleges back on February 2nd.
Clinging to a two-point lead with just seconds separating them from the sweet relief of victory and the agony of defeat, this too is a situation the Beavers know all too well when just days removed from the CMS game, the same team had its heart broken at the hands of an Occidental College buzzer-beater three-pointer.
As luck would have it, both of these situations reared their ugly heads in the Beavers' Senior Night clash with Pomona-Pitzer College, then ranked third in the SCIAC and eighth in the NCAA West region. Yet this time, the Beavers refused to let themselves be defined by heartbreak. They hung tough in the face of adversity, scored when they needed to and held it together defensively long enough for Pomona-Pitzer guard Corbin Koch to miss the game-tying layup to seal a 61-59 Caltech victory over the Sagehens on Senior Night. The win also marks the Beavers' first ever conquest of a regionally-ranked opponent.
Seniors Ricky Galliani (Menlo Park, Calif. / Sacred Heart Prep), Nasser Al-Rayes (Doha, Qatar / American School of Doha) and David LeBaron (San Diego, Calif. / Francis Parker) received recognition for their accomplishments at Caltech in a brief pregame ceremony with their parents in attendence. All three of the seniors played an important role in winning the final game they will play in Braun Gymnasium as student-athletes.
"It's a little bittersweet for us seniors," Galliani said. "It's our last game here and it's the last time we get to put on the white jersey but it's an incredible feeling. There's no better way to go out than by knocking off one of the best teams in the league."
While the seniors took center stage, sophomore Brent Cahill (Laguna Beach, Calif. / St. Margaret's) stole the show with his clutch performance in the game's final two minutes. Shortly after Al-Rayes fouled out after pacing the Beavers with 11 points and 11 rebounds, Cahill took it upon himself to hit the big shots his team needed to keep themselves in the game. Cahill first drew a foul on Daniel Rosenbaum before following it up with two big free throws. He then drove nearly coast-to-coast on a layup to give the Beavers a two-point lead. After Glenn Leininger tied things up on a jump shot, Cahill hit the game-deciding jumper from about 15-feet out. The dagger marked the final two points of a sterling 20-point game for the sophomore.
The Sagehens never scored again.
"Brent was absolutely clutch tonight and we all know he has that capability to make an explosive impact," Head Coach Dr. Oliver Eslinger said. "What he did defensively tonight was maybe even better. Great play all around. He made some great decisions and finished plays by scoring and with assists, rebounds and a huge block."
Cahill's spectacular showing did not come without a hint of controversy. Minutes following a technical foul called on Al-Rayes, Cahill too earned himself a technical foul with about 12 minutes to go. The foul came at a costly time, as Caltech was already mired in foul trouble. Al-Rayes and LeBaron each had four fouls and the margin of error began to grow slimmer and slimmer. To make matters worse, the Sagehens made all four of the free throws stemming from the technicals, providing them with a little extra confidence to almost complete a comeback in the latter portion of the second half.
"I didn't want those calls, any of the calls, to affect our mental state," Eslinger said. "I knew that even though we can always improve in various situations that what was most important was keeping the guys stable and getting them to come back more resilient. Moving onto the next play was vital."
After holding both LeBaron and Al-Rayes out for much of the second half, Eslinger brought his seniors back into the game with 7:49 left to play. Though Al-Rayes ultimately fouled out, LeBaron provided three key points within the game's final four minutes. He finished with 11 points and leads the team in games with at least 10 points this season. Galliani, meanwhile scored all nine of his points from beyond the arc.
The early portion of the game featured some unique twists and turns, the most significant of which involved Caltech holding Pomona-Pitzer without a field goal until 14:33. The Beavers made good use of energy and precision to create an uphill battle for the SCIAC's fifth-best shooting team. The Sagehens did find success at the free throw line, however. For a stretch spanning between 9:52 and 6:05 of the first half, all of the Sagehens' points came from Daniel Rosenbaum free throws. As for the Beavers, with the exception of five Al-Rayes field goals all of their first-half points from the field came from three-pointers until Cahill broke the trend with a jump shot at 1:55. Caltech did go on to outshoot Pomona-Pitzer, 35.7 percent to 25.4 percent.
Freshman Ross Carter (Sudbury, Mass. / The Rivers School) filled in admirably while Al-Rayes took a breather in the second half, collecting three rebounds in seven minutes. Fellow freshman Aaron Ayres (Tucson, Ariz. / Catalina Foothills) took over LeBaron's role in a similar fashion and held his own in 25 minutes of action. He finished with two free throws, two rebounds, one assist, one block and one steal. Freshman point guard Alec Andrews (Folsom, Calif. / Folsom) dished out three assists, as did Cahill. The strong play of the underclassmen mattered just as much as the strong play from the upperclassmen and their development will determine if the men's basketball program can build on the foundation they have fortified this year.
The immediate consequence of a hard fought team victory with multiple contributors? A fitting sendoff for the seniors and a memory that could last a lifetime.
"I am just so happy for, and proud of our seniors," Eslinger said. "We prepped for this game by focusing on how we can make it special for the three captains, the three seniors. I wanted so badly for them to have a great game and for the team to give it all they could for those three guys who have built this program into an even stronger one. It makes it all that much sweeter, I suppose, to take it to the end and keep the fans engaged like that. When we have a crowd like that, loud and enthusiastic, it really gives us a true home court advantage. Thanks to all the fans."
Now 6-9 in SCIAC play, Caltech's fortunes could have been drastically different had a couple breaks gone its way, though not qualifying for the conference's four-team playoff is not a direct measurement of the success this year's group saw or how history will remember them.
"People will remember our toughness, our fighting through adversity and playing hard," Eslinger said. "There are challenges and more challenges but especially for the seniors, when they walk away, they can feel good about all they've done and how they've learned and enjoyed being with one another through good times and tough ones. They said some really thoughtful words today and tonight as we went through this. They have certainly made an impression on a lot of people, myself included."
Eslinger and the Beavers will look to close out the season with two-consecutive victories when they travel to California Lutheran University for a 7:30 p.m. game.