Claremont, Calif. - After trailing by 16 with under 10 minutes to play, Pomona-Pitzer rallied all the way back to within two points in the final minute, but came up just short as top-seeded Claremont-Mudd-Scripps held on for a 60-54 win in the SCIAC championship game on Saturday.
With the win, 11th ranked CMS, which was led by 16 points on 5-5 shooting from sophomore guard Tyler Gaffaney (3-3 on threes), improves to 25-2 on the year and earns the SCIAC's automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament. Pomona-Pitzer sees its season end at 16-10 after earning the second seed in the SCIAC with a young line-up that featured three freshmen and two sophomores in its top five scorers.
Junior forward Po Grant (Brookline, Mass. - pictured) helped key the Pomona-Pitzer comeback attempt with three three-pointers in the final 10 minutes. His efforts helped the Sagehens trim a seemingly insurmountable 43-27 Stag lead all the way down to 45-41 in a span of four minutes, leaving the Sagehens plenty of time (just over five minutes to play).
CMS took the punch, though, and seemed to have the game back under control when Gaffaney hit a three-pointer to make it 50-41, but sophomore forward Jake Klewer (Tuscon, Ariz.) got an offensive putback and was fouled to make it 50-44. After a CMS basket, freshman guard Michael Cohen (Tarzana, Calif.) made a difficult driving lay-up to cut it 52-46, and freshman forward Jack Klukas (Eden Prairie, Minn.) made two foul shots to bring Pomona-Pitzer within 52-48 with 1:50 left.
Remy Pinson, who had the game-winning basket with 0.5 seconds left in the first meeting between the teams this year, then stepped up with what felt like a dagger three-pointer to push the lead to seven, but Cohen responded back just 10 seconds later with a three of his own to make the score 55-51 with 1:20 left.
Chris Blees then missed a running hook in traffic, and freshman guard Kyle McAndrews (Seattle, Wash.), who beat CMS on Tuesday with three foul shots with 0.4 seconds left, got to the rim for a lay-up with 40 seconds left to get the Sagehens as close as they had been since 13-11 in the first half at 55-53. After the Stags made one of two at the line, Pomona-Pitzer had the ball in a one-possession game and plenty of time left. Klukas decided to drive hard and go for a two-point basket, but had the ball knocked free at the rim on a clutch defensive play as senior forward Joseph Anderson came at just the right time with help, and CMS was able to get to the loose ball.
After Gaffaney hit both ends of a one-and-one, Pomona-Pitzer had one last chance as McAndrews made the first of two foul shots and had the second rattle out. The offensive rebound nearly came to the Sagehens, but it resulted in a held ball which went to CMS. Sophomore forward John Weiss (Cleveland, Ohio) stole the ensuing inbounds pass and quickly rotated the ball, but CMS had its second key defensive play in the paint in the closing seconds, as the Stags reached in as Klewer tried to go up for the shot and poked the ball free once again. Blees was fouled and made two to seal the win and give the Stags a 60-54 win.
McAndrews had the big day for the Sagehens in their 51-50 win over CMS on Tuesday with 16 points and three foul shots with 0.4 seconds left, and then had 22 in a SCIAC semifinal win over Whittier on Friday evening. After making a three-pointer for Pomona-Pitzer's first points, he drove the lane and Blees sent a message with a flying body block that sent McAndrews crashing to the floor. It was ruled an intentional foul, but McAndrews, who had made all three of his foul shots to win the game by one point on Friday, missed both.
The hard foul was about the only noteworthy contribution of the day for Blees, who was 1-9 from the floor and committed six turnovers, as Weiss took on the defensive challenge and locked up arguably the top offensive player in the league. But the CMS guards picked up the two-time SCIAC Player of the Year, as the Stags shot 10-21 from three (10-19 excluding the 0-2 from Blees).
Kevin Sullivan (10 points) came off the bench to hit three three-pointers in the first half to help the Stags get separation. Two of his threes came late in the half, offsetting a lay-up from senior forward Danny Brown (Eugene, Ore.) and two from Klewer (Tucson, Ariz.), to put CMS ahead 21-15. Cohen ended the half with a tough 17-footer to close the Sagehens within 21-17.
Pomona-Pitzer relied all year on a balanced offense, and that was true again on Saturday, as nobody on the Sagehens was in double figures. Grant and Klewer had nine points apiece, McAndrews had eight, and Cohen and Klukas each had seven.
The Sagehens graduate four seniors off this season's team, including point guard Evan Zahniser (Mercer Island, Wash.), who started the Sagehen comeback with a three-pointer and assisted on two of Po Grant's three-pointers as well. Danny Brown (Eugene, Ore.) and R.J. Maki (Claremont, Calif.) were both key contributors off the bench all season long, while 6-8 center Greg Wright (Oakland, Calif.) had his season cut short by an injury.
However, the top five scorers all return for two more years, and this year's young nucleus, which defeated a Whittier team with five senior starters in the SCIAC semis and took a CMS team with three senior starters (two in their fifth years) down to the wire, figures to give the Sagehens a talented nucleus to make a run at a title in the next two years. CMS, meanwhile, will take its 25-2 record into the NCAA Tournament with a team capable of making a deep run in the postseason.