After suffering an 83-60 loss at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (CMS) Wednesday night, the Occidental men’s basketball team (10-11 overall, 5-7 SCIAC) rebounded Saturday, rallying past Redlands, 69-66, in front of a Rush Gymnasium crowd of nearly 900.
The Tigers stayed within reach of the Stags despite defensive struggles and losing the rebounding battle. They were down 35-28 at the half before CMS pulled away with a 48-point second period. The Stags shot 62.5 percent from the field and 56.3 percent from beyond the arc, with guard Tyler Gaffaney’s (senior) 23 points, eight rebounds and eight assists leading the way.
Guard Juwan Rice (junior) scored 16 points for Occidental, but the Stags kept every other Tiger player in single digits.
“Our communication and rotation on defense needed to improve,” center Andrew Johnson (first-year) said.
Defensive and rebounding struggles continued in similar fashion for the black and orange in the first half against Redlands, and the Bulldogs went into the locker room up by 15 points, 39-24. They shot 16 of 30 from the floor while holding Occidental’s offense in check with a match-up zone that Occidental head coach Brian Newhall admitted had his team confused.
“We haven’t worked that much on zone offense because we haven’t see much zone,” Newhall said. “It made us pause.”
But everything changed in the second half.
“We had a few tantrums [during halftime],” Newhall said. “But they were looking for energy, enthusiasm and focus. And the contrast between the first half and the second half? Wow.”
Newhall attributed much of the renewed intensity and change of pace to guard Jay Miller’s (first-year) return. Seeing his first action since since suffering a concussion on Jan. 4, Miller made an immediate impact, using his quickness to finish with 10 points in only 16 minutes of floor time.
Fellow newcomers Johnson (team-high 18 points, 10 rebounds) and guard Joe Compagno (9 points, 3 of 5 from 3-point range) also contributed to the Tigers’ rally. Compagno hit a three-pointer with 4:53 minutes remaining in the game to put the black and orange up 61-60.
The Bulldogs never regained the lead after that point.
“Our [first-years] were three of our best guys tonight,” Newhall said.
Veteran forward and the team’s leading scorer Kris Montoya (senior) scored Occidental’s first basket of the night but was otherwise blanked in the first half. He found his rhythm, however, pouring in 14 points in the second half alone.
But it was his defense that ignited the comeback.
Trailing 44-37 with 13:28 minutes remaining, Montoya blocked forward Kyle Milligan’s (sophomore) driving layup, much to the enjoyment of the home crowd. Johnson came down with the defensive rebound and, on the other end, Compagno hit a step-back three to pull the Tigers within four.
With the crowd energized, Occidental kept up its aggressive pace en route to a three-point victory.
“It just showed our team’s resilience,” Montoya said.
Newhall said he has seen a large step forward from last season despite up-and-down results over the course of this year. The youthful squad has dealt with Miller’s concussion and second-leading scorer Spencer Levy’s (sophomore) ankle injury, as well as the continuous process of implementing new offensive and defensive systems.
Amid the adversity, Newhall believes the team has steadily improved week after week.
“We’ve been much better in the second year of the new system,” Newhall said. “We’ve made good adjustments.”
Montoya suffered a rare four-game shooting slump in January during which the Tigers went 0-4. He broke out with a 24-point performance in an overtime win over Chapman.
Since then, the black and orange has gone 4-3 in its last seven games and continue the push to qualify for the four-team SCIAC Postseason Tournament. Occidental currently sits one game behind Chapman and La Verne in the conference standings.
“We’re optimistic,” Newhall said. “We’d like to get a few more wins. We’ve been surviving and battling.”
The Tigers return to the hardwood tonight at 7:30 p.m., hosting a Chapman team they defeated 99-94 (OT) back on Jan. 18.