The Tritons came in to Friday night’s game fired up. The huge student turnout for Spirit Night added fuel to the team’s fire, especially because the Tritons — ranked second-to-last in the conference — were the obvious underdogs against second-ranked Cal State Los Angeles.
“The crowd really played a huge role in [making] a difference for us tonight,” sophomore guard James McCann said.
The Tritons took the tip and the first two points when their motion offense opened a lane for McCann to drive in for a teardrop over the Golden Eagles’ Carl Hoffman, a 6’9” junior that tips the scales at nearly 280 pounds.
Hoffman, who outweighs Triton center Christian Hatch by 30 pounds, largely contained the Triton points-per-game leader, who ended the night with just eight points and seven rebounds.
The Eagles proved more athletic than the Tritons, as they successfully utilized a full-court press to pull out a 7-4 lead in the first few minutes. But UCSD Head Coach Chris Carlson cut deep into his bench to minimize fatigue.
The quick changes worked, as McCann was able to break the Los Angeles press time and again off the dribble.
Cal State Los Angeles countered by removing its big man, Hoffman, in favor of junior center Jordan Richard. Richard went on to have a field day, blocking shots in the paint and pinning them high off the glass to finish with eight blocks, a conservative count.
“When you have a shot blocker like that, you just got to keep going after him,” McCann said. “You just keep taking it to him.”
Despite their height disadvantage at the post-position, the Tritons kept attacking in the paint, out-rebounding the Golden Eagles by four while also shooting four percent better from the floor.
Leading the assault along with McCann was junior guard Tyler McGrath, whose streaky play from the perimeter has earned him the name “The Light Switch.”
But tonight, McGrath was totally on, shooting six of seven from the floor and draining three of three from behind the arc.
Down the stretch, the Tritons had trouble breaking the press after McCann was taken out at 15:37 for a quick breather.
With McCann out, Cal State Los Angeles jumped on the Tritons, out-rebounding UCSD to get four put-backs on one possession.
The following Triton offensive attempt was thwarted as the Golden Eagles soared to block three Triton shots in a row. The Cal State Los Angeles full-court press resulted in no less than five turnovers in the four minutes McCann was out.
Only “McCannCan” break the Los Angeles press, and so Carlson put McCann back on the court. The guard immediately ripped through the press to set up a McGrath three-pointer —swinging the momentum back in the Tritons’ favor.
Up 57-52, the Tritons let the Eagles back in the game with an easy dunk and two clutch free throws by senior Eagle forward Leland Jones. Thankfully, the Eagles failed to capitalize on the last shot as the Tritons took the game 57-56.
On Saturday, the Tritons faced Cal State Dominguez Hills, who is currently tied for first place in the CCAA and had just lost the night before to Cal State San Bernardino.
In the game, the Triton defense held the usually explosive Toro offense to just 46 points. UCSD took the win to the tune of 48-46.
Again the Tritons saw a hard-fought game that came down to the wire. McCullough had a career high of 16 points, five rebounds and two assists. He scored 14 of his 16 points in the first half before the Toros locked down their defense and marginalized the deficit in the last two minutes of play.
Coming down the stretch, McCullough put in his last two points from the free-throw line to give the Tritons a 45-34 lead. The Toros woke up and scored twelve points in just two minutes after a scoring drought that lasted most of second half. Dominguez used a full court press much like LA had the night before to cause the Tritons problems on defense. They went on a 10-1 streak to make the game 46-44.
McCann had the chance to put the game in the basket, but missed one of two free throws, which were followed by a Toro layup to make it a one-point game at 47-46, with only 14 seconds left to play.
Getting the ball in to Hatch, the Toros fouled the lowest percentage free-throw shooter on the Triton starting lineup, who sank one of two to push the lead to two.
Instead of going for overtime, the Dominguez Hills went for the win. Toro guard Everett Brown shot a three, only to have it ricochet off backcourt as the horn signaled the end of the game.
Unfortunately, McGrath suffered a concussion early in the bout and had to leave the court bleeding. The injury is the second concussion of the year for the Tritons, who are still down a man in junior guard Ryan Peters — who was injured earlier in the season against Cal State Monterey Bay. Both players are expected to make full recoveries and return to the court in a few weeks.
The dual wins over the weekend have given strength to an otherwise defeated Triton team, which is now within three games of making the CCAA tournament with six games remaining in the regular season.
The Tritons play Chico this Friday, Feb. 10 at 7:30 p.m. at RIMAC.