Photo Courtesy Chad Caddy/UCSD Athletics
Twenty-one. That’s how many games the UC San Diego men’s basketball team had won in a row heading into the California Collegiate Athletic Association tournament championship against the rival California State Polytechnic University Pomona Broncos on Saturday, March 7, at RIMAC Arena. Without their most physically-imposing star, redshirt senior center Chris Hansen, the Tritons had overcome the odds in 21 straight games heading into the final CCAA tournament game in program history.
Redshirt sophomore guard Tyrell Roberts dropped 45 points on 10-for-12 shooting from 3-point land to lead his team to the CCAA Tournament final on Friday night. But on Saturday night the tournament MVP went zero-for-5 from the field in the first half, finishing with 14 points. But as is characteristic of these Tritons under head coach Eric Olen, a balanced offensive attack is what got the job done, and in the team’s 76–62 win, which marks 22 in a row, that balance shone through.
Even though senior forward Scott Everman injured his left hamstring just 4 minutes into the first half, UCSD’s depth led to dominance on both ends of the floor en route to a fourth-straight CCAA title. Five different players scored 10 or more points for the Tritons, but perhaps none were more critical to the win than Hansen.
Despite missing 15 games with a foot injury, Hansen picked up the slack caused by Everman’s early departure for UCSD, logging nearly 20 minutes and finishing with 10 points and 7 rebounds in the win.
“We’re excited to have Chris [Hansen] back,” Olen said after the game. “He gives us a presence inside. It’s nice to have that versatility to play a little bigger when we need to.”
In the first half, that interior presence certainly helped. Along with junior forward Hugh Baxter, who netted all 8 of his points in the first half, Hansen and the Tritons kept the length of the Broncos at bay even without the 6-foot-7-inch presence of Everman. UCSD flashed both its speed and skill in transition in the first half to overcome a 4-for-16 half from behind the arc. Junior forward Marek Sullivan collected 3 steals to go along with 6 points, a fine representation of the active hands of the Tritons, who outscored the Broncos 18–0 in the first half on points scored off turnovers, of which Cal Poly Pomona had 13. Heading into halftime, UCSD led 34–28.
Beginning the half with a bang, Broncos senior guard William Christmas, an All-CCAA tournament selection, immediately drove and scored with the left hand on Sullivan, shaving the deficit to 3 points right away. Christmas, who contributed just 5 points in the first half for the Broncos, added 7 points over the first 4 minutes of the second half, but his defensive assignment Roberts would not allow the game to stay close for long. Over the course of the next 3 minutes, the conference MVP hit three straight 3-pointers, ending his drought from beyond the arc and helping the Tritons jump out to a 45–33 lead.
“The first one was contested, and once that went in, no rim, I was like alright, that feels right,” Roberts said. “That was it from there.”
And that really was it from that point on. Christmas, who led all scorers on the night with 16 points, continued to battle, following up a 3 from Broncos sophomore forward Finn Eckhardt with a layup of his own to put Cal Poly Pomona at a 5–0 run, forcing a UCSD timeout.
Following the stoppage, Sullivan flew in from the corner for a signature one-handed slam and after a technical on the Broncos head coach Greg Kamansky and a 4-point play from junior guard Gabe Hadley, UCSD was back up by 14 points with the score at 58–44.
“It comes down to getting shots up [even] outside of practice, just getting reps in,” Hadley said postgame. “We do a good job of moving the ball and when you see it coming around, you got to get ready to knock it down when you get a chance.”
From then on, nothing seemed to be able to slow down the Tritons. After another one-handed dunk from Sullivan put UCSD up 60–44, the Broncos had plenty of chances to hit from beyond the arc to make things interesting, but the shots refused to fall. After going 4-for-7 from 3-point range in the first half, Cal Poly Pomona made another four 3-pointers in the second half, but they needed twice as many shots to do so.
Even without 3-point success, the Broncos showed flashes of what makes them such a dangerous team. Senior forward Justin Young backed Baxter down late in the second half and dunked over him to cut the deficit to 12 points, and junior guard BJ Standley, an All-CCAA Tournament selection, hit a runner to bring the score back to 64–54. But a contested three by Roberts over a 6-foot-7-inch Young put the nail in the coffin. A few minutes later, Roberts spun through three defenders guarding and pressing him in the backcourt before he found a slashing Hansen for a reverse layup, putting UCSD up 71–56 and firmly placing the win out of reach for Cal Poly Pomona.
With the win, the Tritons have a lengthy winning streak and will likely host the NCAA West Regional Tournament this coming week, but that shouldn’t get in the way of the team’s focus.
“Our team does a good job of locking into each game,” Roberts said.
Next week, the Broncos will likely return to RIMAC Arena in the West region as a top-4 seed, with their eyes on the team that just knocked them off to take the CCAA title, but for now, the Tritons, coaches, players, and team managers alike, will get to relish in their victory and begin shopping for a frame for their little slice of the net.