The Occidental men’s basketball team (12-12 overall, 6-9 SCIAC) played their final home game of the season this past Saturday — and they did not disappoint. Taking on conference foe Whittier, the Tigers battled the Poets for the lead the entire game, with neither team ever leading by more than seven points. The game came down to the last few seconds, when guard Jay Miller (junior) scored the tying basket while being fouled. Miller then went on to make the free throw to take the lead, and the Tigers defense held steady to seal the 81-80 victory.
The senior night game also marked the final time Erik Eichinger, Andrew Garrison, Kory Hamane and Spencer Levy would don an Occidental uniform, and the three seniors honored with a brief ceremony before tip-off. Despite the pregame festivities, the Tigers directed all their attention on overcoming Whittier, who was second place in the SCIAC coming into the game.
“Obviously, going into your last home game there are a lot of different emotions running through your mind, but most of all you want to make it a fun game for all the friends and family that came out to watch you play,” Garrison said. “Whittier always seems to play us tough and (Saturday) night was no different.”
Following the ceremony, the Tigers controlled the tempo immediately after tip-off, scoring the first four points of the game with a tip-in and layup. For the next 18 minutes of the first half, the Tigers and Poets went back and forth. Neither team allowed the other to gain a solid foothold.
During the first half stalemate, it was Hamane that held the offensive reins for the Tigers, as he netted 10 points while dishing out three assists in his first 16 minutes of play. Hamane’s impressively efficient first half reflected the fruition of focused practice.
“I’ve been having a shooting slump since the start of the regular season, so I have been trying to focus on increasing my shooting percentage,” Hamane said. “However, I would not have been able to get that stat line without my teammates getting me the ball and making big plays.”
Helping Hamane with the backcourt duties for the first 20 minutes of the game was guard Jeevin Sandhu (first year), who poured in 11 points and tallied two assists for the Tigers offense. Sandhu went on to finish with a career-high 17 points, four rebounds and two assists.
“The credit goes to my teammates — they believed in me so much, and I just fed off their energy, and if it was not for our chemistry and their selflessness, I would not have gotten any of my shots,” Sandhu said.
Holding the the 39-36 advantage at the half, it was Occidental’s usual suspects that led the way in the second half, as juniors Jay Miller and Andrew Johnson both tallied double-digit points and grabbed four rebounds. Despite collecting four fouls in the half, Johnson managed to find offensive success in the paint six times for 12 points, adding to his career total of 1,048 points.
Garrison, who has battled a knee injury this season, also had an effective second half for the Tigers, scoring six points and snagging four rebounds in just nine minutes of play.
“The training staff, particularly Brian Gomez, have been really helpful in my rehab over the last two months, and I think all that work is finally getting me back to full strength,” Garrison said. “It makes it really fun to get back to my best basketball before the end of the season.”
Even with impressive second half performances from several players, the Tigers were still unable to breakaway from the Poets and found themselves down by two with less than a minute to play. Occidental looked to Miller, the leading scorer in the SCIAC conference, to make a play and put the Tigers back into position to win the game.
And with only a few seconds left, Miller delivered. He hit a baseline jumper to tie the game while drawing a foul and earning a trip to the free throw line. Miller converted at the free-throw line, netting the bonus shot and putting the Tigers up one.
“If you go back and look at the video I was already cheering by the time he let the ball go, there was not doubt in my mind that he was going to make that shot,” Sandhu said.
Occidental then ratcheted down their defense and forced Whittier to put up a desperation shot at the buzzer that did not find its way to the hoop. Thanks to some late-game heroics, the Tigers were able to send the seniors off with a victory, as they beat the second ranked Poets 81-80.
“I never thought I would have such an exciting final game in Rush, but I am happier about winning the game more than anything,” Hamane said.
Unfortunately, the Tigers — who were already eliminated from SCIAC postseason play — ended their season with 69-60 loss to Cal Lutheran Monday. On a lighter note, the team should be able to weather the loss of its three seniors, as Miller and Johnson will return for one more season and act as the foundation for the team.