Men’s basketball falls short of SCIAC championship

Austin Dewitz (senior) talks about Occidental College's men's basketball team. Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. Nanuka Jorjadze/The Occidental

Occidental men’s basketball team lost out on claiming a Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) championship and an NCAA tournament bid after losing 68–45 at Pomona-Pitzer Feb. 23. The loss concluded a season that saw the Tigers earn 22 wins and defeat Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (CMS) in overtime of the semifinals to reach the championship game.

The Tigers finished the regular season with a conference record of 12 wins and 4 losses and advanced to the SCIAC postseason tournament as the number three seed. Austin DeWitz (senior), one of the team’s captains, explained how significant the team’s results were this season given their recent history.

“That’s our first time having a 20-win season in a decade, so we have to be proud of that,” DeWitz said.

Head coach Brian Newhall expressed his satisfaction at a season that also saw his team place in the top 20 in both assist-to-turnover ratio and field goal percentage and receive votes in the national ranking.

“I think we enjoyed the overall experience and maximized our potential,” Newhall said.

This led the Tigers to the postseason tournament where they faced off against the second seeded CMS. Co-captain Zach Baines (senior) described how the game was particularly intense.

“Emotions were very high from my end,” Baines said via email. “I remember missing two free throws that could’ve ended the game early, so I was upset about that.”

Occidental, who had fallen to CMS in both of their regular season match-ups, finished regulation time tied at 56–56 and were once again locked up at 62–62 with 10 seconds remaining in overtime.

After a missed shot, Baines had his redemption by jumping over a CMS player and tipping the ball back to point guard Ryan Kaneshiro (junior). Newhall called a timeout and drew up the eventual game-winning play. The ball was inbounded to Kaneshiro, who found DeWitz on the left block. DeWitz drove toward the basket before pulling up and hitting a 15-footer with 3.2 seconds remaining to secure the victory for Occidental. DeWitz described how he felt after hitting the game-winning shot in a gym where he had never previously been on the winning side.

“That was one of the coolest sports moments of my life,” Dewitz said. “We owed them one and nothing feels better than winning in that fashion.”

The Tigers then progressed to the SCIAC championship game where they fell short against nationally-ranked Pomona-Pitzer. DeWitz expressed how the team tried to see the bigger picture following the disappointing loss.

“It’s tough, especially after how the last game went,” DeWitz said. “It leaves a bad taste in your mouth but looking at it as a whole, it’s hard not to be proud of it.”

A similar message was shared by Newhall. 

“Never easy to lose your final game,” Newhall said via email. “But the players and coaching staff were both proud of what we accomplished this year.”

This was also the last game for the team’s departing seniors: Baines, DeWitz and Brandon Ruotolo. DeWitz, who was named first-team All-SCIAC alongside Baines following the regular season, explained how he was trying not to put too much emphasis on the championship game loss.

“For me personally, I’m looking back on my four years now more than I am focusing just on that one game because if I get hung up on that, it’s not good for anyone,” DeWitz said.

Baines also had time to look back over his Occidental career in its entirety and explained how he was similarly conflicted.

“My career here had its ups and downs but that’s a part of life,” Baines said via email. “Winning the SCIAC championship would’ve been the icing on the cake but it’s nice that my name is at least in the conversation when it comes to the most impactful players to the program.”

While DeWitz admits his basketball career is likely over, Baines said he’s hoping to continue playing after graduating.

“I’ve never been outside of the country so it would be very nice to play overseas, whether it’s professionally or part of a college abroad program, for a couple of years,” Baines said via email. “If the situation is there and it looks right, I’ll gladly take it.”

With the team set to lose two first-team All-SCIAC selections in DeWitz and Baines, new faces will have to step into larger roles on the team. DeWitz commented on how any void left by the departing seniors may not necessarily be a bad thing for the team looking forward.

“That room allows for younger players or players who didn’t have as much opportunity to get time to really spread their wings and show what they can do,” DeWitz said.