SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- With three customary starters in street clothes – guards Brendan Hill and Billy Keller, and forward Jason Ritchey – Westmont Men's Basketball (10-3) channeled the "next man up" mentality to burn the Heat of British Columbia Okanagan (2-13) 83-79 to advance to the championship game of the 38th Annual Tom Byron Classic.
Preceding tonight's matchup, the Warriors had only dropped two of their 37 first-round games in the Byron –73-76 to Quincy (Ill.) in 1995 and 88-90 to Lee (Tenn.) in 1996. However, even after securing a 14-point lead at the break (51-37), the Warriors needed to scramble in the second half to avoid a historic third loss.
Led by go-to forward C.J. Miller (22 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block, 1 steal) and monstrous big man Marcus Farrand (12 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist), Westmont cruised to an early lead.
"C.J. was the player of the game," exclaimed Westmont head coach John Moore. "He converted on big shots when we needed him to, including his three-point play (with 2:26 remaining) that kept us up one after (UBCO) came down and scored, and then his huge face-up jump shot with a minute remaining. After he sprained his ankle, he looked like he was done for the game. To come back in and play like he did, it's nothing short of heroic."
In the initial five minutes of the contest, Miller erupted, recording four points, three rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block. Establishing his dominance in the paint was Farrand, who with impeccable power and positioning contributed with a heavy dose of work from the post.
"Marcus was special," stated Moore. "The energy he plays with, the kind of leadership he provides for our team, these traits make him play the way he played for us tonight. He was just bouncy and effective. He made 4-of-5 free throws and was the player of the first half for us."
All-purpose senior Mantas Drungys, who started at point guard tonight, displayed an array of skills that helped him tally 17 points, five rebounds, five assists, and one steal. Drungys' persistent defensive pressure and aggressiveness on offense rallied the Warriors in the second half as the Heat made a valiant comeback attempt.
"Mantas was very good in Arizona and especially good for us tonight," offered up Moore. "He attacked the rim well and shot 70 percent from the floor (7-of-10). Even though he was out of position playing point guard tonight, he was the backbone of our team."
Tonight's win showcased the Warriors' depth, as Drungys, Nate Marsing (12 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block, 2 steals) and Kyle Gordon (7 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal) all turned in stellar performances as newly minted starters. The trio, who usually come off of the bench, combined for 36 points, providing just enough additional offensive firepower to champion the Warriors to victory.
"I think the next man up mentality really is our mantra this season," remarked Moore. "Kyle made his first career start tonight, and he essentially hit what were in my mind the game winning free throws (with 25 seconds remaining).
"Similarly, Jay Larinan (2 points), Jared Wilson (1 point, 2 rebounds, 1 assist), Cory Blau (1 rebound, 2 assists, 1 block, 2 steals), and Hayden Anderson (2 points, 1 rebound, 2 assists) all played more minutes than usual and really helped us win."
Although the Warriors outrebounded British Columbia by six (35-29), totaled three more assists (18-15), turned the ball over half as much as the Heat (6-12), recorded four more blocks (5-1) and three more steals (7-4), sunk five more free throws (15-10), it was the men from up north who buried 11 three-point field goals – as opposed to Westmont's two-of-ten performance from beyond the arc. This particular statistic is what abetted the Heat and allowed them to creep back in the second half.
"We didn't convert well on our offensive rebounds tonight," said Moore. "Nonetheless, I like the way we're rebounding and playing defense. However, we didn't defend the three-point line well. We're going to need to do that better tomorrow, as well as have widespread production like we did tonight to defeat a very good Saskatchewan team."
Earlier in the day, the Huskies of Saskatchewan (13-1) defeated the Mustangs of Marygrove (Mich.) (0-14) 89-88 via a last second game winning layup by the game's leading scorer (26) Stephon Lamar.
Much like the Warriors' game against the Heat, the Mustangs executed much more valiantly than their record indicates. Diante Taylor (25 points) and Jujuan Armstrong (20 points) almost led the Marygrove to victory, while Lamar, Ben Baker (25 points), and Matt Forbes (21 points) stole the victory for the Huskies.
Westmont and Saskatchewan face off for the Byron crown in the eighth and final game of the two-day madness in Murchison Gymnasium tomorrow night, New Year's Eve, at 7:30. Marygrove and British Columbia are set to play in the consolation game at three o'clock.