SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Whether it's the lineup change, reinvigoration, pride, or even "the shoes," Westmont Men's Basketball (14-6, 3-3 GSAC) is simply in the zone right now in Golden State Athletic Conference competition.
For the third time in as many games, the Warriors seized the day. In a rare Thursday evening contest, Westmont fans were delighted with a terrific match of grit and guts that concluded in a 72-68 Warrior triumph over No. 25 Arizona Chrisitian (16-5, 2-4 GSAC).
"This victory comes down to two things: seniors, and these 'kicks,'" communicated Westmont head coach John Moore as he pointed to his tennis shoes that the Warrior coaching staff is wearing for the annual Coaches Versus Cancer campaign. "We're in great shape with our seniors in the starting lineup, and I'm definitely not taking my shoes off for the rest of the season – at least while we're on the winning streak."
In the first 48 seconds, senior guard Mantas Drungys (3 points, 1 rebound, 2 steals) acquired two personal fouls that erupted the crowd inside Murchison Gymnasium, morphing them into a boisterous frenzy. In fact, between both squads, six fouls were called in the first two and a half minutes.
Much like in Westmont's past two games, senior point guard Brendan Hill (3 assists, 1 rebound) dished to open Warriors to create offense early. However, the home team found their scoreboard in favor of the Firestorm (16-12) after 10 minutes due to a low, 4-of-16, shooting effort to begin the contest.
A three-point shot by senior forward Jason Ritchey (21 points, 5 rebounds) tied the game at 22 with 5:05 remaining in the first half. He then followed up with another basket to knot up the score again at 24.
"It was Jason Ritchey's night," Moore bluntly said. "It's so nice to have a guy in the lineup that has the type of experience that he possesses. He was 4-of-6 from three and really gave us a complete performance for us tonight."
With the Warriors in possession and two seconds remaining in the half, a fortuitous tip careened on top of the rim, bounced around the basket four times, and subsequently nestled through the net. With the unlikely two-point bucket, Westmont held a 28-27 advantage at the half.
Similar to the contest's opening minutes, the Warriors collected four fast fouls to begin the second half, spawning equivalent sentiments from Warrior fans.
However, this did not deter the team's efforts. Sophomore Billy Keller (8 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists), Drungys, and Ritchey directed the Warriors at both ends of the court, and at the 12:01 mark of the second half, Westmont was up four – 42-38.
Representative of the closeness of the contest, with the score even at 42, each team temporary held a shooting percentage of 42.9 percent (18-of-42). Then, Marcus Farrand (10 points, 8 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 blocks) broke both statistical draws after converting under the rim on a finesse post move.
With Keller's second-half resurgence and unswerving production from Farrand and Ritchey, the Warriors looked to break the game open in the final 10 minutes.
However, with less than three and a half minutes to play, two huge baskets from beyond the arc by Firestorm teammates Mike Navar and Talib Uqdah pulled ACU within one – 60-59
The play of the game came with 2:30 on the clock. From the left wing, Keller used a ball screen by Farrand to free himself at the top of the arc. Then, C.J. Miller (11 points, 10 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block) streaked into the lane off of a back screen and was fed the ball by Keller. Miller then emphatically slammed the ball through the cylinder to expand the Westmont lead to four.
"C.J. played really well in the second half," voiced Moore. "He had a down game before halftime, but he collected big board after big board in the second half to finish with a double-double.
"Someone who continues to impress me is Marcus Farrand," continued Moore. "He was 4-of-4 from the field, 2-of-2 from the free-throw line, and added a double-digit rebound total. He just radiates the word 'production' for us."
At the two and a half minute mark, and the Warriors up by five, ACU utilized two straight possessions to cut the deficit to one. However, with ice in his veins, Miller sunk two free throws to enlarge the difference to three.
After a pair of free throws by Firestorm forward Jackson Helms, the shot clock was waning on Westmont. However, Keller drew a timely foul and converted two free throws to push the Warrior advantage back to three.
On the way back down the court, Drungys fouled out with 22.9 remaining and sent ACU's Jordan Block to the charity stripe. With Murchison's monsters alive and rowdy, Block failed on both of his attempts. Miller then secured the rebound and was sent to the line himself, where he knocked down one-of-two attempts.
Uqdah then air balled a saving grace long-range shot and Westmont's Nate Marsing was fouled after receiving the inbounds pass. Upon converting on one-of-two of his chances, the Firestorm hurried down the court and made a crucial three to cut the game to two points – 70-68 – with 5.2 seconds remaining.
After a nifty give-and-go inbounds play put the rock in the hands of Warriors' guard Cory Blau, the freshman extinguished any hopes of a Firestorm reprisal with two clutch free throws. For Blau, the game securing free throws were his second in three games.
"That's exactly why we have [Cory] in there at the end – he's clutch cargo," proclaimed Moore. "We ran that play especially for him to be the guy shooting our last free throws."
Another victory for the Warriors came in the form of their defensive pressure on the GSAC's leading scorer – Uqdah. ACU's guard is averaging 18.2 points per game this season, and was held to a mere eight points on 3-of-12 shooting this evening.
With no other GSAC games on Thursday evening, Westmont now sits alone in fourth place in the conference behind No. 12 Vanguard (5-0 GSAC), No. 8 Concordia, and Biola (the latter two are tied for second at 3-2 in the conference).
The Warriors now set their sights on a big matchup in Irvine with Concordia on Tuesday, February 4. The pivotal game tips at 7:30 p.m.