SAN BERNARDINO — The hottest basketball team in the West doesn’t seem as interested in making history as much as it wants to create lasting memories.
On a wild Friday afternoon, Cal State Stanislaus did both.
In overcoming an 18-point first-half deficit to defeat Seattle Pacific 80-72 in a classic overtime game to open the NCAA Division II West Regional Tournament, the Warriors (22-8) showed once again why they’re the squad no other team in the region wants to play right now.
Stanislaus’ eighth straight triumph was its first NCAA Tourney win as a Division II program and established a school record for wins in a season no matter the division.
The Warriors will have no time to savor any of that, since they have to turn around and play Cal Poly Pomona today at 5 p.m. at CSU San Bernardino’s Coussoulis Arena. Stanislaus defeated Pomona in double overtime two weeks ago in Turlock.
“All of this means a lot,” said guard Shey Mataele. “We don’t talk about any of it in the locker room, but a couple years down the road, when we look back in the record books we’re always going to be able to see what this team accomplished. We did it first. It means a lot now and it will mean even more later.”
The Warriors trailed 30-12 with eight minutes left in the first half, pulled close midway through the second half when Taylor Bell hit back-to-back 3-pointers during a 10-0 run, and took their first lead on a Rob Walters putback with three minutes remaining.
But the big shot came with 11 seconds left in regulation, when Clint Tremelling came off a screen by Marcus Bell and drilled a 3-pointer from the right wing that sent the game into overtime at 66-66.
That shot had its genesis back on Feb. 7, when Tremelling had a potential game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer roll out in a two-point home loss to San Bernardino.
“After the loss to San Bernardino when I missed that last shot, coach told me that he didn’t want anyone else to take the shot in that situation, and that meant a lot to me,” Tremelling said. “I had that in the back of my brain that if the coach has that much confidence in me, then I also have to have a lot of confidence in myself.”
Seattle Pacific (26-6) scored the first points of overtime, but Stanislaus sealed the win by embarking on an 11-0 run. Chris Read scored twice around a Taylor Bell 3-pointer, then Mataele hit two free throws for a 75-68 lead.
Moments later, Mataele ended all hope for the Falcons with a steal near midcourt and a basket for a nine-point cushion.
“After we got the game to overtime there was no way we were going to lose,” Tremelling said. “They scored first and Chris hit a big midrange shot to tie the game and we went off from there.”
But just getting the game to overtime was a remarkable feat. Stanislaus entered the game with several specific fears about Seattle Pacific, and realized them all in what could have been a demoralizing opening 12 minutes.
The Warriors were worried about the Falcons’ prowess from beyond the arc, and SPU connected on three straight 3-pointers to take an 18-4 lead with 13:25 left in the half.
Then, when Stanislaus extended its defensive pressure to quash the perimeter game, the Falcons went to their backdoor cutting game to move the deficit to 18 points.
“I don’t know if I can repeat for print what I was thinking at that point,” said Stanislaus coach Larry Reynolds, who coached for five seasons in this building as San Bernardino’s head coach.
“I thought we needed to cut the game to 10 or 12 points at halftime to have a chance in the second half and our guys did that by keeping them in the 30s, even though it looked like they might get 50 on us by the half. We knew they were good shooters and they came out and proved it.”
The margin was 12 at the break, and stayed that way until Bell’s back-to-back 3-pointers turned Stanislaus from hustlers into believers. He finished with a team-leading 18 points, while Marcus Bell had 17 points and 13 rebounds and Read 15. David Downs led all players with 27 points for SPU.
But as much as Taylor Bell’s points off the bench can be singled out as the major factor in the Warriors’ rally, the truth is that the comeback had to start on defense, and Bell was the first to admit it.
“Credit all the other guys because we cracked down on defense and if we didn’t we wouldn’t have won the game,” said the senior guard from nearby Redlands. “I felt like we came a little bit lazy in the first half. But in the second half we came together and started communicating better. I didn’t hear us doing that much in the first half.”
Indeed, SPU hit 12 of its first 16 shots in taking that 30-12 lead, including five of its first seven 3-pointers. Over the final 28 minutes, the Falcons connected on only 11 of 38 shots (28.9 percent,) including only three of 12 from 3-point range.
“Taylor Bell gave us a spark off the bench and we took it from there,” Mataele said. “He was playing great defense out there, too, and inspired us all to play better defense. If we’re playing defense like that, nobody’s going to beat us.”
And if that’s the case, the Warriors are about to make even more history.