SAN BERNARDINO — The Cinderella slipper no longer fits.
For Cal State Stanislaus, that whole underdog role was a pumpkin of a chariot that flew away a long, long time ago.
Because for as long as it matters, these Warriors have playing the best basketball of any Division II team on the West Coast.
Stanislaus no longer is the Cinderella, it’s the prince, and on Saturday night a ninth straight win – 75-69 in overtime against Cal Poly Pomona – moved the Warriors one win away from the NCAA Elite Eight.
“We’re not looking at this as a Cinderella run,” said Stanislaus coach Larry Reynolds. “We got into the conference tournament and thought we had a good chance to win it because we played good ball the entire second half of the season.
“Now we’re just looking it as going in to play one game at a time and to see what happens.”
The Warriors, extending their school record for wins, will take a 23-8 record into Monday’s regional title game against Chico State, which stunned host CSU San Bernardino 94-77 in Saturday’s late game.
Stanislaus has defeated the Wildcats in two of three meetings this season, including a dominant 82-70 performance March 8 in the California Collegiate Athletic Association championship game.
But that already seems like a few chapters ago for the Warriors, who since then have introduced a whole new cast of key characters.
Marcus Bell, the senior from Enochs High, continues to be the lead character as perhaps the most consistent big man in Division II, and his 21 points and 12 rebounds against the Broncos helped to maintain order in the paint.
But to beat defensive-minded Pomona, which lives and dies with a lock-down zone defense, Stanislaus had to be able to connect from the outside, and to do that needed to go to its bench.
That’s where they found Taylor Bell, who followed Friday’s season-high 18-point effort with a career-high 22 points. That’s also where Clinton Tremelling was sitting, until he emerged to go four-of-six from behind the arc for his 12 points.
“I don’t care about minutes as long as we win,” said Tremelling, a junior from Amador High of Sutter Creek. “Wins always look better than my minutes. Me and T.B. always have to be ready because when the coach calls us we have to have our minds right.”
That’s easy to say and tough to do, especially when faced with multiple gut-check moments down the stretch of this win-or-go-home game.
Thanks mainly to the outside shooting of Taylor Bell and Tremelling, Stanislaus used a remarkable 16-2 run over a seven-minute span to take a 36-22 lead with 17:12 left in the game.
The margin was still 13, at 46-33, with 10:54 left when a Warriors rough patch came at the same time the Broncos got hot. Three Stanislaus turnovers fueled a 12-0 Pomona run, and the game was on.
The Broncos never took the lead but stayed close enough to make everybody nervous. Still, Stanislaus had a chance to ice the victory at the line in the final minute, but Marcus Bell missed the front end of a one-and-one with 24 seconds left, then hit one of two free throws with nine seconds remaining to keep Pomona within three points at 62-59.
That was just enough time, as Jordan Finn grabbed a pass in shooting position in the deep right corner and buried a game-tying 3-pointer with eight-tenths of a second remaining.
“We were asking the kids to guard the perimeter and we got caught on a screen in the opposite block,” Reynolds said. “We should have had our backs to the 3-point line in that situation. They ran a good play and got the shot and give them the credit.”
On the other hand, Stanislaus is very much at home in overtime games. The Warriors are now 5-0 when games go beyond regulation, including both games in this regional.
And after Pomona took the lead in overtime with two free throws, the Warriors went out and controlled the action, drilling 11 of 14 free throws against a Broncos team that suddenly looked nervous.
Pomona went 13-of-15 from the line in regulation, but missed their final four tries in overtime to help seal their own fate.
“We got some big performances from Taylor and Clint and even thought they hit a big shot to send it onto overtime our guys picked it up and got after the business of winning the basketball game in the last five minutes,” Reynolds said.
And as far as this fairy tale is concerned, yes, there seems no way around the storyline of a program that never before had reached the NCAA Tournament suddenly finds itself one game from the Elite Eight.
“We’ll step back and reflect on that a couple years from now,” Tremelling said. “Right now we’re just playing the games.”