SAN BERNARDINO — There’s no way to sugarcoat what happened to the Cal State Stanislaus men’s basketball team on Monday night.
The Warriors were 2 minutes, 48 seconds from extending this already-historic season into the NCAA Division II Elite Eight, holding a 13-point lead on archrival Chico State.
Then, it all unraveled – the game, the season, the dream – under a flurry of missed free throws, turnovers and a key miscommunication. When Chico’s Amir Carraway hit two free throws with 1.9 seconds left, it capped a sudden turnaround, crowning the Wildcats as West Region champions with an 81-80 victory.
“It’s hard to think about this being the end of the season because the guys worked so hard,” said coach Larry Reynolds. “They battled and we were within seconds of achieving what they wanted to achieve, and you don’t get a lot of shots at this thing.
“When you get an opportunity, you want to take it, and tonight we didn’t do that.”
Chico (25-7) will advance to Evansville, Ind., to represent the West Region in the eight-team national final that starts March 26.
The Warriors finished 23-9, establishing a school record for wins while claiming the California Collegiate Athletic Association title for the first time, also reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time as a Division II school.
But they were just moments away from adding another chapter to this magical run.
Stanislaus led 74-61 with 2:48 left, and while Chico began to chip away at the lead, it looked like the Warriors would hang on when Bell hit two free throws with 46 second left for a 79-72 advantage.
The Wildcats – who shot only 42.9 percent from the field one game after blitzing host Cal State San Bernardino on 67 percent shooting – suddenly found their range.
Rashad Parker’s 3-pointer after an offensive rebound cut the lead to 79-75, with 35 seconds left, then Bell missed two free throws at the other end. Sean Park’s layup cut the lead to two, but Sam Marcus split a pair of free throws to stretch the Warriors advantage to three.
Carraway answered with two free throws to cut the lead to 80-79 with 11 seconds left. The Warriors inbounded the ball to Marcus, whose long pass ahead to Rob Walters was stolen by Chico center Jordan Semple.
That’s when a key miscommunication occured. As Semple advanced the ball back across midcourt, Walters looked back at the bench and thought he got the order from Reynolds to foul.
“I was yelling at Rob to guard him, because I didn’t want him running free down the floor with the basketball,” Reynolds said. “Miscommunication, and Rob understood me as saying ‘foul him’ and he reached out, fouled him and sent him to the line.”
Semple, with 3.9 seconds left, missed the free throw, but Carraway went over a Stanislaus player to grab the rebound and was fouled by Chris Read on the putback.
Carraway’s two free throws gave Chico the only lead it would have in the game, and when Marcus’ halfcourt shot hit the back iron, the Warriors’ season was over.
Stanislaus dominated most of the game in much the same manner it handled Chico eight days earlier in the CCAA final. Bell had nine points off the bench and Clinton Tremelling added eight as the Warriors opened a 44-31 halftime lead.
The advantage eventually grew as large as 18 points at 58-40 with 13:33 left, and the Warriors always seemed to have an answer for Chico’s scoring runs.
That is, until the end.
Taylor Bell finished with 15 points as the senior who hadn’t scored in double figures all season ended up leading Stanislaus in scoring in each of the three regional games. Read added 14, Tremelling 13 and Marcus eight.
Marcus Bell, playing his final college game, was limited to eight points and five rebounds amid foul trouble, playing only 18 minutes.
Even without the big man, this was the Warriors’ game to win, and in a remarkable season that started last November – one that saw this team grow together as the best unit ever to represent Stanislaus on the basketball court – the end was devastating.
“It’s tough to think about all this, but from day one we stayed focused and had a goal,” Walters said. “We knew we had this kind of potential, and we lived up to it.
“We were looking forward to playing in Indiana, but now it’s time to get back to work and go at it again next year.”