The goosebumps started for Rob Walters the moment the Cal State Stanislaus team bus pulled into its parking spot at Stockton Arena.
It’s a facility similar in size, structure and layout to Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, the place in which the Warriors ran last season to the California Collegiate Athletic Association tournament championship.
The fact that Stanislaus came on strong in the second half on Thursday to defeat UC San Diego 61-46 – an effort that resembled the six-point, first-round, come-from-behind victory last year over Cal State Los Angeles – served only to make the parallels stronger.
Yes, the Warriors are in their comfort zone.
“One difference was how cold it was in here, and we felt that,” Walters said about the floor laid over the arena’s hockey ice. “But it was similar, and I felt it the moment we pulled into the back of the arena. That gave me the goosebumps, and the feeling that we’re back at the same moment where we started our run last year. Not the same place, but we want the same outcome.”
One down, two to go for Stanislaus (18-10) if it wants to reach the NCAA Division II Basketball Championships for a second straight season. And the next step also will be all too familiar, since the Warriors will be meeting Chico State (today at 5:30 p.m.) for the seventh time in the last 15 months.
Stanislaus knocked off Chico 82-70 in the CCAA finals a year ago, but the Wildcats stormed back from a 12-point deficit in the final three minutes to beat the Warriors in the regional final. This year, the teams split their two CCAA games, each winning on the other’s home court.
“We’re different ball clubs since we haven’t seen each other since December,” said Stanislaus coach Larry Reynolds. “I think the game tomorrow will be enjoyable because it’s two good ball clubs going at each other.”
That also was the case in the first round game, with UC San Diego (16-11) staying close to the Warriors in the first half, taking a 25-24 halftime lead on the strength of four three-pointers.
The Tritons posed some problems for Stanislaus with their outside game, but there was no way they were going to be able to match the Warriors’ toughness inside.
That’s where Walters, with 13 points and 11 rebounds, and Wes Bartole (10 points, 10 rebounds) were holding court. And when Tyler Barber got going from the outside, hitting four three-pointers for his 12 points, the Warriors had all the balance they would need.
“I knew it would be tough to get started, just because we have seven seniors and they all want to do well, so I could see us coming out a little tight,” Reynolds said. “Chris Read (nine points) held us together in the first half, and in the second half everybody come together.”
The one constant was at the defensive end, where UCSD was held to 33 percent shooting, and went 1-for-10 from behind the arc in the second half.
“We knew we had to have defensive intensity for 40 minutes,” Reynolds said. “Our goal always is to hold teams to 60 points or under, because we know that’s going to give us a chance to win, and we got that accomplished tonight.”
Stanislaus took its first lead at 27-25 when Barber opened the second half with a three-pointer, and it turned out to be the lone lead change. The Warriors led only 46-41 with 5:12 left when the game finally broke their way.
Again it was Barber with a three-pointer that got it started, but the Tritons were held scoreless for a span of 3:32, long enough for Stanislaus to pound inside on a 9-0 run to take a 55-41 lead in the final two minutes.
It was a solid win for Stanislaus, and a special one for Bartole, who missed last season with a broken foot and had to watch last year’s magical postseason run from the bench.
“It’s awesome and something I can’t really describe,” Bartole said. “I told myself while I was on the bench that I was going to get healthy and get strong. Our team has expectations from other people and from ourselves. We expect to go further than last year.”
It means he’s ready to take as many goosebump-inducing bus rides as this postseason is willing to provide.