It was more than a gesture when Rob Walters requested all his fellow seniors to join him in the postgame interview room.
In his eyes, and in the eyes of all the Warriors, it was the way it had to be. They had to go out together.
Cal State Stanislaus’ seven-senior run was stopped Friday night when rival and nemesis Chico State pulled away to a 72-60 victory at Stockton Arena.
It will be the Wildcats (21-6) moving into the California Collegiate Athletic Association championship game and the Warriors (18-10) moving out of the action – but not before establishing a new level of basketball at their chosen school.
“I asked everybody to come in because when we got to Stanislaus, nobody expected anything from us,” Walters said. “We stuck together and paved our own way. I love fighting with these guys, and I hate that it had to end like this, especially against Chico.”
Walters was exactly right. Before he and the other six departing players arrived on campus, the only expectations for winning came from within the team.
But after this group clawed its way to the CCAA championship last season and came within a few seconds of reaching the NCAA Division II Elite Eight, suddenly the extended Warrior community – new fans and students who previously didn’t know their way to Fitzpatrick Arena – hopped aboard the bandwagon to cheer on a winner.
“We played 60-some games together,” coach Larry Reynolds said. “They came into a program that wasn’t really respected and hadn’t had a lot of success. They’ve turned the program into one that can compete for titles year in and year out.
“They showed the community and the school that we’d like people to come out, watch and support. I think they deserve a lot of credit.”
On the other hand, as Walters said, why did it have to end against Chico?
These schools not only are rivals from their time together in the old Northern California Athletic Association, but after Stanislaus beat Chico in last year’s CCAA final, it was the Wildcats rallying late to beat the Warriors and reach the Elite Eight.
“It’s a great rivalry,” Chico coach Greg Clink said. “Stanislaus is a great team with a great coach. The level of talent they have every year is great, and they all play their hearts out.”
If heart alone were enough to win, the Warriors might still be playing. But if Stanislaus had a weakness all season, it was consistency at the offensive end, and that bugaboo emerged again as the Wildcats outscored the Warriors 12-2 over the final five minutes.
Actually, the Stanislaus offense started sputtering well before then, as Chico – which stayed in a man-to-man for most of a first half that ended in a 35-35 tie – never came out of its 2-3 zone in the final 20 minutes.
The intent of the zone was to force the Warriors to rely on outside shooting to score, and that’s just not the team’s strength. Stanislaus did have enough success driving the gaps of the zone to briefly lead in the second half and stay within two points entering the final five minutes, but once the jumpers stopped dropping, the Warriors were finished.
“We were hesitant out there against the zone,” senior guard Shey Mataele said. “I was a little hesitant after a couple of turnovers, and we just wanted to make the right play.”
Chris Read led Stanislaus with 12 points, while Mataele and Wes Bartole had 11 points each. Walters, who played only six minutes in the first half after picking up his second foul, scored eight points. Guard Robert Duncan matched his career high with 23 points for the Wildcats.
“I wanted a ring and a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament again, and I wanted a ring for the younger guys and put up another banner in the gym,” Mataele said. “We tried to change the culture at the school, to put basketball at the top.”
And with that, the seven seniors exited the room, and the program. Walters, Read, Bartole, Mataele, Tyler Barber, Clinton Tremelling and even seldom-used guard Brian Lopez – all had a hand in the legacy.
“We’re going to have to hit the recruiting trails to try to replace every one of these guys,” Reynolds said. “But you don’t really replace them; you build another house. We have some of the foundation, so we’re not starting from scratch, but it will be tough to find a group of guys with as much heart as these guys played with.”
All-CCAA – Read, who led Stanislaus with 13 points per game this season, was named to the all-CCAA first team. Walters was named to the second team, and Bartole made the honorable mention list. Cal Poly Pomona’s Terrence Drisdom, who scored in double figures in all but one game this season, was named the league’s MVP.
Women’s final set – Top-seeded Cal State Dominguez Hills will battle surprising Cal State East Bay for the women’s title on Saturday at 5 p.m at Stockton Arena. Dominguez Hills held off San Bernardino 69-66 in overtime in Friday’s first semifinal, and the sixth-seeded Pioneers stunned No. 2 Humboldt State 73-67. The women’s West Regional likely will be hosted by Alaska-Anchorage, which faces Western Washington on Saturday afternoon in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference title game. Humboldt entered the week ranked No. 3 in the West and likely will reach the regional field despite the loss.