ANAHEIM – On their way out of the Big West Conference, Bob Thomason and his Pacific Tigers received lovely parting gifts on Saturday night at Honda Center:
The Big West Tournament championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
For Thomason, the winningest coach in Big West history in his 25th and final season at Pacific, the convincing 64-55 victory over UC Irvine earned him his fifth conference tournament title and fifth invitation to the NCAA’s invitational-only, 68-team postseason party.
And, for the third consecutive day, his team delayed the end of his record-breaking coaching career.
“Couldn’t have written the script any better,” Thomason said after Pacific’s final game in the Big West as the school prepares to join the West Coast Conference next academic year. “God had a great plan for this team and for me. I’ll have to ask Him someday why. I’m not so sure I deserved it, but I think our team earned it down the stretch this season.”
The second-seeded Tigers (22-12) stretched their winning streak to seven games by knocking off UC Santa Barbara (71-68), Cal Poly (55-53) and UCI on consecutive nights.
Junior forward Tony Gill led the way, coming off the bench to score a team-high 19 points en route to winning tournament MVP honors, and senior guard Lorenzo McCloud added 16 points to make the all-tournament team.
“I couldn’t be happier for Coach T, to send him to the NCAA Tournament in his last year,” Gill said. “He never stops coaching, he never gave up on us.”
“Coach offered me a scholarship to play basketball, and that changed my whole life,” McCloud said. “So it was one of my personal goals, to do whatever I could to help him get another championship.”
Pacific broke open a close game with a 10-2 run midway through the first half that produced a 24-14 lead and led 31-20, at halftime. The fourth-seeded Anteaters (20-15), who made it to the championship game on the strength of back-to-back victories over Hawaii and top-seeded Long Beach State, struggled with their outside shooting from the outset.
UCI made only 7 of 27 shots in the first half, including 1 for 10 from beyond the arc, and were outrebounded, 26-15, before intermission.
“They set a tone,” third-year UCI coach Russell Turner said afterward. “They had eight early rebounds . . . and they were able to exert their will on us a little bit, which surprised me.”
It was 40-28 five minutes into the second half when UCI made its first run, on the strength of Daman Starring’s outside shooting (19 points) and the inspired defensive play of Will Davis II, to cut Pacific’s lead to 44-41. But the Tigers regrouped and never gave up the lead.
It was a 5-point game with 1:19 left, but the Tigers made their foul shots down the stretch to silence what had been a raucous UCI rooting contingent.
“We’re disappointed to not come out on top, but I will say I’m incredibly proud of our team, especially our seniors,” Turner said. “I thought we were fearless. But Pacific made more plays than we did tonight.
“I told (Thomason) before the game it was an honor to compete against him. He is the winningest coach in conference history, and the job he’s done this year is outstanding. To have his team play as well as they’ve played the last two weeks is a great credit to him as a coach, as well as to his staff. They’ve had a lot of continuity in that program. He’s had a sustained run of success that we’d like to emulate at Irvine.”
It was the fourth loss in four Big West Tournament championship games for the Anteaters, who are still looking for their first NCAA Tournament berth. But outgoing senior Michael Wilder believes it’s just a matter of time before that happens under Turner.
“To see how far we’ve come since my freshman year here . . . a 20-win season . . . the closeness of our group; we’ve shown resilience all season and just came up short tonight,” Wilder said. “I love my teammates, our coaches, our whole program, and they’ve made this the best season I’ve ever had in my life.”
As Pacific plans for the NCAA Tournament – it will learn its seeding and first-round opponent during Sunday’s NCAA Selection Show – UC Irvine will be moving on to play in the Collegeinsider.com Postseason Tournament. The CIT is a 32-team tournament geared toward mid-major schools that didn’t get invited to the NCAA or NIT tournaments.
“I thought we were going to win this thing, but I told our team that we’re going to play in the CIT,” Turner said. “It’s a great opportunity for these guys to continue playing.”
That’s also what Thomason’s Tigers are going to do in the NCAA Tournament, and Thomason said he doesn’t care where his team is seeded, even if it is as a No. 16 seed.
“You have to run through the finish line,” Thomason said. “There are no shortcuts. I’m going to coach them the way I feel they need to be coached.”
Why stop now, even if it’s possibly his last game as a coach?
Cal Poly women NCAA-bound
The tears started flowing, as if a faucet had been turned on, even before the on-court celebration began.
It was no longer possible to hold back the emotions as junior point guard Jonae Ervin dribbled out the clock in the closing seconds of Cal Poly’s 63-49 victory over top-seeded Pacific in Saturday’s Big West women’s championship game.
Understandably, too, because the Mustangs were moments away from clinching the first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history.
“For me, it’s more meaningful, because I’ve been waiting a long time,” said Faith Mimnaugh, 16th-year Cal Poly coach, her eyes glistening as she addressed the media wearing a necklace made of the Honda Center net cords, after the biggest win in the 39-year history of the women’s basketball program.
“It seems like as old as these players are, I’ve been waiting (that long) for this opportunity – and I’m a little overwhelmed by it.”
There was no need to apologize.
“It’s real emotional, obviously,” 6-5 junior center Molly Schlemer, the Big West Player of the Year and the Big West Tournament MVP, said in between sobs. “Talking about Coach Faith, always helping us, always working hard to make us the best we can be, it’s amazing to pay her back this way. It’s a dream-come-true. It’s amazing what that feels like.”
Even though Pacific (25-7) was the No. 1 seed with the glittering resume and No. 40 national RPI power ranking at the start of the day, No. 2 seed Cal Poly (21-10) was confident about its chances after winning both regular-season games against the conference champions: 96-95 in triple-overtime at home and 62-59 at Pacific.
“From the jump, I had a good feeling about the game,” Schlemer said, adding that she kept telling teammate Ariana Elegado, “We will win this game.”
And the Mustangs did jump out to a 23-13 lead in the opening 15 minutes and a 33-21 halftime lead as Pacific misfired on 21 of its 28 first-half shots.
Pacific regrouped during the intermission and scored the first eight points of the second half to pull within 33-29. And then Cal Poly senior forward Kayla Griffin went under the basket four minutes into the half – the team found out later it was a season-ending knee injury -- and was helped to the locker room.
“I saw her go down,” Schlemer said. “I said (in the huddle), ‘We have to play for Kayla.’ We wanted to play for her.”
“With Kayla going down, it just (required) a collective group effort,” Mimnaugh said.
And that’s what transpired. Elegado made three key 3-pointers and 9 of 10 free throws en route to a game-high 22 points. Schlemer made up for an off shooting performance (2 for 8) by dominating the boards, collecting 16 rebounds to help the Mustangs win that battle, 46-28. Nikol Allison came off the bench to score 10 points, and Caroline Reeves chipped in with 10 points.
“Kayla going down gave us so much more motivation,” said Elegado, who also was named to the all-tournament team, along with Pacific teammates Erica McKenzie and Gena Johnson (team-high 14 points in the final), Long Beach State’s Devin Hudson and Cal State Fullerton’s Mya Olivier.
Pacific coach Lynne Roberts congratulated Cal Poly on winning the conference’s automatic NCAA berth and expressed hope that her team would receive an at-large berth when the NCAA women’s tournament bracket is unveiled Monday.
“I think our chances are good,” Roberts said. “I think our conference deserves to get two (teams).”
Mimnaugh echoed those sentiments.
“I would love to see that, and I think the Big West is deserving this year,” the Cal Poly coach said.
But the long wait is over for Cal Poly and Mimnaugh.
“They worked their tails off, believed in each other and believed in the dream,” Mimnaugh said.
Next stop: The Big Dance. For the first time.
Interestingly, Mimnaugh went out of her way to say Cal State Fullerton’s Marcia Foster deserved Coach of the Year honors for keeping her team together in the wake of the Monica Quan tragedy and even publicly implored Fullerton to sign Foster to a long-term contract. The Titans made it to the semifinals and came within one three-pointer of upsetting top-seeded Pacific . . . Going into Saturday’s title game, Pacific had an RPI power ranking of 106, so college hoop experts believe it’s highly unlikely the Tigers will be seeded higher than 14th . . . In addition to Gill and McCloud, UCI teammates Davis, Starring and Alex Young made the All-Tournament Team, along with UC Santa Barbara's Michael Bryson. . . Attendance in Saturday’s men’s final was announced at 6,795.