After trailing by as many as 17 points, the University of Redlands men's basketball team clawed its way back to capture Head Coach Jim Ducey's 200th career-win with a thrilling 78-76 victory over the University of La Verne Leopards. The Maroon and Gray offense erupted at just the right time, while the Bulldog defense used grit and persistence en route to the impressive comeback.
With the win and Whittier College's overtime loss, Redlands finishes tied-for-second in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) regular-season standings. Due to the head-to-head results, the Bulldogs enter the SCIAC Postseason Tournament as the No. 3 seed and face the Poets in Friday's semifinal game at 7:30 p.m.
In tonight's game, the Bulldogs trailed from the opening minute, as the Leopards came out on fire with an offensive rhythm that was clicking on all cylinders.
While making his first start of the season, senior center Shawn James (Plano, TX) scored Redlands' first basket at the 18:22-mark. Junior guard Sean Milligan (Portland, OR) knocked down a three-pointer, before sophomore guard Reed Hopkins (Spokane, WA) provided a five-point spurt to keep the Bulldogs in the mix at 10-19.
After Milligan and sophomore guard Kyle Husslein (Tamuning, Guam) accounted for Redlands' next seven points, sophomore forward Nate Battisti (Seattle, WA) did his part with a lay-up to make it 19-26 with 7:40 remaining in the first half.
Junior guard Zack Whittet (Palm Desert, CA) complemented the Bulldog bench's efforts with a jumper, before Husslein and Hopkins closed out the first-half scoring.
However, the Leopards' offense remained hot throughout the opening 20 minutes, as the home team finished the half with a 44.1% shooting effort that sent Redlands into the locker room with a 25-38 deficit.
By the 13:30-mark of the second stanza, the Bulldogs faced the uphill battle of a 17-point hole. After a big offensive rebound, sophomore forward Will Tender (Spokane, WA) found an open freshman forward Trevor Brown (San Mateo, CA) under the basket for a lay-up that initiated Redlands' epic comeback.
Milligan's steal on the Leopards' ensuing possession kept things rolling for the Maroon and Gray and led to another lay-up.
Redlands kept chipping away at the deficit with an on-fire offense that involved multiple people. Down by 15 with 8:54 to go, the Bulldogs went off on an 18-3 run to tie it up less than five minutes later. Overall, the squad converted 7-of-10 shots and both free-throw attempts during this stretch. Senior forward Al Bjekovic (Maribor, Slovenia), freshman guard Joey Sponheim (Redlands, CA), and Husslein each provided integral lay-ups, while Milligan hit a pair of three-pointers to finally even the score at 68. In addition to solid offense, the Bulldogs came up with three steals and a few big rebounds on the defensive end to aid their efforts.
However, a quick scoring outburst from La Verne forced Redlands into a 71-76 deficit with 1:47 left on the clock.
But Redlands refused to back down, as Sponheim hit a huge trey-ball off of an assist by Husslein to make it a two-point game. Brown pulled in the defensive rebound on the ensuing Leopard miss, which allowed Ducey to call a timeout to set up a play. Husslein converted the big-time lay-up to even the score at 76 with 41 seconds to go in the game.
After making a huge steal to get the ball back for Redlands, Sponheim kissed the game-winning bucket off the glass and in with two ticks left.
La Verne's last-second effort resulted in a turnover, giving the memorable win to the Maroon and Gray.
Milligan finished with a team-high 20 points on 6-for-11 shooting, while Bjekovic added 14 points, six rebounds, and three assists. Husslein tallied 13 points and four rebounds. Sponheim led the bench brigade with 10 points.
Redlands (13-12, 9-7 SCIAC) heads to Whittier College for the semifinal of the SCIAC Postseason Tournament on Friday, February 26, at 7:30 p.m.