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ANGWIN – Five minutes into the second half of Pacific Union College’s CalPac conference game against Cal Maritime on Saturday, the Pioneers looked like a team on a mission.

Coming out of halftime with the game tied at 27-27, the Pioneers opened the second half with a 10-2 run that got Covered Wagon Arena rocking and rolling. It was the Pioneers’ first game in Angwin in almost a month and the crowd was helping PUC feel right at home.

And then a few words changed everything.

After De’Rajaee Austin’s layup with 15:32 left on the clock gave PUC a 37-29 advantage, a brief but heated verbal exchange broke out between several players from the two teams. Players were separated and a Cal Maritime timeout further eased the tensions.

But the show did exactly what PUC head coach Greg Rahn hoped it wouldn’t: Give Cal Maritime added motivation.

The Keelhaulers responded with an 8-0 run of their own over the next two minutes to bring the game even at 37-37 and by the 9:28 mark suddenly held a 48-40 lead. The Pioneers tried to claw back but never got closer than five points over the final ten minutes as they eventually fell 67-58 to Cal Maritime for their third consecutive loss.

“We kind of fumbled that one,” said Rahn. “We had a nice little run, they responded to it and then we just couldn’t get back from that. That’s how it happens sometimes. We made some careless mistakes down the stretch and I thought we lost our energy that we had in the first half, too. Hats off to them, they played well and executed down the stretch.”

Austin led the Pioneers (6-8, 2-3 CalPac) with 12 points and Mark Thomas had a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.

At 2-3 now in conference play, the Pioneers are in a three-way tie for fourth place, even with Benedictine-Mesa and Embry-Riddle. The good news for the Pioneers is that Saturday was the beginning of a three-game homestand over the next week in which they’ll host both those teams.

The Pioneers consider this upcoming stretch a critical one. Even with their current conference standing, they know this week could ultimately decide their season. Two wins could inject some needed momentum into the Pioneers but two losses could potentially sink their season.

“Tonight we didn’t get it done so it’s a must for the next two games that we have to win to pretty much stay alive in our conference,” Rahn said. “It’s anybody’s game any night. Everybody has been beating everybody so we’ve just got to grind it out and find ourselves and get it done next week.”

The Pioneers will host Embry-Riddle Thursday at 8:30 p.m. and Benedictine-Mesa Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

This upcoming stretch begins off a 1-2 road trip facing CalPac foes. PUC topped La Sierra 82-69 to open the trip but then fell to the University of Antelope 84-64 before ending their travel with a 96-72 loss to Simpson University, a loss that Rahn and the Pioneers considered “embarrassing.”

Even with Saturday’s loss, it was one of the Pioneers’ better defensive performances in the last month of play. The 67 points were the fewest they’ve allowed since they opened CalPac play with a 59-57 win over UC Merced on Dec. 15.

That’s something that Rahn thinks his team can build off of.

“After getting embarrassed by Simpson, our guys realized that they’ve got to sell out and (play defense like that) otherwise that’s going to happen,” Rahn said. “Tonight was much better, but again, we were doing well then we lose their shooters. We’ve just got to be better at knowing their personnel.”

Rahn added that a large part of their struggles so far this season has been because of a roster that’s been in constant flux. Even five games into conference play, the Pioneers are still adding transfer players and dealing with a handful of injuries. Only two of the team’s 16 players have played in all 14 games so far this season while eight have played in fewer than 10.

“Tonight was the first time we’ve had a full roster,” Rahn said. “We’ve had about five or six guys dealing with injury. It’s one of those things where we gain someone, then lose someone and it’s been tough on us trying to find that rotation because of that situation. But you know, we’ll figure it out and we have to do it quick.”

A lot is riding on this week’s games for the Pioneers. By the time this week is over, conference play will be halfway over and the room for error for the Pioneers will shrink exponentially from there on out as the season progresses.

Saturday’s loss may have set them back in the loss column but the Pioneers view it as another opportunity to learn from and improve.

“We got a lot to take away from the game but we got a lot of stuff we need to work on from this game too,” said junior Marc Williams. “When we watch film we’re going to see exactly what we need to do to get ready and get back.”

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Sports Reporter