ANGWIN – It was tough for Greg Rahn to hide his frustration Thursday night.
The head coach of the Pacific Union College men’s basketball team racked his brain for some semblance of an answer to explain what’s wrong with his group right now.
Five days after surrendering a second-half lead to Cal Maritime, the Pioneers faltered again late in a 76-70 loss to visiting Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to further slide down the conference standings.
The team from Prescott, Arizona handed the Pioneers their fourth straight loss.
“Us coaches, we’re trying to figure out what we need to do,” said Rahn. “We’ve shown it on film, we’ve talked about it, the players have film, I’ve had them write down what they’ve seen in film and what they need to do, and you do that and everyone is saying the right things, but our whole thing this week has been change of action. Talk is one thing but change is the hard part, and that’s what we’re trying to change. We’re just not 100-percent committed to buying into that or something. I don’t know what’s going on.”
On Thursday, the Pioneers (6-9, 2-4 CalPac) battled back from a rough first half – in which they trailed by as much as 13 and went into halftime down eight – to take their first lead on a Mark Thomas 3-pointer with a little over 13 minutes left in the game.
Pacific Union played its best basketball of the game over those first seven minutes of the second half and suddenly had the Eagles (10-10, 3-3 CalPac) back on their heels. Two minutes later, Corey Fitzgerald converted a wild tip-in to give the Pioneers their largest lead of the game at 56-51.
Embry-Riddle called timeout and then responded with a 6-0 run to retake the lead at 57-56. The game went back and forth from there, the lead exchanging hands four times over the next four minutes. For all their heroics battling back and giving themselves a chance, the Pioneers were ultimately their own worst enemies down the stretch.
After going down 65-61 with 4:48 left, PUC got an itchy trigger finger from deep and missed several consecutive threes on shots that left Rahn scratching his head.
“It boggles my mind as a coach where we’ll be in a game and we’ll notice what’s working as a team and we all talk about it – good ball movement, play for the guy next to you, blah, blah, blah – and then when our opponent makes a run, instead of going back to that we decide, ‘Oh, I’m going to take this three’ or ‘I’m going to do this or that,’” he said. “We’ve got to get out of that mentality. No one guy is going to win us a game. This league has so much parity in it that you need a team to win.”
Even with their poor late-game execution, the Pioneers still had a chance to pull the game out in the final minute after Ben Jazuk’s three made it a three-point game with just over a minute left. But an offensive rebound and putback from the Eagles on the next possession reestablished their five-point lead and helped them seal the game down the stretch.
Fitzgerald led the Pioneers with 15 points on 6-of-6 shooting to go along with five rebounds.
With the win, Embry-Riddle created some separation from the Pioneers in the CalPac. The two teams entered in a three-way tie for fourth place with Benedictine-Mesa, which also lost Thursday. The Eagles now have sole control of fourth place, while PUC and Benedictine-Mesa are tied for fifth.
While this homestand has not gone as they had hoped, the Pioneers will get a shot at ending it on a high note Saturday when they host Benedictine-Mesa at Covered Wagon Arena at 8:30 p.m.
Their margin for error is minuscule now to end the season, but the Pioneers believe they’re close to turning a corner.
“Everybody is still positive,” said junior Albert Waters III. “Nobody is at each other’s necks because we know it’s just one little thing we’ve got to change and we’re taking off. We haven’t peaked yet, and we’re ready to peak.”
The Pioneers have the right mentality moving forward. They know they need to win out, or at least rattle off a few consecutive wins to get them back in the hunt. The top four teams in the conference qualify for the conference tournament and the Pioneers are on the outside looking in right now.
After Saturday’s game against Benedictine-Mesa, conference play will be halfway over. The Pioneers seem to understand the gravity of these last eight conference games.
“Nobody can be better on the court from here on out, no matter who we’re playing, because now it’s playoff mode,” Waters said. “If we want to be in the playoffs, we need to treat every game like it’s a championship and we haven’t really done that so far. But we’re a good group of guys. We love each other, we’re going to play for each other, so that championship mentality is going to be here.”
Rahn, too, understands that his team needs to play better if it wants a shot at the postseason. He also recognizes the uphill climb the Pioneers have to get back in the playoff conversation. He mainly just hopes his team is ready for Saturday.
“One game, I mean, if we can lock it in and go, I think we can recoup one here or there, but it’s tough. It doesn’t get easier, that’s for sure,” he said. “We’ve got to steal one or two. Tonight didn’t make things easier for us.”