After the Pacific Union College men’s basketball team swept La Sierra of Riverside in its first two home games of the season April 3-4, the Pioneers ran into the UC Merced buzzsaw in another California Pacific Conference contest.
Pacific Union lost to the Bobcats by eight fewer points, 73-58, than when they opened the season in Merced. It can be hard to take the court with confidence against a team that’s beaten it by 23 points. But the Pioneers did. They started well, trailed just 32-27 at halftime, and took the lead in the 40s. But the Bobcats, who outshot PUC 52% to 33% in the second half, dominated down the stretch.
“We came out pretty strong in the first half, but kinda melted away a little bit towards halftime and made a few mistakes that they capitalized on to put us down five,” PUC head coach Greg Rahn said. “We came out strong again in the second half. But once they tied it up, it was a landslide. We lost our cool a little bit and one of our guys got a technical foul and I think the momentum shifted from there until the end.
“They probably ran away at the five-minute mark. If we’re five minutes away from being a little more disciplined and being more competitive, I think we’re OK.”
The Pioneers were out-rebounded 47-26, including 38-24 at the defensive end.
“We fought to within 6-8 points and tried to make a few adjustments,” Rahn added. “But most of this group is brand new and has been together only four or five weeks and because we were in the purple tier (the most restrictive by COVID-19 infection rate), we hadn’t been in our gym. We were practicing outside at the middle school here at night under some lights with about five or six guys.”
Jordan Lopez came off the bench to lead the Pioneers with 14 points. Jamal Johnson added 12 points and a block, Chris Jones had nine points and two assists, Isaiah McCullough had nine points and three steals, Victor Wariso had five points and four rebounds, and 6-foot-9 center Carson Anderson had two points, eight rebounds, four blocks and two steals.
“We’re still learning, though I’m not saying that to be an excuse,” said Rahn. “We’re showing a positive trend, even though we didn't get the win tonight. Since our first game against them, we’ve shown positive growth and that’s about all we can ask for.
“Jordan shot it well and played a great game. He’s been growing each day and he was very important tonight. Carson had four blocks tonight and five last game, so he’s doing really good helping us protect the rim, and Jamal had some key shots for us early on.”
Having beaten La Sierra 69-68 and 86-81 at home, PUC traveled to Riverside last weekend and fell 68-51 to the Golden Eagles on Sunday before beating them 81-74 on Monday.
The Pioneers (3-3 CalPac and overall) were to visit UC Merced (6-0 CalPac and overall) on Wednesday night before hosting the Bobcats at 1 p.m. this Sunday, April 18.
The teams will finish their season with a conference tournament at La Sierra, where the hosting Eagles (3-9, 1-7 CalPac) will play PUC for a chance to face UC Merced in the title game. There is no national tournament this year because of the pandemic.
“We’ve got some work to do to catch Merced, and then try to peak at the tournament,” Rahn said. “We’re playing seven games in 14 days and three of those days are driving. We really got the short end of the stick, but our guys are competitors. They knew what it was coming into it, they’re fighting hard, and right now we have to show our improvement, our growth. I’ve seen it, so I’m encouraged.”
In the first two games against La Sierra, Alton Turner had 16 points and four rebounds to lead the way in the Saturday game and Johnson made two key free throws to help seal the Sunday win. Anderson grabbed 15 rebounds between the two games. Wariso had 11 points and seven rebounds in the Saturday win and 16 points and six boards in the Sunday win. Isaiah McCullough led in that Sunday win with 24 points in 25 minutes, while Jones added 15 points and seven rebounds.
“There are a lot of new guys on the team this year, and I can feel our chemistry growing after each game,” Johnson said after the La Sierra home sweep in a pioneersathletics.com report. “After these two games, most would agree with this statement.”
Added Anderson in the same report, “There is a lot of talent on this team, and it's apparent in the stats for each of the guys. We were able to stay together as a team to work through any adversity that came our way, and we ended up taking the wins. We have plenty of work to do, and I couldn't ask for a better team and coach to work with. This team shows a lot of promise and we're excited to see how the rest of the season plays out.”
Rahn was pleased with the wins after having such limited practice time.
“We are still processing on the court as we are continuing to learn, but I saw many improvements from Saturday’s game to Sunday's game (against La Sierra) as the players are starting to find a better feel and rhythm within our system," he said on the website.
"Our guys did a great job controlling what we can control, which we consider to be our effort, energy and attitude. Taking care of those three things gives us the best chance to compete on a daily basis. I'm extremely proud of the players on this team and look forward to our continued growth together.”
Freelance journalist Dave Mosher contributed to this report.