RIVERSIDE, Calif. --- In just one year, head coach Rick Croy and his No. 8-ranked California Baptist University Lancers have already made history on multiple occasions. Not only did the Lancers set a new program record for best start to a season and longest win streak after opening the season 16-0, CBU can add conference champion to this season’s accomplishments.
"I'm just so happy for our seniors," said Croy. "It was a very special night for a variety of reasons, obviously because we're PacWest Champs. Our guys set a goal early in the season and put in the hard work and sacrificed a lot to get there. There's a selflessness on this team that's the best I've been around, but also such a hard fought night."
Despite a slow start, CBU responded to adversity with poise and claimed a 79-68 victory over Hawaii Pacific Monday night to clinch the PacWest regular season championship for the first time in program history.
The Lancers improve to an impressive 23-1 on the season, 17-1 in conference, while the Sea Warriors fall to 12-11, 7-10 in the PacWest.
After a rough start where the Lancers found themselves trailing by seven, Michael Smith sank a shot from the perimeter and stole the ball away from a Sea Warrior for a fast-break layup. The five-straight points sparked CBU and put the home squad behind by one possession at 19-17.
HPU tried to keep the Lancers from getting back into the game, but Chris Brown grabbed an and-one opportunity, finishing a layup and a free throw to put the Lancers back on the Sea Warriors’ tail at 23-21.
Garrett Jefferson snagged an offensive board and banked a difficult shot off the glass to put the Lancers within three. Eric Nelson put CBU back on the attack after blocking a Sea Warrior attempt and Chris Brown completed both his chances at the line to put the score at 32-31 at the five-minute mark.
Still looking to take over the lead, Brown evened the game at 39-39 with just over a minute before the break after sinking a free throw. HPU took back the lead, however, heading into halftime with a 45-39 advantage.
Brown scored the first points of the second half, looking to give the Lancers momentum. Eric Hunt kept the run alive with a pair of points under the basket off an assist from Cosentino, but HPU scored next to stay on top at 47-43.
Down 51-43, Geoff McIntosh started a 7-0 run with a three-pointer and Brown added two more off a jumper. Back on defense, Hunt denied a Sea Warrior attempt and put Ivan Patterson on the attack. Patterson finished the layup and the crowd erupted with cheers, to put his team within one at 51-50.
"We had the crowd behind us tonight and everyone was waiting for it to happen," said Croy. "Our guys hung in there and kept their attitude."
Berg finally broke through for the Lancers with 7:40 left in the game, pulling up at the top of the key to put CBU in front for the first time at 59-57.
HPU took back the lead heading down the stretch, but CBU dug deep to go back in front after Patterson grabbed an offensive board and laid it in to put the Lancers in front 63-61.
"We talk a lot about poise and winning these games when the ball isn't going in," said Croy. "In order to win these games, you have to compete on defense. They put it on us in the first half so we needed to tighten the screws on defense."
The Lancers held strong defensively, grabbing crucial defensive rebounds to keep HPU from getting second chances on offense. As CBU dominated the defensive boards, HPU began to get frustrated and committed costly fouls to put the Lancers at the charity stripe, which they finished.
"We're not the biggest team so we have to have five guys rebound and really work at it on the glass," said Croy. "With Kevin Crabb out--due to injury--who's second in the conference in rebounding, everyone just came together. Eric [Hunt] did what he does, and that's compete. It's amazing how many balls we scrapped out there in the end and turned into transition for us. Just a fun night in this gym and a night we'll never forget."
Holding a 72-63 upper hand, CBU closed out the game with seven more points for the 79-68 victory and the PacWest Championship.
After playing three games in five days, the Lancers get time to recover before they head to Point Loma on Feb. 26 at 7:30 p.m. With one of the top two seeds already in hand, CBU will get a preview of the PacWest Championship Tournament court in its second-to-last regular season game.
"We need the rest, we're a little nicked up," said Croy. "We need to get healthy and we have a great trainer to help us work at that. We'll take one or two days off and then get back in the gym. Our mantra all year has been 'let's get a little better every day.'"