By Robert McKinney, Assistant Athletics Director, Communications
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. -- Willamette University rallied from a halftime deficit for the second day in a row and again made key plays in the closing minutes, as the Bearcats defeated University of La Verne (Calif.), 72-66, in the second round of the UC Santa Cruz Mission Inn Thanksgiving Classic at Kaiser Permanente Arena on Sunday, Nov. 26. The Bearcats trailed 64-63 with 2:35 left, but ended the game with a 9-2 run. Willamette improved to 2-1 on the season, including 2-0 in the tournament. La Verne dropped to 0-5 overall, 0-2 in the Thanksgiving Classic.
On Saturday, the Bearcats rallied from an eight-point halftime deficit to down the University of California, Santa Cruz, 65-61. In that game, WU trailed by 16 points with 10:31 left in the game and by eight points with 1:38 left. The Bearcats ended that game with a 12-0 run.
Against La Verne, Willamette trailed by 11 points late in the first half, but cut the margin to six points, 35-29, at the break. The Leopards also held a 42-33 advantage with 15:53 on the clock, but Willamette cut the margin to four points several times in the next few minutes, including 48-44 on a layup by Nico Troplent (Sr., W, Los Angeles, CA/Cathedral HS) with 10:47 left. La Verne never held a lead larger than four points the rest of the way.
The Bearcats tied the game at 50-50 on an offensive rebound and a layup by Jordan Jenkins (Jr., F, Placentia, CA/Valencia HS) at the 8:37 mark. A steal by Troplent led to a layup by Trent Callan (Jr., G, Portland, OR/Lincoln HS) 32 seconds later, as WU claimed a 52-50 lead.
Willamette eventually held a 60-54 advantage after Jameson Willems (Jr./So., F, Billings, MTSkyview HS) converted two free throws with 5:16 remaining. The Leopards rallied to tie the game at 62-62 on a 3-pointer from Victor Costa with 3:27 to go. Jenkins broke the tie with a free throw, but Costa scored on a layup at the 2:35 mark to give ULV a 64-63 edge. Jenkins added another free throw for the Bearcats to tie the game at 64-64 with 2:21 to play.
Trent Callan (Jr., G, Portland, ORLincoln HS) sank a 3-point shot with 1:49 left to put Willamette in front for good at 67-64. Brandon Rice cut the Bearcats' lead to one point with a layup as the clock reached 1:32. Troplent, who assisted on Callan's go-ahead trifecta, tacked on a layup to give the Bearcats a 69-66 advantage with 1:06 remaining. Jenkins stole the ball from Rice with 46 seconds left, and Troplent was fouled by Cole Currie with 20 seconds on the clock.
Troplent hit both free throws for a 71-66 lead. Jenkins provided the game's final point on a free throw with seven seconds left.
Willamette received two double-doubles from its starting lineup. Troplent led all scorers with 20 points and also hauled down 10 rebounds. He was 8 for 8 at the charity stripe. Jenkins contributed 14 points and matched Troplent with 10 boards. Jenkins also earned two assists and two steals, while hitting 5 of 10 field goals.
"Nico Troplent's entire weekend was big for us," Willamette Head Coach Kip Ioane said. "He played both ends of the floor like a senior captain should."
Casey Thornton (Sr., W, Santa Rosa, CA/Maria Carrillo HS) supplied WU with 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting, while Callan recorded nine points, five rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots. Brendon McCullough (Sr., G, San Antonio, TX/Home Schooled) scored seven points, including two of Willamette's three 3-pointers, to go along with four rebounds and three steals. Conin Oishi (Sr., G, Lake Forest Park, WA/Shorecrest HS) earned three assists.
Brandon Rice topped the Leopards with 19 points on 7 of 12 shooting. He grabbed a team-high seven rebounds. Costa produced 17 points and made 8 of 14 field goals. Evan Gustafson achieved 11 points, five rebounds and two assists. All five ULV starters finished with at least five rebounds, as Currie latched onto six boards, while Costa and Connor Head each secured five rebounds.
Even so, Willamette gained a 44-38 rebounding margin. The Bearcats shot 43.9% from the field (25 of 57) and connected on 19 of 27 free throws (70.4%). La Verne shot 36.9% overall (24 of 65) and hit 14 of 22 free throws (63.6%). Although Callan's 3-pointer gave WU the final lead, neither team excelled on long-range shots, as WU went 3 for 12 and the Leopards went 4 for 19.
La Verne led for most of the first half, but did not hold a lead larger than four points in the opening 13 minutes. Willamette created an 8-8 tie on a layup by Jenkins with 16:41 on the clock and a 13-13 deadlock when McCullough put through a 3-pointer with 11:51 left. The Leopards owned a slim 23-22 lead after Troplent scored on a fast-break layup at the 7:10 mark, but La Verne scored the next 10 points for a 33-22 advantage with 4:09 to go. The run by the Leopards included points from four players, including a 3-pointer by Currie.
Willamette trailed by a 35-24 margin before ending the half with a 5-0 run. McCullough converted a free throw, CJ Walker (Jr., P, Placentia, CA/Mayfair HS) made a layup and Thornton hit a jumper in the paint with 36 seconds remaining.
"At the end of the first half, Conin Oishi's defense and effort off the bench changed the entire game for us," Ioane recalled. "He settled everyone down and got the team focused."
Willamette is scheduled to open Northwest Conference action, and play its first home game of the regular season, on Friday, Dec. 1 against Lewis & Clark College. Tipoff at Cone Field House is set for 8 p.m. (PST). The Bearcats will remain at home on Saturday, Dec. 2 to take on George Fox University in another NWC game starting at 6 p.m.