By Robert McKinney, Assistant Athletics Director, Communications
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. -- Sometimes perseverance pays off. Willamette University trailed University of California, Santa Cruz by eight points at halftime, by 16 points with 10:31 left in the game, by 10 points with 5:38 to go, and by eight points with 1:38 remaining. The Bearcats never gave up, and completed their comeback with big plays in the final minute to defeat the Banana Slugs, 65-61, in the first round of the UC Santa Cruz Mission Inn Thanksgiving Classic on Saturday, Nov. 25.
Willamette trailed 61-58 entering the final 60 seconds, but Casey Thornton (Sr., W, Santa Rosa, CA/Maria Carrillo HS) hit a 3-point basket for the Bearcats with 40 seconds left to tie the score. On the ensuing possession for the Banana Slugs, Brendon McCullough (Sr., G, San Antonio, TX/Home Schooled) stole the ball from UCSC's Will Crain with 19 seconds to go, and then scored on a fast-break layup with 14 seconds left.
Another defensive play was needed for the Bearcats to secure the win. McCullough blocked a layup by Patrick Ramos with three seconds remaining, and Thornton grabbed the rebound. Thornton was fouled with two seconds on the clock, and hit both free throws to reach the final score. Willamette ended the game with a 12-0 run.
Thornton led the Bearcats with 13 points. Nico Troplent (Sr., W, Los Angeles, CA/Cathedral HS) provided 12 points on 5 of 8 shooting, and McCullough finished with 10 points. Jordan Jenkins (Jr., F, Placentia, CA/Valencia HS) was WU's top rebounder with nine boards. Jenkins also achieved seven points, five assists, two blocks and a steal. WU earned a 45-38 rebounding edge, and the Bearcats blocked a total of seven shots.
"At the start of the second half, the guys mentally decided they had to meet the level of physicality Santa Cruz was playing with. It really was a changing of their mindset as a group that turned the tide," Willamette Head Coach Kip Ioane said. "I'm very proud of our three senior guards (Troplent, McCullough and Thornton), who not only made big baskets down the stretch, but more importantly, had huge defensive plays for us when it mattered the most."
Willamette is 1-1 on the season and 1-0 in the tournament. UC Santa Cruz is 2-2 overall, 0-1 in the tournament. The game was played at Kaiser Permanente Arena, the home court of the Santa Cruz Warriors, who are affiliated as a minor league team with the Golden State Warriors.
UCSC's top scorer against the Bearcats was Sam Gabbard, who led all players with 23 points on 7 of 19 field goals and 9 of 12 free throws. He also earned nine rebounds, two assists and two steals. Adam Marlow added eight points and a game-high six assists. Tre Weston tallied seven points and hauled down 10 rebounds. UC Santa Cruz shot only 30.6% for the game (19 of 62).
The Bearcats owned a 12-7 lead with 12:27 remaining in the first half following a jump shot by Jameson Willems (Jr./So., F, Billings, MT/Skyview HS). The Banana Slugs responded with a 13-3 run to take a 20-15 advantage with 6:08 to go in the half. Troplent scored next for WU on a jumper, but UCSC put in eight unanswered points, including 6 for 6 at the line. Nathan Sherfey (Sr., F, Chehalis, WA/W.F. West HS) connected on a 3-pinter for WU with 53 seconds on the clock to pull the Bearcats within eight points at halftime.
A 3-pointer from Marlow started a 13-6 run by the Banana Slugs to open the second half. The offensive outburst gave UC Santa Cruz a 41-26 margin with 14:46 remaining. The Bearcats scored seven unanswered points to cut the deficit to 41-33 on a jumper by Thornton at the 12:19 mark. An 8-0 run that ended with 3-pointers by Marlow and Corey Cilia gave the Banana Slugs their largest lead at 49-33 with 10:31 to go.
Later, UC Santa Cruz held a 55-45 advantage following a pair of free throws by Cilia with 5:38 left. WU moved within 55-53 when McCullough hit 1 of 2 free throws at the 3:28 mark, but the Banana Slugs grabbed a 61-53 edge with 1:38 remaining after scoring three baskets in a row.
Troplent put through a jumper 17 seconds later. Marlow of UCSC was fouled four seconds later, but missed both free throws. The Bearcats pulled within 61-58 on a layup and a foul shot by McCullough with just 1:11 to be played. The heroics of the final minute followed, as the Bearcats completed the rally.
The Bearcats shot 43.4% from the field (23 of 53), including 55.6% in the second half (15 of 27). Willamette was 5 of 17 on 3-pointers (29.4%) and sank 14 of 19 free throws (73.7%). WU limited UC Santa Cruz to just 30.6% on field goals (19 of 62). The Banana Slugs made 5 of 15 three-point shots (33.3%) and converted 18 of 33 free throws (54.5%). The game included 45 total fouls, with 25 called on the Bearcats and 20 against the Banana Slugs.
Willamette will take on University of La Verne (Calif.) on Sunday, Nov. 26 in the second round of the tournament. Tipoff is scheduled for 3 p.m. (PST).