The Saint Martin’s University Saints made their first appearance in the NCAA Division II tournament a good one, defeating the Cal Poly Pomona Broncos 66-58 at Western Oregon University on Friday night.
After a sluggish, defense-heavy start to the game, Tavian Henderson, the team’s leading bench scorer on the season, provided a spark early. His dunk gave the Saints an 11-7 lead, and BJ Standley poured in a transition three off a steal to double up the Broncos 14-7.
With the first half winding down, SMU used a flurry of free throws and a silky EJ Boyce triple to go up 30-18 and took a 32-21 lead into the half. Boyce would finish with a game-high 19 points.
Out of the break, the Broncos ripped off four straight points, fueled by multiple steals, and looked primed for a run. But the Saints answered with two buckets to keep the Broncos at arm’s length.
While this was the Saints’ first appearance in the tournament, Cal Poly Pomona is a fixture in the postseason, with 14 tournament appearances and the 2010 D-II national championship. The experience showed, with the Broncos swarming on defense and forcing tough shots. But CPP had trouble hitting their own shots, finishing just 20 of 54 from the field (1 of 21 from three), and allowing the comparatively sharp-shooting Saints (20 of 44, 9 of 20 from deep) to slowly build a lead that would withstand a late push.
“(CPP) are a great team, very aggressive. We just tried to be patient and find the open man,” said junior guard Luke Chavez, who scored 16 points and notched three assists.
As the Saints took their largest lead of the night, 50-32, the energy of the crowd swelled.
“It’s incredible,” head coach Alex Pribble said. “To see our president out there, to see our dean of students out there, to see our family members and students out there — it’s just really special. It felt like a home game.”
Then CPP turned up the heat. Leaning on an aggressive full-court press, the Broncos rattled off a 12-0 run to pull within six, 50-44. A Chavez triple stopped the bleeding near the five-minute mark, and Henderson slammed a Bronco transition layup attempt off the glass with just over four minutes remaining, to the delight of the friendly crowd.
With under two minutes remaining and clinging to a five-point lead, Pribble called timeout to settle his team.
“Late in the game, (the Broncos) have extremely active hands and they play really hard, so if our guys can settle down and see the floor, they’ll be able to make the right decisions,” Pribble said.
CPP missed their next shot and were forced to foul. Dahlen and Chavez took turns at the line to ice the contest.
The Saints now head to the regional semifinal on Saturday against the winner of the Point Loma vs. Western Oregon quarterfinal. SMU lost both its matchups with Western Oregon this season, as well as its lone game against Point Loma.