What once was a dream start to the 2019-20 season could slowly be coming apart at the seams — and at the most inopportune time as well.
The Westmont men’s basketball team dropped its second consecutive game for the first time this season Friday night following a 102-86 loss in the Golden State Athletic Conference semifinals against Arizona Christian at Murchison Gymnasium.
It was also the team’s third loss in four games.
Once the final buzzer sounded, the Warriors left the court quickly as the stunned home crowd filed out in silence.
“We are very disappointed. Very disappointed, as we should be,” Westmont coach John Moore told the News-Press following the loss.
“We didn’t play anything like we’ve played all season long and we haven’t played a game at home, or on the road, like that. A lot of that credit has to go to ACU, I thought Jeff (ACU head coach Jeff Rutter) prepared them really well. They were hungry.”
Westmont played unlike itself for the duration of the contest. The Warriors took an early 6-2 lead with 17:54 remaining thanks to a pair of 3s but the team struggled from that point forward. Westmont would shot just 2-for-11 from deep in the first half the remaining 17-plus minutes, and shot 40% from the floor for the quarter.
Defensively, the Warriors were also getting picked apart by the Firestorm. De’Ron Kyle, who had 23 points and 10 rebounds in ACU’s quarterfinal win over William Jessup, continued his hot streak from the floor.
In the first half alone, Kyle scored 19 points, 12 of which came from the 3-point line where he made as many 3s as Westmont did by himself.
The last time Westmont faced Arizona Christian, Kyle was the leading scorer for the Firestorm then with 19 points off the bench.
This time, in a starting role, the junior guard was even more explosive, scoring 29 points on 10-for-17 shooting from the floor. He also shot 6-for-12 from deep.
“They’re a very good shooting team and once they got started shooting the ball, especially number five (De’Ron Kyle) … he was really comfortable out there. And we didn’t do much to make him uncomfortable,” Moore said.
A three from Kyle at the 14:50 mark of the first half gave the Firestorm the lead at 11-9 and they held that until being caught by the Warriors at 20-all.
Westmont then took the lead with a free throw from Justin Bessard, who struggled in the first half shooting just 3-for-10 from the floor, but ACU responded with another 3-pointer from Kyle at the 9:18 mark. The Firestorm never trailed for the remainder of the game.
Another make from deep, this one from Terence Shelby, who scored 22 points, gave ACU a 31-25 lead and forced Westmont to change its defense from zone to man-to-man.
“They’re really good shooters and they move the ball well. We’ve got some inexperienced guys out there that we’re trying to play with, and that’s no excuse, it’s just, we have some guys that are trying to find their bearings,” Moore said.
ACU led by 14 after another make from deep from Kyle but Westmont responded by ending the final 1:44 with a 5-0 run to trail by just nine at the break.
In the second half, Arizona Christian caught fire. The Firestorm shot 8-for-12 from deep, 15-for-28 from the floor and never trailed as they led by as many as 22.
With just over nine minutes remaining, Bessard, who scored a team-high 27 points, 18 of which came in the second half thanks to an improved 6-for-11 shooting including 3-for-5 from deep, cut the lead down to six points at 70-64 to give a bit of life back into the crowd and the team.
That hope quickly flamed out, however, as the Firestorm responded with a three of their own on the next possession, then forced a turnover and knocked down two free throws to extend their lead back to 11.
Over the final 9:04, Arizona Christian outscored Westmont 32-22.
“Our game plan was very good, I just thought our approach didn’t quite feel right,” Moore said.
Throughout the game, Westmont players continually looked and expressed their frustration with how the game was going. Abram Carrasco, who scored 21 points, got a technical foul at the 12:06 mark of the second half after a foul was called.
A seven-point lead quickly turned into 11 as ACU made the pair of technical free throws, then the original pair from the foul call.
“I think you’re right,” Moore said after being asked about the player’s frustration out on the court.
“Our whole talk before the game was about our culture, and I think we’ve got the best culture around. But tonight, when we got frustrated, we didn’t play with poise or composure.”
While the loss stings, the season is not even close to over for Westmont, who will still be playing in the National Tournament and likely garner a high seed with a 26-5 overall record and a regular-season conference title.
Westmont will also have two key players back in the fold, as Cade Roth and Tristan Lloyd should both be available come National Tournament time.
“We’re looking forward to going back to Kansas City and pushing the reset button,” Moore said.
“We will take a couple of days off just to get fresh and then we’ll get back into it and just try to be more like who we are. (Tonight) we didn’t look like who we are and that was the greatest disappointment, but having Cade and Tristan back should help.”
The NAIA tournament will begin on March 18.