Pacific men turn in a smothering defensive effort in a 53-35 win

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Pacific senior forward Daniel Zitani drives past Claremont-Mudd-Scripps' Nick Lund during last Friday's nonconference basketball game.Given that the winter sports season has barely begun, the Pacific men’s basketball team is still a work in progress.

That being said, there was a lot to like about the Boxers’ performance last Friday in their home opener at the Stoller Center. In a somewhat rugged, physical game against previously undefeated Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, the Boxers held the Stags to just 25 percent field goal shooting and pulled away in the second half for a 53-35 victory.

“It’s your first home game. You want to put on a show for the crowd,” said Daniel Zitani, who led the Boxers with 18 points and eight rebounds. “You just gotta remain focused and deal with the task at hand. That’s what we did tonight.”

Pacific dealt with its task in large part by clamping down defensively on the Stags, who made just six field goals in the first half, 15 for the game and only one 3-pointer (on 21 attempts) the entire contest.

“We knew coming into the game, it was going to be a physical game and a dogfight, and so we were prepared for that,” Boxers coach Tim Cleary said.

Pacific started building a lead midway through the opening period when Cameron Hayes and Eric Moore sunk back-to-back 3-pointers to put the home team up 16-7.

That lead continued to grow over the rest of the stanza, ballooning to 13 points with just over a minute to go when Pacific guard Riley Grandinetti — a community college transfer making his home court debut — sank yet another 3-pointer with a hand in his face to stake Pacific to a 26-13 advantage. A Zitani free throw with less than a second remaining put the Boxers up 27-13 at the intermission. Meanwhile, that stiff Pacific defense held CMS scoreless on eight shots over the final seven minutes of the half.

The Boxers could have coasted the rest of the game, but they didn’t. CMS cut the lead to eight points twice early in the second half, the second time on Jack Grodahl’s jumper with 15:51 to play, which cut the margin to 29-21.

But the Stags would get no closer the rest of the way. The lead swelled to 15 points when sophomore center Anthony Zerkel knocked down two free throws halfway through the half.

CMS did close to within 41-33 on Nick Lund’s jumper with 4:04 remaining, but then Landon Littlefield made a 3-pointer from the right corner that kicked off a 12-2 Pacific run over the rest of the contest.

“When we got shots, we got good-looking shots,” Grandinetti said. “Sometimes they didn’t fall, but we executed really well. Especially in the second half, we used the shot clock to our advantage.”

Grandinetti added nine points in the winning effort, and Moore chipped in seven.

For Cleary, last week’s game was a chance to get an in-competition glimpse at what his team has been working on since returning from a three-game trip to California. There, the Boxers lost to La Verne by nine points in overtime and to La Sierra by two points, blowing out Caltech in between.

“That was good for us, because now we’ve been battle-tested early,” Cleary noted. “It made our guys a little hungrier, and it also exposed to us, as a coaching staff, what we needed to work on. So we went to work this week and tried to shore up some of our things we felt we needed to fix. The guys did a great job of responding.”

A year ago, the Boxes went 15-10 and finished fifth in the Northwest Conference. This season’s squad will look decidedly different than that of a year ago, though. Colin Wester (16.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists per game), a first team all-NWC pick, graduated, as did leading rebounder Dustin Bowser (7.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and Charles Mosley (10.0 ppg). Additionally, 2013 NWC honorable mention pick Danny Brakebush (13.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg) is out for the year with a torn ACL.

And Budweiser Hawkins, a part-time starter last season, is currently out with a foot injury, though Cleary expects him back shortly.

But all of that allows some other Boxers to step up to fill the void. Like Hawkins, Zitani was a part-time starter last year as a junior. He has kicked off his senior season by averaging 20 points per game and was named the NWC Player of the Week for his play during the California trip.

“He’s always been a very talented player. Last year was a learning year for him,” Cleary said. “But really, the offseason is what is allowing him to play at the level he is right now. He decided to stay here all summer, work on his game and just stay focused on basketball. And he’s seeing the fruits of his labor with that.”

Other returners include Wettig and Coby Proctor, who both started at times last season, as well as Moore, Hayes and Zerkel.

Despite being new to the program, Grandinetti and Littlefied have already stepped into starting roles, and another transfer, Jordan Batey, is an “elite shooter,” according to Cleary.

“Those three guys are ... all guys that we brought in to be impact players, and all three of them are doing a great job,” Cleary said.

He also said that freshmen Brad Hagaman and Nate Anderson have the potential to develop into solid post players.

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