Bender has a say in Westmont’s key win over Fresno Pacific

Blake Bender is a leader on the court for the Westmont men’s basketball.

On Tuesday, he showed that he is a leader off the court, too. Before the Warriors’ big game against Fresno Pacific, Bender got up to speak to the team during its traditional game-day afternoon meeting.

His teammates took his words to heart. They went out and played a solid game and defeated the Sunbirds 73-70 in a Golden State Athletic Conference tilt at Murchison Gym.

With the victory, the Warriors improved to 14-4 overall and 6-3 in conference play. Fresno Pacific fell to 12-6 and 5-4 respectively.

“We don’t typically have a player speaking in our game-day afternoon meeting,” Westmont head coach John Moore said. “It is usually a faculty member or someone from the community. But (assistant coach) Jeff (Azain) asked Blake to speak and he took that as a challenge. He spoke about courage and he spoke about love. He gave a presentation that our players will remember for a long time to come.

“Often, when you have to do that you change your ritual up and it hurts you when it comes to the game,” noted Moore. “But Blake certainly backed it up. I thought he was our most important person on the floor tonight. He didn’t get his double-double like he is accustomed to getting, but he got a whole lot more points.”

Bender, the team’s senior captain, scored a team-high 20 points on 7 of 8 shooting, and he pulled down seven boards, had three steals and three assists.

Down 20-19 at the mid-way point of the first half, Bender and freshman center Marcus Farrand ignited a 10-0 run. Bender had two layups and Farrand scored on two jumpers and two free throws. He finished with 14 points, 7 rebounds, 4 blocks.

The Warriors stretched the lead to 13 (45-32) when Farrand tipped in a shot by Preston Branson (11 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists) with nine seconds remaining before the intermission.

“I thought we played as well in the first half as we have all season long,” said Moore. “I thought we got a little tentative in the second half and, as I told the players, I thought that was my fault. We didn’t execute in the same way and we didn’t attack in the same way. The reason we got the big lead in the first half is because we were in attack mode.”

Bender scored five points in the first 40 seconds of the second half to extend the Warriors’ advantage to 18 (50-32). However, the Sunbirds produced a 10-0 run to cut Westmont’s lead to just seven points (55-48).

With just under seven minute left on the clock, Fresno’s Jerante Morgan (26 points, 6 rebounds) scored on a jumper to move the Sunbirds to within five (63-58).

“Morgan was very impressive,” acknowledge Moore. “He looked like one of the better players in our conference and he is not even Fresno’s leading scorer. He has poise, which I noticed at the UCSB game. He plays the game with a confidence and poise that tells you how good and how capable he is as a player.”

On New Year’s Eve, Fresno Pacific came within a hair’s breadth of defeating UC Santa Barbara in regulation, eventually losing 86-79 in overtime at the Thunderdome.

“Give them credit,” said Moore about the Sunbirds. “They pressed and made it a little tougher to catch the ball in the high post. We took some shots where they were able to use their length. On their offensive end, we had trouble stopping them. They continued to get the ball to Morgan who looked like their best player, tonight.”

The Sunbirds made the game closer yet, as Moran nailed a three-pointer to move the Sunbirds to within four (70-66). Then with 1:31 remaining, Morgan sank two free throws and the Sunbirds were just two points back.

After a missed jumper by Fresno’s Jordan Wild (13 points, 6 rebounds) was rebounded by Bender, Westmont freshman Landon Boucher was fouled with 24 seconds to play. Having entered the game for the first time just seven seconds earlier, Boucher stepped to the charity stripe and sank both free throw attempts.

On the opposite end, Brandon Rowe appeared to have once again reduced the margin to two points with a layup, but the ball jumped past the front rim and Bender collected it for his final rebound of the game. Bender was quickly fouled by Rowe and made the first of his free throw attempts to make it a five point game (73-68) with 15 seconds left.

Wild would score on a layup at the buzzer to account for the final score.

The win leaves the Warriors alone in fourth place in the GSAC standings. The Warriors are one game behind 15th-ranked Biola (17-2, 7-2 GSAC) and one-half game ahead of Point Loma Nazarene (9-8, 5-3).

Westmont will close out the first half of the GSAC schedule with a road game at No. 3 Concordia (17-2, 9-0) on Saturday. Concordia is on a 15-game winning streak.

“There is a reason Concordia has won 15 games in a row,” said Moore. “But I like the way our team is playing. We have won nine of our last 10 and I think we are ready to play the elite. Last time we played the elite in our league, we laid an egg against Azusa Pacific. I think it’s time for us to see how capable we are against a team that is as good as (Concordia).”