By DAN GOLDMAN
Rarely does a matchup like Columbia-Fresno live up to its pregame hype, but last night at Oak Pavilion, the Claim Jumpers and Rams easily exceeded all expectations and showed why junior college basketball is still alive and well in the Central Valley Conference.
The Rams, who came into the game with California's No. 1 ranking and a slim, one-game lead over Columbia in the CVC standings, exhibited their full complement of weapons 3-point shooting, pressure defense and a deep rotation in building leads as big as 15 points midway through the second half against the Jumpers.
But if the Rams' Achilles' heel of free-throw shooting stuck out like a sore thumb and a mixed metaphor, then so was their performance at the charity stripe.
Thanks to Fresno's 30-for-51 (59 percent) performance from the foul line, including a dreadful 12-for-28 (43 percent) in the first 18:40 of the second half, the Jumpers managed to turn the double-digit deficit into a 93-92 lead with 2:20 remaining in the game.
But, with their backs to the wall, the Rams (28-1, 8-1 CVC) responded in the final 1:20 by hitting their final eight free throws and forcing Columbia (16-10, 6-3) into two critical turnovers to pull out a 103-97 victory, stretching their lead in the CVC race to two game over Columbia with five remaining in the regular season.
"The kids played hard; it was one of the better efforts of the season," Columbia coach Andy Vasher said. "(Fresno) gets after you defensively, but we did a better job of making the extra pass this time" compared with the Jumpers' first meeting at Fresno, when they lost 107-91 on Jan. 11.
The Jumpers, who trailed for all but 70 seconds (and led for just 11 seconds), fell behind early and watched the Rams build a 34-21 lead with 7:40 remaining in the first half before launching their first comeback.