One of the most incredibly futile streaks in all of sports came to a stunning end last Tuesday.
Caltech finally won a conference basketball game.
In case you’re counting — this is Caltech we’re talking about, after all — the streak ended at 310 straight losses in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. We’re not talking powerhouse opponents, either. This is Division III.
Surely you’re wondering just how long it takes to lose 310 straight SCIAC games. Try 26 years. Caltech’s last conference win came at the expense of La Verne, 48-47, on January 23, 1985. Ronald Reagan was three days into his second term.
Ergo, Caltech hadn’t won a conference basketball game during the lifetimes of any of the players on its current roster. Doubtless many alumni thought they’d never win one during their lifetimes.
Last Tuesday’s game against visiting Occidental seemed like more of the same. Caltech trailed 27-21 at the half after displaying typically dreadful shooting: 4-for-24 from the field, including 1-for-10 on 3-pointers. Only inexplicable perfection from the foul line (12-for-12) kept the Beavers close.
All seemed lost —again — after Jake Copithorne put Occidental ahead, 45-37, with 4:33 left. Little did anyone surmise that the Tigers wouldn’t score again.
Caltech cut the lead to 45-42 with just under three minutes to play. Ryan Elmquist then went to the line and made both shots, cutting the lead to one. Next, Elmquist blocked an Occidental shot. With 1:36 to go, he was fouled at the other end, making one of two to tie the game at 45.
Occidental, clearly feeling the pressure, threw the ball away with 42 seconds left. Caltech found Mike Paluchniak open on the baseline, but he missed. Mike Edwards rebounded for the Beavers and dished out to Todd Cramer, who promptly missed a three.
Instant replay: Edwards rebounded again, and again kicked it out to Cramer. This time, Cramer fed inside to Elmquist, who was fouled with 3.3 seconds left.
And how did this Caltech student prepare himself for the free throws that could end the 26-year streak? “I just tried my best to clear my mind, and not think of anything,” Elmquist told Keith Lair of the Pasadena Star News. “That’s when I shoot my best.”
Higher education in action.
As both teams and the 387 patrons packed inside the Braun Athletic Center held their breaths, Elmquist drained the first free throw. 46-45, Caltech.
He missed the second. Sam Stapleton rebounded for Occidental, took a few steps, and heaved a shot off the side of the far blackboard as time expired.
“I feel like I just won an NCAA championship!” Caltech coach Dr. Oliver Eslinger told Lair, and in the euphoria of the moment, Lair never thought to ask, “How would you know?”
“It’s been four years for me and a lot longer for everybody else,” said Elmquist, the hero of the decades. “I’ve been waiting for this all of my career. It feels amazing. I could not have finished any better in ending my career.” Elmquist will begin his pro career as a computer software engineer with Google.
Students rushed the court, hugging players and each other, some just jumping up and down. Forgive them if they’re unpracticed at this sort of thing. Someday, at least 2,000 will claim to have been in attendance on this glorious night.
The players managed to find a water cooler, and doused coach Eslinger. “I always wondered, ‘How does a coach let that happen?’” Eslinger told ESPN. “I saw it out of the corner of my eye, and, I kind of didn’t want to get out of the way. I was marinating in the moment. It was like the world stopped, and the stupid streak stopped, and now we can concentrate on winning the SCIAC.”
Now, there’s someone carried away by the moment. Caltech finished its season on that high note, sure, but they were still 1-13 in the SCIAC, 5-20 overall.
Still, that was the Beavers’ best record in 15 years. And this is a team that defeated Bard College on January 6, 2007, to end a streak of 207 consecutive losses against NCAA opponents.
Eslinger, just finishing his third season at Caltech (previously he had been the top assistant at MIT. Of course.) delivered the program’s first Midnight Madness entertainment last fall. When he took over, less than half of the roster had even played basketball in high school. Now Eslinger has a different problem.
“The alums I’m getting emails from,” he complained to John Branch of the New York Times, “it’s slowing down my computer, there are so many!”
Caltech boasts of 31 Nobel Prize winners, the number one world ranking in engineering, the highest average starting salary in the nation, and an incredible 3:1 student faculty ratio.
But despite all that, for one shining Tuesday night in February, 2011, Caltech was a basketball school.