With only seconds remaining between victory or defeat, Armani Nicolis held the game-winning shot in the palm of his hands. Handling the ball from the left corner of the three-point line, he fired his shot, the buzzer sounded, and the ball rattled in and then out – game over.
“Down two points, we had a chance to win it,” Nicolis said, following Sonoma State University’s 64-62 loss at home to Cal State Dominguez Hills.
“We got the ball to one of our best shooters, and he missed. Then, we got the offensive rebound and swung it around to where I got a good look, but it just didn’t fall in our favor,” he said
Nicolis is right – sometimes shots don’t fall – but Thursday’s loss to the Toros was full of missed opportunities – mainly from beyond the arc, where Sonoma State shot an uninspiring 17.6 percent for the game, the lowest of the young season. On 17 attempts from the three-point line, only Mason Phillips, point guard Brandon Tillis, and Nicolis found twine – with two shots striking at crucial moments in the final minutes of the game.
On the evening, Nicolis led the way offensively, pouring in 15 points in 33 minutes of action.
“I think attacking the basket worked best for me during this game,” Nicolis said. “We didn’t shoot the ball too well, so attacking the inside and getting to the free-throw line worked well for me.”
Two other players, forward Isaac Davidson and Tillis, joined Nicolis in scoring in double-digit figures. Tillis scored 13 points while managing to shoot 50 percent from the field. He also connected on all four of his free-throw opportunities.
Davidson, a sophomore hailing from Auckland, New Zealand, scored 12 points on five of six from the field while also sinking both of his free-throws.
In the opening minutes of the first half, Sonoma State climbed to a swift 6-4 lead on a jump shot from Davidson, along with four points by Tillis from the charity stripe. The Toros responded, surging to a 10-point run that spanned 2:43 and provided Dominguez Hills with a 14-6 advantage.
From there, the Seawolves crawled back on layups from Eric Nielsen and Tillis, notching the score at 14-all. For the rest of the half, both teams played one another close, trading numerous free-throw attempts and points in the paint. After getting fouled while driving to the basket, Nicolis closed the frame with two free-throws, propelling Sonoma State to a 28-25 lead heading into halftime.
In the second half, the Toros capitalized on the Seawolves scuffling post defense, an area of play head coach Pat Fuscaldo has noticed as a distinct difference between this year and last year’s team.
“We’ve been struggling to defend in the post,” Fuscaldo said. “Last year we finished as the number one ranked defense in the nation, but this year we don’t have a couple of the defenders we had last year – so guarding the post has been a bit more difficult lately.”
As Dominguez Hills managed to find space in the paint, so did Sonoma State, especially early on, with Davidson scoring with a combination of layups and jump shots. His 10-point effort in the second half left the Seawolves with a 39-38 lead with 15 minutes remaining.
Tied at 52 points apiece, the Toros had control of the game following two scores from Jonathan Nichols, giving Dominguez Hills a seven-point lead with 2:09 to play in regulation. Although a seven-point advantage is usually enough, a slew of missed free-throws down the stretch kept the Seawolves clinging to life. With 00:22 left on the clock, Nicolis hammered home a three-pointer to bring the Seawolves within four.
Following the three-pointer, Phillips committed a foul, sending Dominguez Hills player Matt Hayes to the line – a trip that resulted in two crucial attempts that clanked off the iron and fell back to the hardwood.
With the clock quickly winding down, Tillis got the ball, stepped back and drilled a three-pointer in the defender’s face to cut the Toros’ lead to a single point.
The Toros would then add a point on a free-throw by Nichols to make it a two-point game with 15 seconds left on the clock.
Sonoma State had a tough decision to make; go for the tie, or try for the win. It chose the latter, with an initial three-point attempt by Jackson Gion missing the mark. Tillis corralled the rebound, and passed the ball wide to Nicolis for a potential game-winning shot. His attempt missed, and Dominguez Hills survived a late charge by the Seawolves, overcoming late miscues of its own to hold on by two points.
“On the final play, coach wanted the best look possible, and we got a great look for the win – it just didn’t go down,” Nicolis said.
With the win, the Toros improve to 4-6 and 2-3 in conference play. Now on a two-game skid, Sonoma State falls to 3-4 and 1-2 in conference action.
Following Thanksgiving break, Sonoma State dueled with in-conference foe Stanislaus State, falling 75-67.
Collectively, the team shot well, compiling a 44.7 shooting percentage from the field, but failed to play with consistency at the end of the game – thus resulting in the loss at the hands of the Warriors.
Jordan Hickman played a sharp game, leading the Seawolves in scoring with 24 points, his best point output of the season to date.
“Stanislaus didn’t really cover me too much, so I just took what they gave me and rolled to the basket,” Hickman said. “When you have great shooters around you, life becomes easier because it opens the floor and gives you space.”
Next on tap for Sonoma State is a Thursday tilt against the 5-3 San Francisco State Gators. Tip-off will begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Wolves’ Den.