Before his final chat with his team on game days, UC San Diego coach Eric Olen always writes a phrase on the whiteboard in the locker room exemplifying how he wants the Tritons to play.
His choice on Sunday proved to be especially prescient: Whatever it takes, find a way.
Division II UC San Diego defeated league rival Cal State San Marcos 69-65 despite finishing the game with only four players on the floor. Nine Tritons were in uniform at the start of the whistle-plagued game, but center Zach McMillan suffered an ankle injury early in the second half and four other starters subsequently fouled out.
When forward Drew Dyer committed his fifth foul with 14 seconds remaining and UC San Diego clinging to a one-point lead, the referees quickly became impatient with Olen for not inserting a fifth player fast enough. One came over to request a substitute, but Olen shouted to him, "I told you guys, I don't have anyone else."
"I had been giving the refs running updates the whole time, but I don't think they believed me," Olen told Yahoo Sports on Monday. "I kept telling them, 'I've got three guys with four fouls and I've only got one sub over here.' I was thinking that might help slow the whistles down."
Although Olen knew that Cal State San Marcos drew more fouls than any other team in the league because of its aggressiveness attacking the rim, the UC San Diego coach admits he never expected Sunday's onslaught of whistles. There were a total of 62 fouls called and 73 free throws attempted.
In an effort to protect some of his players in foul trouble, Olen had his team ditch its trademark man-to-man defense in favor of a zone for the final 13 minutes of the game. He also urged UC San Diego players to be extra cautious after they picked up their fourth foul.
"I really didn't want the players to worry about it other than really late when guys had four fouls, but it was definitely nervewracking for our staff," Olen said. "I didn't think we were going to get down to four or five guys, but I realized it was a possibility."
What saved UC San Diego after Dyer committed his fifth foul was Cal State San Marcos' inability to hit free throws. Had Nik Brown sunk one or both of his foul shots, UC San Diego would have been forced to try to design a game-winning play with only four players on the court. Instead Brown missed both, preserving the Tritons' one-point lead and leaving Cal State San Marcos no other choice but to foul intentionally.
After UC San Diego point guard George Buaku made two crucial free throws to extend the Tritons' lead to three, Cal State Marcos called timeout with eight seconds to go. Olen decided quickly to intentionally foul rather than risking a game-tying 3-pointer leading to a 4-on-5 overtime period.
The tricky part of that strategy was that Olen only had four players at his disposal and could not have Buaku commit the foul because he already had four. The UC San Diego coach chose to leave the inbound passer unguarded and tried to hide Buaku on the opposing center, theorizing that he was the least likely player to receive a pass.
"I told our players, 'Foul on the catch. We don't want them to throw it back to the inbounder,'" Olen said. "Of course, they throw it right to their center and George is just standing there like, 'What do I do?' The inbounder was wide open, ... but Koree Cox made a really smart play realizing that George's guy had it. He left his guy, came over to foul and put the big guy on the line."
Cal State San Marcos center Ben Dickinson missed both ensuing free throws, the second intentionally. When UC San Diego grabbed the rebound, an unusual victory was finally secure.
Had the game gone to overtime, Olen would have had two options: Either play the next five minutes 4-on-5 or send one of the team's two redshirt freshmen back to the locker room to change into a uniform. The UC San Diego coach insists he wouldn't have considered the latter option because burning a year of a player's eligibility with no notice doesn't seem fair, especially in a mid-December game when the odds were already stacked against the Tritons.
"We'd still have no starters left, George may still foul out and it would be that kid's first minutes of the season," Olen said. "I wouldn't have put one of those kids in that spot. I'd rather have just lost the game."
Thankfully for Olen, he never had to worry about that decision because his players managed to win in regulation. The Tritons found a way, whatever it took.
- - - - - - -