REDLANDS — When the Occidental College women's basketball team beat Redlands 61-58 on Jan. 26 they joined them in first place. When they won on Thursday, they took over first place.
Makenzie Brandon (Seattle) scored 25 points in the second half — more than the 22 points the entire Bulldogs team scored in the period — and the Tigers beat Redlands on the road 59-48, moving one step closer to joining Pomona-Pitzer as the only program in SCIAC women's basketball history to win five consecutive regular season championships (1981-85).
With three games left to go, Oxy (19-3, 10-1 SCIAC) sits in first place with a full game lead over the second-place Bulldogs (15-7, 9-2 SCIAC) in the SCIAC standings. Oxy can clinch at least a share of the regular season championship with either two wins, or one win and one Redlands loss.
Brandon finished with 29 points — her third best total this season — putting Oxy in the driver's seat for a championship while solidifying her already impressive case for conference player of the year honors.
She had a quiet first half, with just four points on 2 for 6 shooting, but led two key runs in the second that gave Oxy nine-point leads and eventually its third six-game winning streak this season.
The 5-foot-10 forward scored nine points during an 11-0 stretch that put the Tigers up 35-26 with 15:58 left.
Then, despite playing with four fouls, the SCIAC's leading scorer answered an 8-3 Redlands run that cut the lead to one, by scoring seven points during a 9-2 Oxy push that gave the Tigers a 51-42 lead with 5:19 left.
"Exceptional players have the ability to step up in big games. Mak's a gamer," Occidental coach Heidi VanDerveer said. "It's a credit to her work ethic and she has great teammates that put her in a great position."
From there, Oxy's defense took over, holding the Bulldogs scoreless for nearly five minutes. It wasn't until Courtney Carroll made a free throw with 55 seconds remaining that Redlands' scoreless drought finally ended.
"After the first half we knew what we needed to do. It was nice to get going in the second half," said Brandon, who also grabbed six rebounds and had three steals. "I really worked hard on just taking what the defense was giving me and not forcing much more."
Brandon never cooled off, but did create an uneasy moment for the Tigers by picking up her fourth foul with more than 10 minutes to go.
Following being called for a charge, Brandon waived toward the bench as if to signal to VanDerveer that she'd be okay playing with the foul trouble. VanDerveer didn't buy it, instead pulling out the junior to give her a quick moment to think about the consequences of a fifth foul.
"They were going to run something to try to get her her fifth," said VanDerveer, adding that she may have let Brandon go if Stephanie Scamman (Northridge), one of the team's leading scorers, didn't also have four fouls. "So by taking her out, we had a chance to tell her what she already knew, 'go straight up.'"
Her time on the bench was short-lived.
Redlands' Brittany Oster hit a jump shot, Marika Staton made a layup and then banked in a 3-pointer ending Brandon's time to let having four fouls sink in.
When she returned, Brandon scored 11 points in the final 6 minutes to finish off the Bulldogs.
Their star led the way led the way, but all of the Tigers contributed. All nine players that saw court time scored, led by Stephanie Scamman (Northridge) who finished with nine points and six rebounds.
They've given themselves an insurance game, but it still won't be a walk in the park to the record-tying SCIAC title.
Oxy goes to Whittier on Saturday night — a team they lost to 78-72 during the 2009-10 championship season— then finishes off with the league's current third and fourth place teams in Cal Lutheran and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.
The Tigers are playing their best basketball of season at the right time though. Oxy edged annual NCAA Division III playoff contender Chapman University 63-61 in double overtime on Sunday.
"Having a core group of juniors and sophomores, this is the evolution of their time together," VanDerveer said. "They work hard, they trust each other and they don't care who gets the credit."