Caltech finally has winning equation

Caltech students and fans pour onto the court Tuesday night after beating Occidental. Caltech Athletics

PASADENA, Calif. -- A Nobel Prize laureate stood quietly in the back of the room. The university president sat in the bleachers. Both had attended news conferences at Caltech before, but never one quite like this.

No one had won a Fields Medal or a Fulbright Scholarship. Nobel Prizes aren't announced until October.

But there had been a significant breakthrough on campus Tuesday night that was worth celebrating.

After 26 years and 310 straight losses in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, the nation's brainiest basketball team had finally solved a confounding equation, beating Occidental College 46-45 in their season finale to shake this intellectual corner of Pasadena in a way that is usually measured by the famous Richter scale up the street.

The celebration after senior Ryan Elmquist made the winning free throw with 3.3 seconds remaining was wild.

The evidence of it was still burning brightly on the scoreboard, which had been left unchanged from the glorious night before.

And none of that geeky joy had worn off by the next day.

"It's nice to be able to bring some smiles and celebration to a campus that's very serious about what it does for the world," Beavers coach Oliver Eslinger said.

There are only a handful of schools that would celebrate the end to a losing streak by inviting television cameras in and talking about what it was like to lose so much, for so long.

There is probably no one who would have as good of a sense of humor about it as the Caltech coach.

After the game, Eslinger said he received an e-mail from someone connected to the Harlem Globetrotters, inviting him out to the team's game in nearby Ontario on Thursday.

"They asked if I wanted to be an honorary coach of the Washington Generals," Eslinger said. "I hear they have a losing streak of their own."

Nearby, the team's good-natured sports information director, Stephen Hinkel, laughed as loud as anyone in the room.

He'd been envisioning this moment since early this season.

Eight times during the season, Caltech came within 10 points of an SCIAC opponent. A month ago against La Verne, it lost on a basket with six seconds left.

Everyone could feel how close the Beavers were.

"I've had the press release we sent out after the game ready to go for six weeks," Hinkel admitted afterward. "Just in case."

Hinkel handles the news releases for all 17 of Caltech's intercollegiate sports. The baseball team is currently on a 170-game losing streak, and has 412 straight losses to SCIAC schools. Volleyball has lost 19 in a row and 154 consecutive SCIAC matches. The women's basketball team went 0-25 this season.

In other worlds, Hinkel has been left to find the silver linings.

"It sometimes gets to be very interesting, and creative, shall we say? But the thing that's going on here, there are stories to tell," he said. "We're breaking school records, we're getting listed among national leaders, in a variety of sports.

"So it's like, 'What is your focus going to be on? Is your focus going to be on the negativity, and the glass being half-empty, or is the glass going to be half-full.' You gotta hedge that line. But if you do it right, you can come out with a story that doesn't look as bad as the score may indicate at times."

Hinkel's right. If you do it right, there is always a bright side.

There's something wonderful about the brightest young minds of their generation being so unafraid to lose and so dedicated to simply competing.

"I can say, in stark contrast to last year, we competed in a lot of games this year," sophomore guard Mason Freedman said. "And competition is fun. I enjoy being in a game where we have a chance to win, and we did that almost every single game this year.

"Last year it was routinely around 30-point losses. You just didn't have a chance to feel like you're in the game. The other team puts their second or third rounders in and it just doesn't feel like a game at that point."

This season, Eslinger's third as the Beavers' head coach, Caltech has been competitive in the majority of its games. It won four nonconference games, the first of which ended a 44-game losing streak on Dec. 4, and then finally the glorious win Tuesday night over Occidental, a school President Obama once attended.

Asked if he was expecting a congratulatory call from the President, Eslinger deadpanned, "Um, yes."

The 35-year-old coach thought he'd come to this school three years ago with his eyes wide open, having faced similar challenges as associate head coach at MIT.

Then he got to the gym and discovered his first team at Caltech had more players that had been valedictorians than had played basketball in high school.

"Last year we led the nation in turnovers," he said. "Which is probably the one thing you don't want to lead the nation in."

This year Caltech averaged just 12 turnovers in conference play, a big reason why the Beavers lost eight SCIAC games by 10 points or fewer.

So what changed?

"It used to be, come over, play two hours of basketball and have fun," said freshman guard Todd Cramer, who led the SCIAC with 123 assists this season.

"That's how the losing streak started. Then slowly they started thinking they should get competitive. Then this year, we started realizing that we can do this.

"Now we have to build on this. Win the league. That's the goal."

Cramer said he was recruited by several Ivy League schools, the University of Chicago and MIT, but chose to play for Eslinger at Caltech because of the chance to contribute right away and because something about the lanky, brown-eyed coach made him believe things could turn around.

"People laughed at me when I told them I was going to Caltech to play basketball," Cramer said. "They'd say, 'Oh, I thought you were pretty good at basketball, why would you go there?' Or, 'Isn't that the team that lost all those games?' I was like, 'Yeah, but just watch what's going to happen when I get there.' "

There was no boast in Cramer's statement. Just belief.

"You have to believe," he said. "This is just a stepping stone for us. Now that we got that first one out of the way ..."

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.