This was surely familiar territory for the 'Cats, who had spent so much of their season accompanied by Close Game. They were now best buddies, fast friends, constant companions, and this Tuesday night that pair was together again at Welsh-Ryan as the 'Cats dueled with Akron in an opening round game of the NIT.
Through the last 10 minutes of this affair no more than four points would ever separate these teams and now, with 4:22 remaining, the Zips' Quincy Diggs dropped a three from the left wing over Alex Marcotullio that put his team up a point. JerShon Cobb, a 'Cat force all night, immediately responded with a 16-footer, and when John Shurna tipped in Marcotullio's missed layup, they were up three at 2:28.
Now, for one of the few times this evening, they settled into their 1-3-1 zone, which slowed the Zips. But at 2:10 Drew Crawford committed one foul that gave them a new shot clock and then, at 1:49, he committed another as Brian Walsh put up a three that missed from the left wing. Walsh would not miss his trio of free throws, which tied this one up for the seventh time, but just 16 seconds later Shurna offered a three from up top that kissed the front of the rim before bleeding over and through. "We want the best shot for the team," he would later say, thinking back to this moment. "But being a senior, it's our final games. So I do want the ball in my hands then."
Now the ball was again in the hands of Walsh, a 45.5 percent three-point shooter on the season, and here he tried to answer Shurna with one of his own from the left wing. It was short and was collected by Marcotullio and down came the 'Cats with a chance to pad there lead. But Shurna, driving the lane, lost the ball, and now it was the Zips on the attack, the Zips' Alex Abreu missing a layup, the Zips' Walsh missing one more three (he would finish one-of-seven from that distance), the Zips finally fouling Dave Sobolewski and sending him to the line for a one-and-one at 12.1.
He missed the front end and, one last time, Akron moved up the court with a chance to tie.
The 'Cats, of course, did not want to be playing on this Tuesday night in the NIT. Their goal had been the NCAA Tournament, but once again they had been denied admission to that dance. The same was certainly true of the Zips, the regular season champs of the Mid-American Conference. But they had lost by a point in their tourney final to Ohio, so here they were faced off against a Big Ten opponent for just the 24th time in their history.
They had not defeated a team from that league since they topped Penn State way back in the '37-'38 season, and their streak of futility appeared certain to continue through the first 18 minutes of this Tuesday night at Welsh-Ryan. "I thought we really came out to play, had a lot of energy, playing really well in the first half offensively," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody would later say, and he was correct.
Crawford was afire, going eight-of-10 in that half and finishing it with 19 points. Cobb was adding to his late season surge, going four-of-five in that half and finishing it with 11 points. Shurna was himself, going four-of-10 in that half and finishing it with 10 points. "Their niche (style of play) is very difficult. We struggled with it in the first half," Zip coach Keith Dambrot would later say, and here is the one stat that shows you he was not exaggerating. On the year, his team had allowed opponents to make just 29.7 percent of their threes. But on this night, in this half, the 'Cats went five-of-11 (45.5 percent) from that distance.
That was the major reason they were up 15 with just 1:29 separating them from their locker room, but then the Zips' Chauncey Gilliam hit a three and Shurna missed a layup; the Zips' Abreu dropped a layup and Nick Fruendt missed a three; and the Zips' Diggs dropped another layup just before the buzzer to pull them to within eight. "We got a little sloppy toward the end of the first half and that allowed them back in the game," Shurna would later admit.
"They were re-energized because of that," Carmody said even more pointedly, "and then they came out in the second half and wouldn't go away."
Now, down three and with the clock under 10, the Zips put the ball in the hands of Diggs, who would end this night as their leading scorer. He was two steps beyond the arc, was searching for a shot that could tie this one up, but before he could find it here came Shurna to foul him intentionally and send him to the line for a one-and-one.
Three nights earlier, in their MAC tourney final with Ohio, his teammate Abreu had gone to the line for a pair with the Zips down three at 3.1. He would make the first, would try to miss the second and would doom them to defeat when it still went in. Now, at Welsh-Ryan with 3.7 remaining, Diggs made the first, his coach Dambrot called time and out they came for the second. "I just wanted to box out the guys on the line, on the circle," Carmody would later say, recalling his instructions in the huddle. "I wanted to do that, and they're not going to call any fouls. They're going to push you under the basket, that's what they're going to do, so you go into him first."
Then here is Diggs at the line and, without hesitation, without a bit of pretense, without going through any kind of routine, he sends a rope toward the basket. "That caught us a little off guard," Shurna later admitted, and in the scrum that followed the ball went out-of-bounds off the hands of Crawford at 3.5 and again the Zips called time. "No. You never think negatively," Crawford would later say when asked if close losses past here crept into his mind.
But another close loss is just what the 'Cats confronted now as Abreu inbounded the ball to Zeke Marshall, the Zips' seven-foot center. "We thought of throwing it to the rim to Zeke, but we thought that was a little predictable," Dambrot later said. "So we were actually trying to get the jumper for Zeke. We figured they wouldn't cover him as close. But they did cover him close."
So Marshall, deep along the right baseline, kicked it back to Abreu, who was outside the arc on the right wing. "We got it back to arguably our best player," Dambrot would continue, "and he got it up there, which doesn't surprise me, and it looked like it's going in."
"Yeah. It looked kinda good," agreed Crawford.
"But it just didn't go in," said Dambrot.
"It was pretty nerve-wracking," said Crawford. "We lost so many close games this year and we didn't want to go down that way. So we were all glad to see that shot miss."
"So we enjoy this," Carmody would finally say. "But in these kinds of games, these one and done things, you just survive and move on."