BBA loses basketball heartbreaker
After a pair of free throws by Mount Mansfield's Tinga Adiang put the Cougars up by 19 with 3:44 left in the third period, the Bulldogs looked dead in the water.
But as the team has done all season, the Bulldogs hunkered down, started playing defense and made a run at MMU. Only, for the first time this season, the comeback came up short.
In the Division I semifinals at Patrick Gym at the University of Vermont, BBA fell just short from their comeback miracle in a 60-56 loss on Tuesday night.
"We have kept our composure through the worst of what we have gone through this year," said Joey Shehadi, who led BBA with 20 points. "That was probably the worst of it. We kept fighting back. We got some good defensive stops."
But the Bulldogs were unable to get enough.
BBA cut the deficit to 48-36 heading into the fourth, and in the final frame BBA pulled within one possession, but the Cougars had just enough to hold on.
"I think effort has a lot to do with it, and just trying to hang on," said MMU coach Jeff Davis. "We had a team tonight that we were playing against that didn't quit. We were up by  at one point and they just fought back. I think we were able to gut it out, and that's what our group is about. It wasn't the prettiest fourth quarter, but we gutted it out."
The near-comeback for BBA started with 1:11 left in the third. Cody Gilbert found Tyeshawn Gadson (12 points) open for a three to cut the score to 45-30, but a loose ball foul on the Cougars gave BBA the ball back, and on the ensuing inbounds play Shehadi found Conor Harrington (7 points) for an easy layup.
The Bulldogs were off and running.
Spanning the rest of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth, BBA went on a 17-3 run that got the team within five when Gadson hit a jumper to make it 48-43.
"It just took, we like to call it 'emptying the bag,'" said BBA coach Dave Shehadi. "We had to leave it all out there. I thought we started to get some tips, got some run outs, they got a little tight then all of a sudden it was anyone's ball game."
With such a hill to climb, though, all it took was a few baskets to push back out.
On the play after Gadson's shot cut it to five, Sean Springer (20 points) hit his only bucket of the second half - a three - to push the lead back to eight. Two more free throws by Nick Bergeron (8 points) and the lead was double digits again.
"I think we got away from what we were doing to be successful and it was probably a little bit of clock watching," Davis said. "[BBA] had too much fight in them to do that. They fought and fought to come back."
Taylor Muench scored on a layup and three for his only points of the game to cut it back to five but soon after, Gadson, who came alive in the second half after remaining quiet in the first, picked up his fifth foul with 3:51 to play, sending him to the bench for the rest of the game.
"Credit to him because he had a tough first half," coach Shehadi said. "He competed. To have him start bringing us back, he was getting loose and starting to defend, it hurts to have him come out."
After the teams exchanged free throws, Muench looked primed to hit another three but, pulling up from the wing, Muench's shot started circling the rim to go down, only to come back out.
"I was looking at it thinking it was going down, but it went around and out," coach Shehadi said. "That's basketball." BBA did get the lead back down to three again with just under a minute left, when Will Tate (5 points) hit a bank shot in the lane to make it 56-53, but four straight free throws from Bergeron down the stretch helped seal the deal.
Springer, the Cougars' leader with 20 points, said that there were no nerves as Bergeron took his free throws.
"Our whole team has faith in Nick at the free throw line," Springer said. "None of us had any doubt he was going to knock those down." In the first quarter of action, Springer and Shehadi stole the show as the pair scored the first 16 points of the game, 9 for Springer and 7 for Shehadi, and the teams went into the first break with MMU leading 14-12.
In the second, the close game continued and BBA trailed just 23-19 with 3:21 to play. The lead ballooned quickly, as Springer made two of his six threes on the night over the next two minutes of play to make it 31-21 MMU, and a layup by Alec Eschholz made it 33-21 going into the break.
BBA was also plagued by turnovers in the first half. While MMU turned the ball over just twice in the first 16 minutes, BBA turned it over 10 times. To start the third, the Cougars extended the run to 22-7 for a 19-point lead and seemingly put the game out of reach.
"We went on cruise control, which didn't help," Springer said of the BBA comeback. "They jumped on us and went on a big run. Our aggressiveness fell and we got too comfortable with our lead and we really shouldn't have done that. But kudos to them for coming back, they played well in that second half."
The loss ends BBA's season at 22-1, one game away from their first-ever Division I finals appearance. While the mood was somber around the locker room after, Joey Shehadi was quick to put things in perspective.
"It's bittersweet. I told our guys in the locker room there is nothing to be ashamed of," Shehadi said. "We had a hell of a season. We were 22-0 before this loss. We beat Rutland twice for the first time in our history, we swept the MVL. We had a great season and we have next year with virtually the same team. We plan on getting back here."
Gilbert and Ryan Smith led BBA with six rebounds each, while Adiang had 17 points and led all players with eight boards. Eschholz and Springer each added 7. Springer shot 6-for-13 from three-point range, while BBA shot 5-for-21 as a team. The teams finished even in the turnover battle with 12 each.
MMU moves to 19-4 and will play Rice in the Division I final on Saturday.
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