The impossible almost happened on March 2. Down 22 points with 15 minutes left, the Golden Eagles men’s basketball team mounted an incredible comeback but fell just short in the SAC men’s basketball championship game, losing 77-72 to Oklahoma City.
Despite the loss, the Eagles will still head to the National Tournament in Kansas City March 13-19. As of press time, the tournament bracket and the Eagles’ first round opponent were not yet known but were revealed yesterday, and can be found on NAIA.org. The Eagles will open the tournament either Wednesday or Thursday in Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City.
Seventh seed OCU completed an improbable run to the conference championship with their victory in the conference championship game. The Stars defeated the top three seeds en route to the title. With the win, the unranked Stars also clinched a berth in the national tournament and denied the Eagles their second conference tournament championship in four years.
“Oklahoma City did a good job at being physical and we didn’t handle that for the first part of the game very well,” said men’s head coach Clark Sheehy. “There was a sense that we had to make a run or we were going to be out of this thing.”
After executing on offense and stymieing the Eagles defensively most of the game, the Stars built a 17-point lead with 15:53 left in the second. Then, senior guard Coleson Rakestraw fouled Stars guard Charlton Jones to prevent an easy transition layup. The referees called an intentional foul that gave the Stars two free throws, which Jones made. The next possession belonged to the Stars giving them time to hit a three pointer.
The five-point possession ballooned the Eagle’s deficit with 15:01 left.
The deficit was due in no small part to the Eagles offense’s first half struggles to hold on to the ball. The Stars’ defense forced 13 Eagles’ turnovers in the first half, but JBU was able to limit turnovers in the second half, giving the ball up only two times in the half.
Over the next 9:28, the Golden Eagles went on a tear, outscoring OCU 21-4 run to cut the deficit to five with 5:33 left. But the Stars halted the Eagles’ momentum, and the Eagles were forced to play the foul game.
After Stars’ freshman guard Jamil Donovan hit one of two free throws with 54 seconds left to increase the Stars lead to 10, a Stars’ victory seemed inevitable. But then after an incredible last minute, in which the Eagles scored nine points and OCU committed two turnovers and went 2-6 from the line, the Eagles cut the deficit to three points and gained possession with ten seconds left.
With a chance to tie, senior Abel Galliguez missed a three-point attempt with two seconds left that would have sent the game into overtime. After a defensive rebound, the Stars added two free throws before the end of the game. The Stars then were awarded the conference championship trophy, having narrowly avoided an unbelievable collapse.
The Eagles will now head to the National Tournament. Even though they are coming off a loss, that might bode well for this team rebounding from the loss in Shawnee. In the last four years, the Eagles are 21-8 in games following a loss.
During that time, seniors EJ McWoods, Galliguez and Rakestraw as a group have played in 16 tournament games, making them one of the most experienced senior classes in school history. That will play a role in any success an otherwise young team will have in Kansas City.
“[With] the experience over the years [in] … the toughest conference in the country, coach is relying on us to bring that leadership every day and help the younger guys,” McWoods said.
McWoods led the Eagles with a game-high 24 points and Galliguez added 18 points in the conference championship.
McWoods, Galliguez and freshman D’Shon Taylor were named to the All-Tournament team.