A game so intense. A game with so much riding on the outcome. A game with such an electric atmosphere.
Of course, a game tied 14 times with 14 lead changes was destined for an ending like this and it was West Texas A&M on the heartbreaking end.
An 8-foot shot from the baseline made a tick late as the clock struck 0:00 by WT senior Damion Thornton after rushing up three-quarters of the court in the final 3.9 seconds of the game meant Black Hills State is headed to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight.
Black Hills State survived Thornton’s clutch last effort – and impressive overall game of 29 points – fending off the Buffs 68-67 in the good-to-the-last-drop South Central Regional championship game played before 2,579 fans with the volume cranked up most of the game in the First United Bank Center.
West Texas A&M, coached by Tom Brown in his ninth year, and representing the Lone Star Conference ends its tremendous season in the Sweet Sixteen and at 27-7.
Black Hills State, coached by Ryan Thompson, representing the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference continues one of DII’s top men’s basketball efforts over past two years moving to 28-5 overall and into the Elite Eight for the second consecutive year.
Both coaches praised the high level of play throughout the game and the electric atmosphere.
“What a tremendous basketball game between two very good basketball teams,” said Thompson, his team cutting down from 12 turnovers in the first half to six in the second half helping their cause. “Give West Texas A&M all the credit in the world. I thought they played with a ton of energy and a ton of toughness. They really made it difficult on us to get to anything offensively with their ball pressure. Coach Brown has been doing it for a while here and it’s evident why they are the program they are because his guys play extremely hard. … that atmosphere in the gym was pretty special. We have what I like to think one of the best atmospheres in the country at the D-II level but we get the other side of it where they are cheering for us. Man, you couldn’t hear yourself yell in that gym.”
Brown made the theme of his postgame comments heavy on how frustrated he was with the officiating set up of two RMAC officials and one LSC official.
“I thought it was a great crowd,” Brown said. “I really appreciate the community coming out to support us. We came up a little short. … we had foul trouble and their post player (Joel Scott) had one foul. It’s really hard to play defense when for some reason they don’t foul, and we do. It was really, really tough. We aren’t going to flop. They kept backing us down and went right through our chest. We probably have to flop next year … I don’t see the RMAC a lot. So they had two of their guys officiating. Same as last year (in a regional semifinal loss to Black Hills in Lubbock) they had two of their guys officiating as well and we had one Lone Star. And it’s hard because I don’t know if they call a different game, or what? It’s really frustrating because if you watch the game and know basketball there was calls that, it’s frustrating. It really frustrating. When their best player (Scott) has one foul and our best player (Thornton) has four (fouls) and can’t get on the court because he has four. It’s just tough.”
Except for the early going of strong runs when Black Hills State rushed out to a 7-0 lead less than two minutes in, then WT answered in a big way with 12 unanswered of its own on 3-pointers by Larry Wise and Ryland Holt and a thunder dunk by Thornton, this was a slugfest where both defenses sold out.
Black Hills State strategy was obvious.
First, get the ball to 6-7 senior Scott, who looks like an NFL tight end and time and again backed down WT’s defenders to the basket hurting the Buffs throughout the game ending with 25 points and 13 rebounds.
Scott earned tournament MVP honors and Brown called him “a really, really good player.”
“This was a big-time win,” Scott said. “We step into West Texas with a great crowd, an amazing fan base and are a great team. It means a lot to get a win against a good team like that.”
Joining Scott in double figures for Black Hills State was long-range shooter junior PJ Hayes with 14. Twelve of Hayes’ points arrived on four 3 -pointers. Secondly, Black Hills State guard Sindou Cisse was assigned the defending and shadowing duties of WT’s sensational guard and LSC player of the year Julius Brown. Brown, like many times this season, showed his grit leading all players in minutes played at 38:46 leaving the court for a mere 74 seconds. Brown averages 16.4 points per game but did struggle against Cisse going 2-of-15 from the floor and finishing with four points.
“It’s Sindou Cisse first and foremost and then Jaeton Hackley did a great, too, off the bench.” Thompson said of being able to contain Brown. “Sindou has been doing that for a while. … it’s not anything on the coaching end. We have a couple of special defenders, and they stepped up tonight.”
Black Hills State did not have an answer for WT’s Thornton. The quick and smooth 6-5 Thornton was absolutely a constant thorn in Black Hills State side with his ability to shoot threes (4-of-4), make mid-range jumpers and get to the basket. Thornton was Mr. Efficient making 10-of-15 field goal attempts, 5-of-6 free throws, adding two steals and his 29 points led all scorers.
“That’s the player Damion is,” said WT junior Holt, who had the monster regional semifinal game in the win over Angelo State. “Coming from SWOSU we know how he can get going. He’s a great player and we trust him to knock down a shot.”
Thornton did pick up his fourth foul with 8:43 remaining and sat out about four minutes before returning. WT trailed by a point, 54-53, at that time but didn’t lose any ground when he was out. Still, Coach Thompson said not seeing Thornton on the court was a big deal.
“That was huge for us,” Thompson said. “We didn’t have an answer for guarding (Thornton). He is so athletic and long. If you are tight to him he will just blow by you. And they put so much shooting on the court tonight getting him in foul trouble was our best defense getting him off the court as much as he could.”
With 3:26 remaining this one looked like it would go WT’s way. Junior 5-10 guard Zach Toussaint made a difficult basket on a drive-in traffic putting the Buffs ahead 65-61. Then Wise, who contributed in a big way all game with 19 points and six rebounds, made a pair of free throws putting WT up 67-65 with just more than a minute to play.
Scott answered with a basket down low knotting the game at 67 each with 54.6.
WT’s Thornton missed on a drive-in traffic where Brown said after the game he thought he was fouled. Black Hills State then ran the clock down calling time out with 8.8 seconds to play.
Out of the timeout, Black Hills worked the ball into Scott on the block who was fouled with 3.9 seconds to play and the game knotted at 67.
Scott missed the first free throw. He made the second for 68-67 Black Hills State lead.
“I just had to step back and relax for a second and realize I’d done this a million times.” Scott said. “After that first one I was kicking myself and a little upset because no one wants to miss a free throw. I had to step back, take a few deep breaths and step up to the line and knock it down with confidence.
“Right when I stepped up, I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t really hear anything.’ It was almost deafening. So it was a really special environment to play in. It was really cool.”
After a timeout, WT took the ball out from underneath its own basket with the 3.9 seconds remaining. Addison Wallace inbounded to a running Thornton who gathered in the ball about the free-throw line. Thornton dribbled up his right side of the court past the WT bench, making a quick step toward the basket then from the baseline shot his 8-foot slight hesitation fade away jumper over leaping Black Hills State’s 6-4 Caelin Hearne.
The ball swished the nets.
The WT crowd went crazy. As did both players on each bench as both thought the game ended the way they wanted.
After about a 5-minute delay with the officials hovered at the scorer’s table, the basket was declared no good. Video showed the light going on around the basket to end the game did go off a tick before Thornton released his shot.
“Yeah, it was close,” said Holt who was on the bench after fouling out with 3:15 to play. “It was right in front of us, and we were all praying it was good. Sometimes it just doesn’t’ go down.”
“This was a great college basketball game,” Brown said. “It’s just tough.”
“This was high level Division II college basketball that would rival a lot of Division I games out there,” Thompson said. “There were phenomenal players, guys that are experienced and have been here before. And then they were all competing as hard they could at a really high level. This South Central Region is no joke. … I’m just proud of our guys to make enough plays to come out of here with a championship.”