By Gage Nutter
Assistant Sports Editor
With six seconds left in regulation, the Pride trailed by two points.
Wheaton College’s Duaka Ekwensi had just missed a free throw off the right side of the rim when freshman Jake Ross rose up and corralled the rebound. From the moment Ross grabbed the ball everyone in Blake Arena knew who would be taking the Pride’s final shot. It could have been the last shot of the game. It could have been the last shot of the 2016-2017 season. Ross put his head down and blew by Wheaton’s Alex DuBrow, Timothy Berry, and Ekwensi. As he made his way into the paint he leaped through the air and released a floater. Within that fraction of a second, Blake Arena was silent. From an orchestra of cheers and stomping, to pin drop quiet. The ball fell for what seemed like hours, and then, finally, swish.
It was not a pretty shot, but it got the job done. What was a vacuum of sound for all of one second, Blake Arena was now as loud as it had been all season. What once seemed inevitably like a heartbreaking end to an exciting season, the game had now evolved into one of the most thrilling to have taken place in Blake Arena all year.
The Pride would go on to defeat the Lyons in overtime 85-82. The Pride will now play No. 1 Babson College in the NEWMAC semi-finals at 5:00 p.m. in Wellesley, Mass.
Ross, who posted a mere five points at the half, finished with 30 points and 17 rebounds. The first year star believes that sometimes, basketball is a game of luck.
“Sometimes you just get lucky,” he said. “We ran a set play, I knew we were down two, I happened to put up a floater and it [went] in. Some days you get those and some days you don’t, I am just happy to be practicing tomorrow.”
From the very start of the game, it seemed as though the Pride was going to play the best basketball it had played all year. The stands were full, the team started the game on an 11-0 run, and of course, Pride superfan Nick Bainter showed up dressed as a lemon to get the fans fired up.
However, the Pride started to fall asleep offensively with four minutes to go in the first half, and Wheaton started to get reenergized. As the first half wore on Wheaton clawed its way back from the depths of a potential blowout and trimmed the deficit to 23-18.
At halftime, the score was 29-27, Pride. Junior captain Brandon Eckles carried the load in the first half both offensively and defensively, scoring 10 points before the break. Whether it was a catch and shoot three-pointer at the top of the key, or a nifty spin move and finish off the glass, Eckles got it done for the Pride.
Right out of the gate going into the second half, the Pride were mediocre. Springfield started to commit unnecessary fouls and had empty possessions on the offensive end. With 15 minutes to go in the game, the Pride were now trailing 40-33.
After the Lyons climbed out of a first half hole, it was now Springfield’s turn to battle adversity. The Pride was in need of momentum to chip away at a deficit that was quickly growing.
The fight for the lead started to intensify at the ten minute mark of the second half. Ross would get the ball in the post and will it into the hoop off the bottom block. But just as Springfield seemed to get back into the fold, DuBrow would pull up and put away a three-pointer to keep the Wheaton lead at 57-51.
Then it finally happened, the Pride was able catch a break.
Down the stretch the Lyons could not make a free throw when it mattered most (19-32 at the free throw line in the second half).
When great players see a weakness, they attack it head-on, and that is exactly what junior captain Andy McNulty did.
“When Wheaton was missing free throws, I just wanted to get them on their heels,” said McNulty. “I just tried to create contact and extend the game as long as I could. Fortunately, they missed a lot of free throws and we were able to inch ourselves into the game at the free throw line.”
Down the stretch in regulation, McNulty was almost automatic from the free throw line. No matter the situation, the thought process was the same: get the ball, and get to the rack.
As time in regulation continued to dwindle, and the Pride inched themselves back into the game, the once quiet Springfield faithful perked up. The Pride had a chance.
After Ross’s legendary floater to tie the game, the momentum could not have been any more on the Springfield’s side.
In overtime, the Pride would feed off of the crowd’s energy. Wheaton continued to do themselves a disservice by missing free throws, and with 30 seconds remaining in bonus basketball, DuBrow committed a traveling violation as the score stood at 83-80 in Springfield’s favor.
The Pride’s roster was thin for overtime, as four players fouled out before the conclusion of regulation (Keegan McDonough, Eckles, Heath Post, Stanley Davis).
With key players sidelined, most teams would falter, but the Pride kept their heads high and continued to fight.
“We just have that ‘next man up’ mentality,” said McNulty. “When one guy goes down, the next one has to step up. That is how it has been in practice as well, guys have been working hard all year long in practice and deserved to play, and they really stepped it up.”
On the final possession of the game, even after all of their missteps at the free throw line, Wheaton was only down by three.
As Berry lined up for a potential game tying three pointer, Ross ended the contest just as he did in the Pride’s emphatic win against Amherst on Dec. 14.
Ross levitated and swatted the ball out of the air, to put a period on the Pride’s heroic comeback.
In the beginning of the season, Springfield could not finish close games. But the Pride has now stashed a number of gritty victories under their belt, as late season basketball intensified.
Springfield head coach Charlie Brock believes that the development of the team has been outstanding.
“That is the evolution of the team, we fought hard, we played hard, and we practiced hard,” said Brock. “[Ross] and [McNulty] were not going to be denied when it came right down to it – whether it was the free throws or just great plays in general.”
The Pride ended up out rebounding Wheaton 51-47. It was a stout hearted effort down to the very end for the Pride, and that is how teams have to play come playoff time to succeed.
“You just have to continue to grind it out, and I think we did that tonight,” said Ross. “We attacked the glass and did a pretty good job rebounding in all. When you rebound well that creates offense and gets us going.”
The Pride will now face the No. 1 ranked team in the country for the fourth time this season.
Brock is ready to get to work on the Pride’s next matchup against the Beavers on Saturday.
“I will be working on that one tonight,” said Brock. “It is going to be a great game and we are all elated that we are going to be practicing tomorrow. We are familiar with them so there is not going to be anything new as far as that goes. We just have to get better at a couple little things.”
Gage can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org