SALEM, VA –
Cam Earle stood chest to chest with Nebraska Wesleyan’s Cooper Cook.
With 2:15 left in overtime and the Pride trailing 81-78, Cook swung the ball under Earle’s torso. Earle poked the ball loose and sent it between Cook’s legs.
As the ball tumbled towards midcourt, a mob of maroon and yellow jerseys were in hot pursuit of a crucial possession.
As the ball rolled across the floor of the Salem Civic Center, time slowed down. Springfield had put together its greatest postseason run in program history to get into the game. Now, the final product of that historical run hung in the balance.
The ball continued to lurch its way across the hardwood.
From the homogenous group of maroon and yellow, Earle emerged. As the ball continued to crawl down court, Earle scooped it up with two hands and made a break for the opposite hoop.
As he worked towards controlling the ball, Earle’s teammate, Jake Ross, bolted down the floor to form a two-on-one fast break.
While Ross made his way into the offensive zone, Earle struggled to maintain full possession of the ball. In his fight to asset control, Earle overcompensated and dribbled up near his shoulder and lost his handle.
The whistle was blown.
Carrying. Prairie Wolves ball.
Fast forward one minute and eight seconds.
The Pride’s Andy McNulty shot and missed a 3-pointer with 1:06 to go in the overtime period. After several Nebraska Wesleyan free throws, Springfield trailed, 88-78. The Prairie Wolves’ Jack Hiller corralled the rebound with both hands and sent an outlet pass up the sideline to Deion Wells-Ross.
With 44 seconds remaining, Wells-Ross had the ball at the top of the key with Earle defending him. Wells-Ross planted his left foot and spun with tremendous speed around Earle. As he accelerated into the paint, Jake Ross came in to defend the ensuing shot. As Ross entered the paint, Wells-Ross elevated. Just as Ross entered the paint, Wells-Ross elevated just enough to slam the ball through the hoop for an emphatic slam dunk. The slam sent the Prairie Wolves’ fan section into a hysteria. Wells-Ross looked to the group in the corner of the gym and threw his hands up in excitement.
Nebraska Wesleyan was headed to the National Championship. Springfield was headed back to Alden Street.
The Pride come up short in the national semifinals
Springfield College men’s basketball fell to Nebraska Wesleyan, 90-78, in the Division III National Semifinals in Salem, Va. Friday night. The Pride’s Jake Ross finished with 21 point and nine rebounds. Andy McNulty had 17 points.
“I have had 38 teams and I have never been prouder to be a part of any team as much as I’ve been proud of this one,” said Springfield head coach Charlie Brock.
“Tonight’s game was a great game. Whenever you get into an overtime game it is highly competitive. I’ll leave it at that. I think we could have done some things better. Hats off to them (Nebraska Wesleyan). They were outstanding. They shot the ball well. They outrebounded. They got us a bit more on the offensive glass than can be survived. I think that was one of the things that the game came down to.”
Last offensive possession of regulation
With 0:29 seconds left in regulation, the game was tied, 73-73.
Andy McNulty held the ball under his left arm near mid court for 16 seconds to make sure Springfield got the last possession.
Eventually, McNulty worked the ball over to Ross. With the shot clock winding down and Ross covered by two Prairie Wolves defenders, things did not look good. Ross put up a desperation shot, but it came too late. The Prairie Wolves’ defense forced a shot clock violation.
“We looked for a ball screen on the side with Jake (Ross) and Andy (McNulty) on the weak side,” said Brock. “ We didn’t get off the screen the way we would have liked and they cut off a couple of lanes that we were hoping for. That’s just the way it went.”
Nebraska Wesleyan had an opportunity at the end of regulation to win the game with a desperation 3-pointer, but it came up short.
“I didn’t think those possessions (at the end of regulation) were any different than any others,” said Brock. “With the zone (defense that Nebraska Wesleyan plays), it’s not something you can script as well like when teams play man to man. Shots didn’t go down. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if they had.”
The Pride held their own against the Prairie Wolves in total rebounding, but when it comes to solely offensive rebounding, Nebraska Wesleyan was dominant.
The Prairie Wolves secured 19 offensive rebounds in the game.
“Absolutely offensive rebounding,” said Brock when asked of the difference in the game. “They got 19 on the game. We gave up 15 offensive rebounds in the second half. We ended up having to jimmy some players around a bit with fouls. That may have hurt our situation when taking care of the defensive glass, but that (offensive rebounding) certainly was the factor.”
Springfield went 3-7 (43%) from the free throw line on the night. Nebraska Wesleyan shot 16-23 (70%).
Ross and McNulty each went to the free throw line with under two minutes left in regulation in a one-and-one scenario, but were not able to cash in.
Missed free throws down the stretch helped the Prairie Wolves get back in the game, and eventually, win in overtime.
Leaving a legacy
It’s fair to say that the 2017-2018 Springfield College men’s basketball team was the best basketball squad to ever wear a Springfield jersey. Seniors Brandon Eckles, Andy McNulty, and Ben Diamond led the charge for the Pride all season.
“There is a whole lot more than what you see statistically from Andy hitting a 3-point shot [against Hamilton],” said Brock. “[Ben Diamond] played 27 minutes in game one last weekend and was critical in the win. Brandon [Eckles] has shot extremely well and got us off to a great start in the game against Cabrini a couple weeks ago.
“The leadership they took on as seniors is way more profound than playing great minutes or almost having a triple-double. Just a good example of good kids leading the way.”
McNulty finishes his Springfield career with 975 total points.
“That’s all I wanted to do. In four years, leave a legacy,” said McNulty .This run was pretty special. We left our fingerprints and I hope these younger guys take that role and keep it going.”
Ross, a sophomore, is thankful for what the seniors brought to the program.
“I love these guys. I love these seniors,” he said. “You guys don’t understand how close we are. I don’t think there are a lot of teams where you can say ‘I’ll room with any guy on the team and have no problem with it.’ I am more upset for them (the seniors). I’m going to miss them.”
Of course Brock wishes he and the team could be playing another day, but he recognizes that the Pride’s journey to the semifinals was exciting for more than just the team.
“It was fun. It was a great run,” he said. “I hope we gave a whole lot of other people joy throughout the process as well. Sport is unique in that way. We feel sour about it right now, but the joy that came from the ride was second to none.”