Above photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru
CLEVELAND- “I want to be in the fight.”
Those were head coach Clif Carroll’s words hours after his squad’s elimination from the NCAA Tournament in the Elite Eight round. And in the fight his Crusaders were. For an entire 45 minutes. They did not back down, and while Elmhurst emerged with the trip to the Final Four, defeating UMHB, 87-84, in heartbreaking fashion, Carroll could at least find solace in the fact that his team fell in a one-possession contest that was anybody’s game down the stretch.
“I feel like we played at times well enough to win,” Carroll said. “There were just a lot of things that happened tonight. Things out of our control, that we had to overcome. It sucks to end this way, in the Elite Eight, but I want to be in the fight. I want to have a chance.”
Of course, there are always two sides to that. Because while solace could be found in the fight, there was nothing that could stop the team from replaying the last minute of regulation through their minds. They led by three with under 60 seconds to play. But true to form, Elmhurst also raised its level of performance, managing to send the game into overtime tied at 77, before winning in the extra period.
“We were the type of team that could have won the whole thing,” Carroll said. “It just didn’t go our way tonight. We have to learn from the experience and figure out where it went wrong and what we can do better. But we can’t have any regrets. We left it all out there.
“Who would have known, two years ago, we took this job in the pandemic, with just two returning players that we could build something like this this quick?”
The answer: Very few outside of Belton. But UMHB defied the odds, anchored by a number of players who, when the last D-III NCAA Tournament was contested, were either at different schools or still in high school, dreaming about games like this.
“We had high expectations for ourselves this year, and people might have thought we were crazy,” Carroll said. “But we wanted to do what football did, and play for the big championship. We were very capable.”
\So much was packed into those six minutes of basketball, each team trading blows on both ends of the floor. The Cru entered the last minute of the second half leading 77-74, the product of two Ty Prince free throws, but Elmhurst’s Dominic Genco came up with a clutch shot of his own, scoring on what may have been the Bluejays’ final possession with 33 seconds left, also drawing a foul. Poised at the line, he sank the ensuing free throw, tying the game.
Kyle Wright’s three-point try from 25 feet out at the buzzer was just off the mark, and for the second straight night, UMHB played an extra five minutes of basketball. And similarly to Friday, the scoring was back and forth, with both defenses improving as the clock wound down.
But by the one-minute mark, Elmhurst led 85-81. That was until Wright finally swished his first three-pointer of the day with 32.1 seconds remaining, cutting the deficit to one. It was as close as the Cru got, however. Elmhurst extended the lead to three on a pair of free throws, setting UMHB up with one last shot, needing a three to push the contest into a second overtime.
And the Crusaders did put up a three-point attempt. But Josiah Johnson’s contested long-range shot was too strong, and bounced off the rim as the buzzer sounded. Johnson’s 3-for-19 shooting day did not help UMHB throughout the last 25 minutes, but it was more than the performance of one player that challenged UMHB. In fact, it could be argued that the deciding factor in the game came in the first half.
The Crusaders raced out to a 14-3 advantage within the game’s first four minutes, behind six early points from Luke Feely, and by the 5:04 mark of the first half, led 33-15.
But Elmhurst soon demonstrated why it too, was one win away from the Final Four. The Bluejays, following a similar blueprint to Friday’s comeback victory over Calvin, mounted an 18-7 scoring run, which saw Elmhurst cut what had been a substantial 15-point advantage to just two points, with 18.4 seconds remaining. Two free throws from Johnson on the other end with a tenth of a second left in the half made it 42-38 in favor of UMHB at halftime.
A major factor in that run that allowed Elmhurst back into the game came in the form of free-throw shooting. The Bluejays were 12-of-17 at the free-throw line in the first half, but UMHB’s chances from the charity stripe came at a much slower pace. The Cru shot a grand total of three free throws over the game’s opening 20 minutes.
“They got to the foul line, I’ll just put it like that,” Carroll said postgame of Elmhurst’s main source of points during the first half run. “They were getting to the foul line, and we weren’t. We had a 15-point lead and they cut it with two three-pointers and nine free throws.”
The ball of momentum was still rolling for Elmhurst to begin the second half, though, as the
Bluejays got on the board first, 30 seconds in on Wesley Hooker’s statement slam dunk. But in a pattern that progressed over the next 20 minutes, the Cru countered on its next possession in the form of a Johnson layup. Fast forward to the seven-minute mark, and UMHB still led by four. Once Elmhurst sliced the deficit to two, however, with 7:09 left, it was never widened, by either team.
The Bluejays took their first lead of the contest, 74-73, on Lavon Thomas’ layup off the glass, with just 98 seconds left in regulation, but Ty Prince responded right away, calmly swishing a pair of free throws on the other end. It eventually culminated in the dramatic finish to regulation, and despite the perceived lack of execution late, UMHB was in it the whole time, even when shooting was hard to come by. It proved to be a testament of the tenacity of a team that knew close finishes well throughout the 2021-22 season.
Here’s a closer look at the way Saturday night’s contest played out:
Perfection at the line: Carroll placed a huge emphasis on free throw shooting all season, especially following the Jan. 13 loss to ETBU, in which the Cru converted on just 43 percent of their 16 free-throw attempts. That loss at ETBU was the last for the team until Saturday night, and the Crusaders did all they could to take advantage of their opportunities at the line. UMHB was a perfect 14-of-14, led by Prince, who was six-of-six at the line in the second half.
Balanced offensive attack: The rotation was kept small for this one, as Carroll played just nine players, but those nine produced in a critical way offensively, especially for the first 40 minutes. Prince led the way with 21 points, and Wright (14), Feely (12) and Brooks (10) all scored in double figures. That kept Elmhurst’s defense on its toes, forcing the Bluejays to guard the perimeter in addition to protecting the passes into the paint for easy layups.
What Needs Improvement
Once Elmhurst found its footing, the Bluejays did not let up. While UMHB put together a number of exceptional defensive stops, Elmhurst scored well in the paint and around the rim, aided the second-half performance of Thomas, a 6’5, 280 lb forward/center, who made both of his field goals over the last 20 minutes of regulation, and went toe-to-toe with Prince and Feely on both ends of the floor.
Carroll: “We gave up way too much defensively, at the rim. We let them beat us at the rim and the free throw line.”
UMHB ends its memorable season under second-year head coach Clif Carroll with a 28-3 record. The Cru won 16 straight entering Saturday’s duel, and came back in the second half of a number of games to win, including the first-round victory over Chapman, in which UMHB closed the game out on a 19-1 run.
Carroll: “The great thing is, we’re going to return almost everybody. This won’t be the last time we make a run in the tournament.”
“We had a great year, a great run. Some of these games we won in the tournament were just miraculous. The last game, against Case Western Reserve, is something that I’ll never forget as long as I coach. I’m so proud of these guys for how far they’ve come.”
One Reply to ““We left it all out there”: UMHB men’s basketball’s season draws to a close in overtime loss to Elmhurst”
Will Josiah return to Belton ?