March 13, 2009

Courtesy of St. Lawrence

Mar. 13:  In the 2008-09 season, there were 392 NCAA Division III men’s basketball programs, and only 60 teams made it into this year’s NCAA Tournament.  On Friday evening, the St. Lawrence University men’s basketball team not only proved to a packed arena why they were one of the top 16 teams in the country, but they proved it to the other 376 teams as well.


The Saints used two crucial comebacks in the second half to try and overcome an 18-point deficit late in the game, but nationally-ranked Richard Stockton was able to hold off the Scarlet and Brown in the final seconds, using clutch free throws down the stretch, to earn a 71-68 victory in the bitter-Sweet 16 round of the 2009 NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball Tournament, hosted by Richard Stockton in a packed Sports Center in Pomona, NJ.


Richard Stockton, most recently ranked sixth in the country according to D3hoops.com, improves to 28-2 and extends their winning streak to 16 games and will face Farmingdale State, the winner of the other game on Friday, Saturday at 7:00pm in the Sectional Championship, with a trip to Salem, Virginia and the Final Four on the line.  St. Lawrence finishes the season with a 22-7 mark.


The Saints’ Class of 2009, including captains Tom Wopperer (Manlius, NY/Fayetteville-Manlius), Rich Williams (Kingston, NY/Kingston) and Bela Vonnak (Canajoharie, NY/Canajoharie) accounted for 59 of St. Lawrence’s 68 points, led by Wopperer, who recorded a game-high 26 points off 10-for-18 shooting. Williams tallied 14 points while Vonnak, put in 19 and grabbed a game-high 12 boards to pace the Saints’ offense.

The Ospreys earned an early 6-2 edge before the Scarlet and Brown tied things up at 8-8 with 15:14 to play in the first, but Richard Stockton scored eight unanswered points in the ensuing minutes, including a tip-in that brought the home team’s fans to their feet, to earn a 16-8 advantage with 11:35 to go in the opening frame.  The Saints cut Richard Stockton’s lead to four with a three-point play from Wopperer and came within two off a shot underneath the glass from Vonnak.  The home team, who suddenly hit a cold spell in the middle of the half, found the two squads tied 17-17 after a big dunk from Williams with 7:55 still on the clock.


While the arc was neither team’s friend in the first period, Richard Stockton was first to find their rhythm from the perimeter in Jerome Hubbard, who scored three back-to-back shots from downtown late in the first.  His efforts helped the Ospreys distance themselves from St. Lawrence and earn a 34-23 score in favor of Richard Stockton with just under 1:45 to play before halftime. The home team held on to their 11-point lead heading into the break as the scoreboard read 36-25.  


St. Lawrence’s 14 turnovers in the first half provided the home squad with several scoring chances and they were quick to take advantage, scoring 17 of their 36 points of the Saints’ miscues. Vonnak, however, was crucial inside the paint as the Ospreys struggled to shut down St. Lawrence’s interior game, with the senior scoring 14 points off 6-for-9 shooting and a perfect effort from the line.


The word ‘comeback’ defined St. Lawrence in last 20 minutes of action.  Williams and Wopperer, who combined for 29 points in the second half, sunk four three’s in the opening seven minutes to chip away at Richard Stockton’s first period advantage.  The smiles returned to the Saints’ faces as they made it a five-point contest off a three-point bucket from Wopperer, 46-41, with 13:45 to play in regulation, but a three-point play by the Ospreys, followed by two made free throws, quickly gave the home squad a double-digit lead, 51-41, once again just over 90 seconds later.


Richard Stockton’s biggest lead of the contest, 62-44, came with 8:08 left, but a resilient Saints team was far from done as they used their efforts in the paint and at the charity stripe to make it a seven-point contest, 62-55 with 4:46 left to play.  The Ospreys’ Santini Lancioni made two free throws as the home team jumped ahead by nine, but St. Lawrence followed with a three-point play by Vonnak and a shot off the board from Wopperer to close the gap with Richard Stockton still up 64-60 with 3:39 remaining.


The Ospreys used the line to try and inch their way away from St. Lawrence but were unsuccessful as the Scarlet and Brown continued to dominate from the floor in the final minutes as a three-point play by Sharlow made it a one-possession contest, 68-65, with just under two minutes to go.


The two squads exchanged free throws before Wopperer knocked in a jumper to make it a one-point game with 52 seconds left on the clock.  The Ospreys tried to run out the shot clock and missed a shot but grabbed the critical offensive board, forcing St. Lawrence to foul.  Hubbard made both free throws to earn an eventual 71-68 victory, despite a last second attempt by St. Lawrence from three-point range.

 

The contest marks the final game for seniors Wopperer, Vonnak, Williams, and Devaun McFarland (Binghamton, NY/Binghamton), who have celebrated several individual and team accomplishments in the last four seasons, including a 75-34 record, a 45-11 Liberty League mark, as well as two conference regular season titles and one Liberty League championship.  As a class, they have amassed 3,742 points, 1,900 rebounds, 263 steals, and 274 blocks. This season, they have scored nearly 1,250 points, almost half of the entire team’s total points, while each of the three captains achieved the 1,000-career point milestone at some point throughout their senior campaign.