SALEM, Va. – Aaron Walton-Moss grabbed the inbounds pass about 80 feet from the basket and was 13 seconds from sending Cabrini, playing in its first semifinal game, into the uncharted territory of a national championship game. In a few flashes, he found himself mere feet from the rim. With Illinois Wesleyan defenders converging on him, he remembered the words of coach Marcus Kahn.
“In practice every day, coach says, ‘Attack for a teammate,” Walton-Moss said. “When I went to the rack, I saw Jeremy open.”
As quickly as he dribbled upcourt, almost instinctively Walton-Moss kicked the ball out to the right corner, where Jeremy Knowles stood all alone. It didn’t matter that he missed a 3-point try a little more than a minute earlier and was previously ice cold from the perimeter.
He canned the 3-pointer 3.5 seconds remaining and sent the Cavaliers to Saturday night’s national title game, leaving them celebrating at center court after their 81-78 victory against Illinois Wesleyan.
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“I had confidence in my shot even though I was struggling,” Knowles said, who had missed his three previous long-range attempts and was 3-for-12 from the floor.
To a man, Cabrini struggled after a torrid first half that saw John Boyd score 24 of his career-best 34 points. With just under seven minutes left, the Cavaliers saw their best season on the brink: Down 70-61, with star Cory Lemons just 1-for-8 from the field, Knowles unable to find his shot and the Titans (23-8) dictating the tempo.
From looking lethargic, Cabrini broke out a press that shifted momentum. Inside of three minutes, the Cavs climbed within 72-70 at the final media timeout with 3:54 left. Illinois Wesleyan coach Ron Rose credited Kahn’s switch because, “I think they felt the game slip away and they became the aggressor.”
When his team entered the huddle during that final media break, Kahn felt supremely confident. Lemons was heading to the charity stripe, where he calmly drained two free throws to tie the score at 72-72, and Cabrini rediscovered the energy that helped it win a school-record 30 games before arriving at the Final Four.
“I think this game was similar to the last (31) for us. No quit,” Kahn said. “That’s the best thing about us.”
After Knowles miss a three-point try with 1:18 left, a free throw from Andrew Ziemnik pulled Illinois Wesleyan even at 76-all. And after Knowles converted a lay-up after a steal and assist from Boyd with 35 seconds left — he was just 1-for-10 from the floor before then — a jumper by Stephen Rudnicki produced the 13th and final tie of this thrill ride of a national semifinal: 78-78, 13.4 seconds left.
Following two timeouts, Cabrini inbounded the ball to Walton-Moss, with Kahn instructing both him and Lemons to attract traffic and ultimately, set up their teammates. As soon as he reached the free-throw line, a wave of Illinois Wesleyan defenders swarmed him.
Then Walton-Moss remembered what Kahn said about attacking for a teammate.
“I think tie game, you collapse in the lane and make them take a 22-footer instead of a five-footer,” Illinois Wesleyan’s Jordan Zimmer said, who led four double-digit scorers with 19 points. “But you give them credit, they made a tough shot.”
A shot that will give Cabrini a chance to win its first national championship in any team sport on Saturday night.
“It’s a dream come true,” Knowles said. “You never expect to be in this position. You just enjoy it today and get ready for tomorrow.”