By Peter McClelland
(Wenham) – If you were at the Bennett Center on Tuesday night you came away with one for the memory bank that will come in handy when someone starts talking about amazing comebacks. This was a classic.
Gordon stayed alive in the Commonwealth Coast Conference tournament by overcoming deficits that ranged from 14 points with nine minutes left to 5 points with twenty seconds left and defeated visiting Nichols, 77-76, before a crowd that was nearly as amazing as the comeback.
This game had more ups and downs than some of the landscape around here.
Gordon Coach Mike Schauer was nearly apologetic afterwards. “I was fully prepared to talk to you after about trying to figure out how we let a great season fritter away. We did not deserve to win tonight.”
That comment has everything to do with the way Nichols played. They came in with a 6-10 CCC record and were given little chance of being the first team to beat Gordon at home. So much for wins/losses meaning anything!
Nichols played with the type of confidence we’re used to seeing from Gordon. They found all sorts of openings in a Gordon defense that went in ranked 4th in the country. But in the end all they came away with was enormous discouragement.
“Our kids didn’t deserve this,” said dejected Nichols Coach Dave Sokolnicki afterwards. “We did everything we needed to do to come out with a W.”
Maybe not quite everything, because they couldn’t stop a 15-point run by Gordon with nine minutes left in the game. A Chris Vallee (6’4” sophomore) lay-up had put the Bison up, 61-47, but it was nearly 4 ½ minutes before Nichols scored again. Meanwhile, the Gordon offense erupted with two 3’s by Jon Marstaller (6’5” sophomore – Naples ME), one by Mike Herr (6’5” junior – Lampeter PA), two lay-ups from Justin Kaufman (5’11” sophomore – Redding CT), plus one from John Beebe (6’1” senior – Clive IA).
So what you had after all this was Gordon in the lead, 62-61, with 4:49 to go. I’ll admit at the time that I thought Gordon would ride this momentum to a 5 to 10-point victory. How silly of me!
Nichols’ Casey Butler (6’5” senior) answered with a 3 after a near-steal by Jon Marstaller. Next Chris Vallee put in a last resort jumper and stole the ball from Jon Marstaller, and then Greg Sturdahl (5’9” freshman) cashed in two free throws. This 7-point run put the visitors ahead, 68-62, with 3:25 left.
The Scots, however, managed to get all the way back after Justin Kaufman spun down the lane for lay-ups to knot things at 71 with 1:11 left. This action got the crowd so stirred up that their noise nearly reached the pre-game music level!
But Nichols responded and played like they were in their own building! Scott LaTorra (6’ sophomore) came off the bench (he only played 2 minutes in the half) and took and made his only shot – a gutsy three with just under a minute left. Justin Kaufman was short on a three and then after a timeout Nichol’s John Costello (6’4” freshman) got loose for a lay-up with 20 seconds remaining. Down five, 76-71, with so little time left you couldn’t help but think that this Gordon season was about to be history.
That 5-point deficit put the Scots in a big hurry. Mike Herr wasted little time finding an opening in the right corner and let it fly. Bang and he was fouled as well. The foul shot was made. A timeout was called and now down just one the Scots had to get the ball back. With everyone tight on their man Nichols tried to inbound the ball under the Gordon basket to Casey Butler. For some reason the pass bounced off the Nichols player and into Jon Marstaller’s hands for an easy lay-up. So in a flash Gordon had the lead. Nichols was unable to come up with a shot and the Scots escaped near-defeat, 77-76.
Coach Sokolnicki wasn’t thrilled with the officiating down the stretch. “Chris Vallee fouled out with two minutes left on a call that was different down the other end. It’s a block on one end and a charge down the other. Then on the turnover at the end the Gordon players are yelling to foul and Casey (Butler) got pushed but there was no call.” Losing Chris Vallee was huge because he creates his own offense either inside or out and would have been taking shots at the end. No question that his 5th foul could have gone either way. The crucial turnover, though, was just a bad decision on the inbounds pass. There could well have been a foul but nevertheless passing the ball into a spot under the opponent’s basket with a defender close is not usually a good idea.
Coach Schauer insisted that his message to his players had been consistent throughout the game. “I told them that I have been telling everyone how much character the team has. We have a group of guys who care about each other and are willing to persevere.”
That 50-point second half was way out of character for Gordon. Usually quite deliberate they were in need of quick points most of the time. Watching them succeed in the “quick” game had me thinking that it is a style that they can play in the future. It’s nice to know that they have the guns to come back from deficits in a hurry if need be.
Justin Kaufman had the best half of his Gordon career with 16 points in that eventful second half. Nichols couldn’t find anyone to prevent him from spinning down the lane for lay-ups. His total of 24 points was the highest for him this season. Big game, big point total.
Jon Marstaller picked up 12 points in the second half and also ended up with 10 rebounds. Of course the steal at the end and the game-winning hoop were huge. Maybe even more important were the two 3’s during the run back from the 14-point deficit.
Mike Herr has returned to 2nd team All-CCC form over recent games. His outside shot is back. He may make a bigger shot in the future but that last-minute 3 from the corner in this one will be the one I remember for a while. It was definitely in the “season-on-the-line” category.
So another of the hurdles facing the Gordon team has been taken care of – winning a first round tournament game. Recall that in the last three years they have suffered early exits at the hands of Salve Regina, Roger Williams, and Anna Maria. Those on hand tonight know how close Nichols came to being added to that list!
The winning streak has reached eighteen and the overall record, 23-3. Those lofty stats didn’t seem to impress Nichols and I doubt that they’ll mean much to Colby-Sawyer the other winner in our bracket. Gordon will host them at the Bennett Center on Thursday night. The Chargers took out Salve Regina down in Newport tonight, 63-48. The Scots have twice defeated Colby-Sawyer this season including a first-time ever up at New London. They have the reigning MVP of the CCC in Andrew St.Clair and are no strangers to tournament play.
The other Thursday night game will be in the neighborhood as Endicott hosts supreme surprise winner Wentworth. Wentworth backed into the playoffs with a seven-game losing streak but found a way to edge top-seeded Roger Williams. Think how close Gordon came to feeling just like Roger Williams must feel!
The Gordon crowd was superb. They never gave in no matter what the score or situation was. I think that the players rode the crowd’s energy to stay positive when things looked bleak. I have never seen a Gordon crowd rush the floor after a game like they did, either. I’m thinking, though, that the danger of injury might suggest that rushing the floor may not be such a good idea. Do come back Thursday night, however, and bring that nonstop enthusiasm with you!
The Bison had four players in double figures. They have a chance to be very good next season. Coach Schauer told Coach Sokolnicki that the Nichols team reminded him of Gordon’s previous teams because of the good number of promising young players on the roster.
Gordon out-rebounded another opponent…………………Gordon didn’t score in the last 2 ½ minutes of the first half and trailed, 37-27 at halftime…………………………Justin Kaufman came into this game averaging 11.4 points per game. It was a thing of beauty to watch him spin by a defender and down the lane without drawing a charge.……………………..Justin and Jon played the entire second half and didn’t show it……………….Coach Schauer made eye contact several times during the game with a gentleman near me who was grading the officials………………….Gordon took a 20-15 lead after Justin drilled two 3’s in a row in the first half……………………You had to wonder about Gordon’s chances after one Nichols player put up an 3-point air ball and it landed in the hands of teammate Justin Lewis for a lay-up………………………Justin Lewis earlier gave the Gordon section something to chant about when he missed everything attempting a free throw………………….You know that the team is creating a stir when the President and a number of professors make appearances………………..Jerry Logan (6’ junior – Marietta GA) ended up with the ball at the end of the game………………………..Having to pay to get in had some folks looking for other ways to get into the Bennett Center……………………………Two more wins and a championship is being celebrated at the Bennett Center.