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Centre falls to Sewanee in SAA title game

Centre showed plenty of fight Sunday in the battle for its conference tournament championship, but Sewanee showed just a little bit more.

The Tigers made the biggest shots when it mattered most Sunday, sinking four consecutive 3-point shots in the final 2:22 to sink the Colonels’ bid for the Southern Athletic Association tournament title.

The last of those 3s, a shot from the right corner by Michael Barry with 2.4 seconds left, gave Sewanee a 62-59 victory in the championship game at Alumni Gymnasium.

It was a heartbreaking defeat for top-seeded Centre, which hosted the tournament after winning its second consecutive SAA regular-season championship and was looking to win its first league tournament title in five years.

“It’s hard to play three games in three days, really, really hard,” Centre coach Greg Mason said. “We gave it everything we had, but the last 2 1/2 minutes were pretty cruel to us. It was probably a really good game to watch, but I’m hurting for our guys.”

Sewanee (22-6) secured the SAA’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament and will play in Division III’s big dance for the first time since 1998. Meanwhile, Centre (23-5) must wait for Monday’s selection show to learn whether it will receive an at-large bid that will allow it to play in the NCAA for the first time since 2014.

“We’re definitely in the conversation strongly. I would love that, because this group, after what just happened, deserves something,” Mason said. “We deserved to win this game today, but you could say Sewanee deserved to win this game today.”

Sewanee was solid from 3-point range all day long, hitting 13 of 24 shots from behind the line. The Tigers’ most proficient shooter was Luke Smith, who went 6-for-7 from behind the line and scored a game-high 23 points hours after scoring a career-high 40 points in their semifinal win over Berry.

Smith hit the first two of Sewanee’s final four 3s, and then other players stepped up for the Tigers. Following a Centre turnover, Hunter Buescher tied the game at 59-all with 1:06 remaining. The Colonels missed two shots on the other end, and Smith rebounded the second. A timeout with 6.2 seconds left set the stage for the winning basket by Barry – his only score of the game.

“You’ve got to give them credit to shoot that well. They shot 51 percent from the floor … and their last four possessions they scored 12 points, and I don’t know where you ever see that,” Mason said.

Centre struggled from the outside against the zone defense of Sewanee, which has held SAA opponents to less than 30 percent from 3-point range. The Colonels, who were shooting 35 percent from long range, were just 2 for 15 in the first half and 6 for 26 overall from behind the line.

Jacob Bates led Centre in scoring for the third straight day with 22 points and also had a game-high seven rebounds, giving him 66 points and 25 rebounds in the Colonels’ three tournament games.

Tucker Sine scored 13 points, and Perry Ayers added 12 for the Colonels, who lost to the Tigers for the second time in nine days.

“I’m so proud of our guys,” Mason said.

Centre got consecutive 3s from Art Walker early in the second half to launch a 15-3 run after Sewanee had taken its largest lead at 41-31. The Colonels led 46-44 with 10:09 to play after Ayers scored six straight points to end that run.

The Colonels scored seven straight points to take control of the game, taking a 57-50 lead on Perry Ayers’ basket with 2:31 remaining.

“That kind of let us exhale a little bit,” Mason said.

But Sewanee and Smith, the SAA’s leading scorer, were not finished.

“I called timeout and the message was pretty much, ‘Let’s not let Luke Smith go hero ball,’ and that’s exactly what he did,” Mason said. “We talked about what we wanted to do, and he just rose above it and made plays.”

Centre had 2.2 seconds left to attempt a tying 3-point shot. Bates caught the inbounds pass near the free-throw line and tried to kick the ball out to Bailey Rakes on the perimeter, but Rakes could only manage an off-balance shot that missed the mark and sent Sewanee’s players racing toward center court for a celebratory dogpile.

SEWANEE 62, CENTRE 59

SEWANEE (22-6)

Matt Lee 0-1 0-0 0, Cam Caldwell 4-6 0-2 8, Jordan Warlick 2-7 0-0 6, Luke Smith 8-14 1-1 23, Hunter Buescher 5-11 0-0 13, Michael Barry 1-2 0-0 3, Jonny Crumly 1-1 0-0 3, Joey Knox 1-2 0-0 2, Jack Holloway 2-3 0-0 4. Totals 24-47 1-3 62.

CENTRE (23-5)

Art Walker 3-5 0-0 8, Jacob Bates 9-15 3-6 22, Bailey Rakes 1-7 0-0 2, Tucker Sine 5-11 0-0 13, Perry Ayers 6-12 0-0 12, Dawson Crump 0-4 0-0 0, Jarod Griffin 0-2 0-0 0, Jakob Spitzer 0-0 0-0 0, K.C. Purvis 0-0 0-0 0, Dustin Gerald 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 25-57 3-6 59.

Halftime–Sewanee 30-24. 3-Point Goals–Sewanee 13-24 (Warlick 2-5, Smith 6-7, Buescher 3-8, Barry 1-2, Crumly 1-1, Knox 0-1), Centre 6-26 (Walker 2-4, Bates 1-2, Rakes 0-5, Sine 3-8, Ayers 0-3, Crump 0-2, Griffin 0-2). Fouled Out–None. Assists–Sewanee 15 (Smith 5), Centre 6 (Crump 2). Rebounds–Sewanee 33 (Caldwell, Warlick 5), Centre 25 (Bates 7). Total Fouls–Sewanee 12, Centre 12.