In a year in which the Lincoln University men's basketball team accomplished what no other squad did before it, an improbable finish ended the most memorable season in school history.
Playing in front of a hostile crowd at Virginia Wesleyan's Jane P. Batten Student Center in a NCAA Division III sectional semifinal contest, the 18th-ranked Lions had pulled the plug on the loud and vocal crowd by
opening an eight-point lead with one-minute, 59-seconds remaining. Then, without warning, the host and 7th-ranked Marlins turned the tables and pulled off a stunning rally to extend their Division III best winning streak to 25 games.
Virginia Wesleyan College sophomore TonTon Balenga capped one of the most dramatic comebacks in Marlin basketball history by swishing a wide-open 3-pointer from the corner with three seconds remaining to lift the Marlins to a dramatic 72-71 victory over the Lions in a classic of a Sweet 16 match-up Friday night.
Trailing 71-69 with 21 seconds remaining, Virginia Wesleyan worked the ball around quickly as time ticked away. The Marlins got the ball inside to junior standout Brian Adair, who alertly fired it back outside to Balenga, who was standing all alone in the corner. Balenga ripped a nothing-but-net three-pointer with three seconds showing, to evoke a deafening roar from the partisan crowd as Virginia Wesleyan took a 72-71 lead.
Lincoln, which had its 11-game winning streak end, had one more chance for a shot to take the lead, but saw Sami Wylie's final attempt - in which it appeared he was bumped by a VWC defender - knocked into the air by the VWC defense, securing the win for the Marlins. Balenga's three-pointer put the final touches on a game-ending 9-0 run in the final 2:05 for the Marlins, who trailed 71-63 after Lincoln senior All-American guard Kyle Myrick scored five consecutive points to give the Lions (25-5) their largest lead of the night sending the four busload of Lincoln students into a frenzy.
"It hasn't sunk in that we lost," Myrick said. "I have a bitter taste in my mouth because we were so close (to advancing to the Elite 8). It's going to be hard when reality sets in. Down the stretch we had some missed opportunities that we didn't take advantage of. On the last possession, we had a breakdown in the defense."
Myrick ended his magnificent two-year career with 1,737 points after scoring 34 points on 12-for-28 shooting. He finished the season as the Division III scoring champ with a 33.7 point per game average, the highest since Jeff Clement of Grinnell averaged 33.9 points in 1998. Myrick also scored an astounding 1,010 points during the 2005-06 season as Lincoln established a school record for victories and qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.
Myrick, who reached 30 or more points for the 10th consecutive game, became the 21st player in college basketball history and the first since Purdue's Glenn Robinson in 1994 to score 1,000 points in a single season. Myrick is the third Division III player to score 1,000 or more points in a single season. He joins Greg Grant of the College of the New Jersey (1,044 points in 1989) and Dave Russell of Shepherd College (1,037, 1975).
"I had an incredible career here and I think we finished it off on a good note. We put Lincoln on the map. Hopefully in the years to come, coach (Garfield Yuille) and coach (Eugene) Lett they can keep it going and Lincoln will be a force to be reckoned with."
Lincoln received a dynamite effort from sophomore Bryant Leach, who scored 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds. Sophomore Tyreek Byard added 10 points for the Lions, who had used a 14-4 burst over a three-minute period to turn a 59-57 deficit into a 71-63 lead. Brandon Adair tallied 24 points for VWC, hitting 11-of-16 field goals. Balenga and Tyler Fantin added 15 points each.
Unfortunately for the Lions, the Marlins refused to submit to their deficit and the clock. Behind the efforts of senior Marques Fitch and sophomores Fantin, D'Juan Tucker and Balenga, VWC reversed the momentum. Two Fantin free throws started the surge for the Marlins, who kept it going with key rebounding. VWC missed two consecutive shots, but pulled in the rebounds on each of them, before Fantin moved into the paint to score on a layup that also drew a foul. Fantin's three-point play cut the Lincoln lead to 71-68 with 1:16 to play.
The Lions moved back down court and got the ball to Myrick, who saw his shot go wide. Adair snared the rebound and Tucker was fouled moving down court.
He hit one of two free throws to cut it to 71-69 with 0:57 on the clock. Lincoln worked the ball around and fired a shot with 29 seconds to play, but missed the mark again and also missed the rebound when Balenga moved inside to take the loose ball. The Marlins called a timeout with 21 seconds to set up the play that capped the electrifying run.
Virgina Wesleyan led by as many as nine points in the second half and held the advantage most of the half, before Byard and Myrick sparked the Lions on a rally that gave Lincoln a 57-56 lead with 7:13 to play. There were three lead changes and two ties in the next several minutes, leading to a 10-2 Lincoln run for the 71-63 advantage with 2:05 on the clock. Lincoln hit on 4-of-12 three-point shots, while VWC hit 7-of-22, led by Balenga with four.
A pair of key statistics during the contest was Lincoln only collecting two assists on its 27 baskets while VWC had assists on 19 of its 23 baskets.
Virginia Wesleyan only committed 12 turnovers, with three of them coming in the second half. The Marlins made 19-of-25 free throws while Lincoln missed the front end of a pair of one-and-ones in the final four minutes.
Virginia Wesleyan led for most of the first half. The Lions led twice in the opening 20 minutes, 2-0 and 21-20. The Marlins constructed a 39-35 halftime advantage. They immediately stretched their lead to 44-35 in the opening three minutes of the second half after Tucker drilled a 3-pointer and Fantin scored an inside basket. However, Lincoln charged back behind a Myrick hoop and a pair of Leach baskets that pulled the Lions to within, 44-41.
From there, the game got better. Thomas Hickson threw down a dunk on a breakaway with 7:13 remaining to give Lincoln its first lead, 57-56, since it held a 21-20 edge late in the first half. It looked like Lincoln had control of the game when Myrick gave the Lions a 63-61 lead on a short jumper in the lane with 4:34 remaining. The Lions took their biggest lead of the game after Leach's layup expanded their lead to 66-61 with 2:57 remaining.