LATROBE – There were long stretches the Washington & Jefferson College men’s basketball team can look back on with pride. There were runs where the Presidents played with confidence and execution, in a hostile and loud environment, and outplayed the top-seeded team in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference tournament on its home court.
Those are the things that will go a long way next season for W&J’s many underclassmen. And it left you wondering where this kind of play from the Presidents was all season.
But in the end, Saint Vincent had too much rebounding and too much Isaac Turner for upset-minded W&J.
Turner scored a game-high 25 points, including 10 consecutive Saint Vincent points in the final 3:19, and the Bearcats overcame a five-point second-half deficit to defeat W&J, 85-75, Thursday night in a tension-filled semifinal game at the raucous Carey Center.
“I thought that was as good a small-college basketball game as you’re going to find,” W&J coach Glenn Gutierrez said. “The two teams played and competed hard. It was a great atmosphere.”
Saint Vincent (22-5) will host second-seeded Thomas More in the PAC championship game Saturday night. The Bearcats outlasted the Saints in overtime last Saturday to win the conference’s regular-season title and top seed for the postseason tournament.
For a large stretch of the second half, however, it seemed that the home-court advantage wouldn’t matter. W&J (9-18), which upset Bethany in Tuesday’s quarterfinals, was primed for another road win.
The Presidents overcame an 11-0 deficit to open the game and a nine-point halftime hole with some poised and savvy play in the second half. Despite being in foul trouble, the Presidents manufactured a 10-0 run to take a 55-53 lead with 12 minutes left.
The W&J lead grew to 62-57 after two free throws by Ben Cecchini and a 19-foot jumper by Zach Bellhy, who led the Presidents with 21 points. There was growing concern on the Saint Vincent side.
“That was par for the course with playoff basketball,” Saint Vincent coach D.P. Harris said. “W&J played tough and played hard. Certainly, we were the better team during the regular season and tonight.”
But not before more anxious moments for the Bearcats. A three-pointer by Cecchini – only his third of the year – made it 66-61 with less than seven minutes remaining.
The Presidents managed to protect the lead, even with its two leading scorers, Zach Bellhy and his brother Nate Bellhy, on the bench with four fouls.
That was until Turner, a 6-2 junior guard, began getting the ball at the top of the key and making daring drives to the basket. Turner’s drives that often led to free throws, along with some key offensive rebounds by the Bearcats, fueled their final charge.
An offensive rebound that was turned into a three-point play by Grant Latus gave Saint Vincent a 70-69 lead with 4:12 left. Turner followed by making a scoop shot at the end of a drive through lane.
“Turnovers and second-chance points, that was the difference,” Gutierrez said. “We had a five-point lead, then we had a couple of turnovers and and-ones. As athletic as (Saint Vincent) is, you can’t give them extra possessions.”
Turner then took over down the stretch. He drove the lane for another basket and converted six consecutive free throws to push the Bearcats’ lead to 82-73 with 20 seconds left, punching their ticket to the title game.
“The game is about players. Glenn and I can coach, and we can both go crazy, but you’ve got to trust your kids to win the game for you,” said a sweat-drenched Harris. “We’ve been doing that for 10 years, and that’s why we’ve been hanging banners and winning championships.”
The game was physical – even an official suffered a cut that required a bandage when he took a hard fall to the court – foul-filled and sometimes heated. It included two technical fouls and 71 free throws (43 by Saint Vincent).
Zach Bellhy’s 21 points pushed his season total to 503. The Fort Cherry graduate ends his career as the only player in W&J history to score 500 points twice.
“For four years, Zach Bellhy gave his heart and soul to this program,” Gutierrez said. “He played with passion and desire to be the best. He gave everything we asked, and then some.”
Cecchini scored 17 points and point guard Doug Johnson scored 13 points, including several key three-pointers in the second half, for W&J.
Turner’s 25 points included a 13-for-19 performance at the free-throw line. Point guard Chris Klimchok, who did not play in a quarterfinal win over Waynesburg because of an injury, had 20 points. Dillon Stith scored 16, and Latus had 11 points and 11 rebounds.