In a mere 5.8 seconds Saturday afternoon, the college basketball teams at Washington & Jefferson and Bethany packed more excitement into the missed free throw than the usually ho-hum play has seen in decades.
And when the game was over, Bethany had a hard-fought 66-64 victory that left W&J eagerly awaiting the rematch in the regular-season finale Feb. 22 in West Virginia.
Locked in a tight and tense Presidents’ Athletic Conference game, Bethany’s Pedro Lalor stepped to the free-throw line with 5.8 seconds remaining to shoot the front end of a potential game-clinching one-and-one with the Bison protecting a 64-62 lead.
Lalor missed the shot, and that’s when an already entertaining game got wildly interesting.
A W&J player jumped and grabbed the rebound of Lalor’s missed free throw, but on the way down was stripped of the basketball by Bethany’s Leslie Addy, who quickly put it back up and in the basket for a 66-62 lead.
Then, without hesitation, W&J threw a long pass upcourt to Mitch Locher, who made a driving layup and was inexplicably fouled by Addy with two seconds left.
Trailing 66-64 and Locher going to the free-throw line in an attempt to complete a three-point play, W&J had to make a strategic decision. The Presidents could tell Locher to make the free throw and then try to get a steal on the ensuing in-bounds pass. Or, Locher could intentionally miss the free throw and W&J would bank on getting the rebound and a game-tying basket.
“We didn’t tell Mitch to miss the free throw,” W&J coach Glenn Gutierrez explained.
But Locher did miss. However, W&J sophomore guard Tyler Haas charged down the side of the line and pulled the rebound away from two other players. Haas turned and launched a short jump shot from the right baseline as time expired.
“From my vantage point, it looked like it was going in,” Gutierrez said.
Instead of going in, the shot fell short, hitting the rim and caroming harmlessly into the lane.
“That happened so quickly, I didn’t know what to think,” Bethany coach Andy Sachs said.
The win keeps Bethany (6-1, 13-3) on the heels of PAC leader Saint Vincent (7-0, 14-2). W&J falls to 3-4, 8-8.
That W&J even had a chance to force overtime or win was amazing when you consider the laundry list of things the Presidents did wrong or had working against them. They committed 22 turnovers – 12 more than Bethany – and attempted 13 fewer shots than the Bison. And junior forward Nate Bellhy, the Presidents’ leading scorer, was held to eight points and sat out the final 11:34 after being accidentally poked in the eye.
W&J, however, stayed in the game because it had 16 points from point guard Doug Johnson and 11 from Mike Resnik, and slowed Bethany’s offense down the stretch with a sticky zone defense.
“I’m proud of our effort. We played our butts off,” Gutierrez said. “To me, that was a win, though it doesn’t go down in the scorebook as that.
“We got to the point where every possession was critical. Before the game, we said that we had to do two things to win: rebound and take care of the ball. The latter is because forcing turnovers is such a big part of Bethany’s game. We did a good job of rebounding, but not taking care of the ball.”
Until the final six seconds, the key play in the game was when Bellhy was injured. He had stolen a pass at midcourt – and would have had an uncontested layup -- but was poked in the right eye by a Bethany player and fell to the court. No foul was called on the play.
At that point, Bethany led 49-45.
With Bellhy on the bench, the Bison scored the next nine points, including a shot from the side of the lane and a three-pointer by forward Kevin Jackson, who had a gme-high 23 points.
Suddenly down 13 points, W&J answered with a 10-0 run, which included consecutive three-pointers by Johnson and Nick Martin, to pull to within 58-55. The Presidents never did regain the lead. They closed to within 62-61 when Resnik made one of two free throws with 3:16 left.
“All teams have warts, and Glenn did a good job of exposing us,” Sachs said. “We had a 13-point lead and their best player was out of the game. Give W&J credit for fighting back. The 22 turnovers we forced were the key. That’s what we have to do. When we don’t do that, we’re not very good. We turn people over and create some offense.”
Tyrone Smothers scored 19 points for Bethany and Delonte Joyce had 12.