Lions lose top-notch match to Tennessee Wesleyan

7 years ago Triangle 0

Questionable buzzer-beater takes the game to overtime

Freshman point guard Dion Fair had 13 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists in Wednesday night's game / Triangle photo by Jessica Slade

Sebastian Fischer
Sports Editor

Wednesday night was one to remember at Summers Gymnasium. In a highly entertaining, breakneck match, the men’s basketball team (10-13, 5-4 in AAC) lost to conference rival Tennessee Wesleyan College (Athens), 107-104.

With a sure victory in sight for the Lions, the referees counted a Wesleyan three-pointer that was released just after the buzzer sounded to end regulation (Click here to view video or look below). The Bulldogs went on to win the game in overtime.

“It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but you’ve got to swallow it,” said Bryan Head Coach Don Rekoske after the game. “We have to accept it and move on.”

Lions start strong amid great atmosphere

Before tip-off, one could already sense that it was going to be no ordinary game. The stands filled to the last seat, cheerleaders lined up on both ends, Rhea County High School’s pep band amidst the numerous Bryan fans, and supporters of the visiting Bulldogs on the other end—the scene was set for a perfect night of college basketball on the hill.

The Lions, who were coming off five wins in the past six games, started the game roaring, leading by as much as 15 points after seven minutes. The Bulldogs seemed to have no answer to a Bryan offense hitting on all cylinders.

Freshman point guard Dion Fair especially was too skillful and fast for Wesleyan. In the first half, Fair recorded four assists. Even more than the numbers show, his love for playing basketball infected the crowd and left his opponents watching in awe.

“It was an up-tempo game and we controlled the tempo the way we wanted to play,” said junior forward Tim Fortenberry, explaining his team’s energetic start, also praising his team’s running game.

But Tennessee Wesleyan (13-9, 7-2 in AAC) entered the match as the second AAC-seed for a reason. The Bulldogs fought their way back into the game, living off a decent 35.7 three-point percentage in the first half.

Fortenberry said that the Lions played good defense as a team, but that just wasn’t enough. “[Wesleyan] was just hitting every shot,” he said

At the end of the half, however, the lead for Bryan was still comfortable as the teams went into the locker room at 40-33.

In the second period, the Lions continued where they had left off. Tennessee Wesleyan was now pressuring deep in Bryan’s half, but that left room for Bryan’s shooters. Guards senior Lavonte Henderson and junior Rob Riley displayed some great combination play and found themselves with lots of space to drive to the basket. At the end of the game, they would have a combined score of 55, Henderson leading the Lions with 31 and adding 10 rebounds for a double-double.

Career night for Wesleyan’s Shannon Smith

But Tennessee Wesleyan had answers again, especially in the person of freshman Shannon Smith. The guard had a career night, recording 42 points for the game.

“You have to have players make big plays in those kinds of situations,” said Wesleyan head coach Mike Poe, commenting on his player’s performance. “[Smith] certainly had a great game.”

Combined, the Bulldogs hit 69.4% of their shots and 61.5% of their three-point attempts, and the Lions margin, which had grown to as much as 11 points, was melting significantly toward the end of the game.

With less than six minutes to play and the Wesleyan supporters for the first time drowning out the Bryan fans, a layup by junior wing Desmond Crisp meant the first lead of the game for the Bulldogs—75-74.

Buzzer-beater pries victory out of Lions’ hands

Officials ruled that the ball had left Wesleyan senior wing Jesse Booher's hands before the buzzer. This photo suggests otherwise / Photo courtesy of Jon Slater

Again it was Henderson and Riley who brought the Lions back on the winning track. The fans stood to their feet and started celebrating what seemed to be a secure victory as “Philly” Riley drove to the basket with 2:10 to go, got fouled and converted the free throw to make it a three-point play and push the Lions’ lead to five. Little did they know that the climax of the evening was still to come.

Wesleyan came back one more time and, trailing by three points, had possession of the ball with five seconds on the clock. The Bulldogs gave the ball to their shooter, senior wing Jesse Booher, who hit six out of seven three-pointers that night. Booher hit a long three at the buzzer, but the ball had left his hands a blink after the buzzer had gone off. The referees, however, deemed it good and under protest from the fans, the game went into overtime.

Bulldogs take home the win in overtime

In overtime the Bulldogs had the momentum. They answered two points by Riley with a three-pointer by Wesleyan junior point guard E’Jay Ward to take the lead that they would hold to the end. Trailing 107-104, Bryan had one more possession, but couldn’t find its shooters, so Fair ended up taking a shot that bounced off the rim.

“I told the team after the match that there is bad pain and good pain, and we’re experiencing the latter. We played at an exceptionally high level,” said Rekoske. “In 25 years of coaching, this was one of the best games.”

“It was a hard -fought game between two outstanding programs, a great game to be part of,” said Poe.

Rekoske content with team’s development

While the Bulldogs left the field celebrating, a memorable and exciting night of basketball for the Lions and their fans had come to a bitter end. Instead of being tied for second place, the Lions are now fourth in the AAC.

Nevertheless, Rekoske found encouraging words for his team. He said that there’s a dramatic improvement in the way the team plays now compared to the beginning of the season.

“I’m proud of the progress we’ve made,” he said. “We play better on both ends of the court and rebound much better. The margin for this team to be at the top of the league is razor thin. That is painful but encouraging at the same time.”

With seven games remaining in the regular season, Bryan travels to Montreat (N.C.) College on Tuesday and returns to Summers Gymnasium on Thursday, facing Virginia Intermont College (Bristol, Va.).