It was a game that was begging for heroes. A shirttail-out game. Ten lead changes. Four ties. Oh-my-gosh even with two minutes to play. Every possession amplified. Every basket a celebration. Every miss a calamity. Every heart hammering.
It could have been different, a blowout. Towson State was close to putting away Rider early in the second half. It was supposed to happen. It did not. A couple of turnovers, a couple of fouls, a Rider rally, presto -- a game begging for heroes.
Who would make the big plays? The big shots? That was what the championship game of the East Coast Conference tournament came down to last night at the Towson Center. Spin the wheel. Find the hero. Win the game. Take your bags to the NCAA tournament.
No matter that Towson was the top seed, Rider the sixth. No matter that the game was being played before a rollicking Towson crowd. Rider rubbed all that out. Played tough defense. Played smart. Took a two-point lead into the last 100 seconds.
No matter that Towson had shut down Darrick Suber, Rider's best player. No matter that Towson's Devin Boyd was struggling with his jumper. It all washed out. Everything. All the X's and O's and wouldas and couldas. Didn't matter anymore. The big plays would win it. So easy. So hard.
Towson had the ball. Down a basket. Rider set up in a triangle-and-two defense. One man guarded Boyd. One guarded Chuck Lightening. The other three sat in a zone. The defense had bedeviled the Tigers. They couldn't solve it. They couldn't get open shots. Those they got, they missed.
The crowd was up, beseeching. Rider's defense was tougher. Towson passed the ball around the perimeter. Looked inside. Kicked it back out. Looked inside. Kicked it back out. No place to go. The 45-second clock was shrinking, shrinking. Pass and move. Get nowhere.
Boyd, a 6-foot guard, took his act into the lane. A screen was set down on the baseline. A planned play. He waited until his man was blocked off, then cut across the lane. The pass was made. The ball was in his hands. He turned, sideways to the basket, and flung up a shot.
He landed with a splat on the floor. The referee's whistle blew. The gym went silent. The ball sailed into the air, a delicious little parabola, and settled gently into the net. "It was not the easiest shot I've ever had," Boyd said.
But maybe the biggest. The free throw gave Towson a one-point lead. Sixty-six seconds left. Rider brought the ball up. A couple of passes around the perimeter. Mark Wilcox, the point guard, a freshman, faked a pass to the inside and shoved the ball to his right, to a teammate, William Kinsel.
"He'd been doing that the whole game," Lightening said about Wilcox. "Fake the pass in, go sideways. He'd been going to the left most of the night. I had a hunch he might go right this time. I edged up a little closer. The pass came. I got my hand on it."
He batted it downcourt. The ball bounced free past midcourt. Lightening and Kinsel fought for it, seasons on the line. They pushed and shoved as they ran down the floor, no possession, no foul. Lightening had a step. He got to the ball first. Controlled it. Dribbled to the basket. A thunderous dunk.
The din was shattering. Spin the dial. Find the heroes. Win the game. Forty-five seconds were left. Suddenly, Towson was up three. Suddenly, Rider could not win the game with patience, with defense. The Broncs needed their own big plays.
Kinsel made a basket to narrow the lead to one, but Towson's John James, a freshman, answered by making two free throws with 19 seconds left. The first was flat, a line drive, a shot sweating bullets. It went in. So did the next. Spin the dial . . .
Fifteen seconds left. Rider brought the ball up. Ten seconds. Eight. Suber, Rider's superb guard, went up with a three-pointer. A timefor a hero. A basket would tie the game. The ball bounced off the backboard, glanced off the rim and bounded away.
There was a rebound, though. Rider got the ball back. One last chance. It went straight to Wilcox standing beyond the three-point line.
Smart. He'd already made three three-pointers. He was wide-open. He put up the shot. A basket would have tied the game with three seconds left, probably led to overtime.
The ball sailed high, descended . . . bounced off the left side of the rim. Towson's Terrance Jacobs grabbed it with two seconds left, got fouled, raised his hands in the air. The celebration began. Towson had made the great escape. Blown a 10-point lead. Owned the game, let it get away, grabbed it back.
Big plays. Boyd making the fall-away prayer. Lightening beating Kinsel to the loose ball. That was the difference. Period. Rider's last minute was a bad pass, two missed three-pointers. "We did everything we could to put ourselves in position to win," Rider coach Kevin Bannon said. The other team just had the heroes.