March 1, 2012
Red Dragons finish up with a title
Pull away from Alfred in ECAC outing
SUNY Cortland was not going to let this opportunity slip away.
With season-long stalwarts Jeremy Smith and Jesse Winter providing some clutch 3-pointers when it mattered most, the Red Dragons finally shook free from visiting Alfred University for a 76-69 victory in a season-ending endeavor entitled the ECAC Division III Upstate Men’s Basketball Championship.
“We just really wanted to win this because we’ve been in three championships this season, the first one of the season, the SUNYACs and this one, and we didn’t want to lose all three,” said junior guard Smith, whose team-high 19 points earned him the game’s MVP trophy.
Those previous title game appearances Smith was referring to were a 78-74 loss to the host school at the Widener University Tip-Off Classic back in November and the SUNYAC Championship game this past Saturday when top-seeded host Oswego turned back the Red Dragons 66-57.
When an at-large bid into the NCAA Division III tournament did not arrive on Monday, the Red Dragons headed off to this ECAC post-season consolation affair. This event usually has a larger field than just two schools, but not this season — which led to Alfred’s visit to Cortland’s Corey Gymnasium Wednesday night with a title on the line.
“At first when we found out it was only going to be one game it was kind of disappointing. But at the end of the day a championship is a championship, so we just sucked it up and came out and played,” said Smith.
With four players scoring in double figures, the Red Dragons were able to savor a final celebration to a successful 22-7 season. Cortland won 14 of its last 17 games, with all three losses to nationally-ranked conference unbeaten Oswego.
“Everyone was disappointed because we think we are an NCAA team,” said Cortland coach Tom Spanbauer of the team’s mood after not selected to the national tournament field. “That’s why we had to say, well, if we’re an NCAA team we had to walk out of our gym today doing what we did.”
What Cortland did was overcome a late 63-62 deficit with four minutes left to play by going on a 10-1 run that got started with back-to-back 3-pointers by Smith, featured a long Winter trey with the shot clock running down with 2:25 left to play and was capped by a Smith free throw at 1:02 that provided a comfy 72-64 cushion.
“IT SEEMED LIKE the second half was really a nice summary of our season,” said Spanbauer after finally putting away the Saxons (15-11) from the Empire 8 conference. “We would let teams hang around, and yet we seemed to make a big play when we needed to make a big play. And then we were able to make a couple of defensive stops and some big shots when it was really crunch time.”
This was a typically well-balanced Cortland effort, another trademark for this season.
— Spark-plug junior point guard Winter was in MVP consideration with his 16 points, five assists, four rebounds and two steals. He and backcourt buddy Smith both made four 3-pointers in the game, including the late spree the settled this outing.
— Do-it-all junior Harrison Hefele was in MVP consideration after scoring 16 points, grabbing six rebounds, handing out five assists and coming up with three steals.
— Invaluable junior sixth man Brian Manning was in MVP consideration after scoring 12 points, grabbing a team-high eight rebounds and also finishing with five assists.
Though Hefele and Manning were a combined 0-for-13 shooting 3-pointers, Winter was 4-for-7 from beyond the arc and Smith 4-for-8 from long range. And this team’s lone senior — back-up guard Nick Sutedjo — also hit a second half 3-pointer in his Cortland finale.
After making one of a dozen attempts beyond the arc in a first half Cortland still led 33-30, the Red Dragons were 8-for-18 over the final 20 minutes from deep.
“We just have such a balanced team that on any given night this year if somebody’s shot wasn’t falling or it’s not somebody’s night, we always had other guys step up,” said Winter. “That’s what got us got us 22 wins was the balance. When someone is not having that good night then somebody else can step up, and that’s what took us so far this year.”
That’s what upended Alfred, who got 19 points from guard Josh Parker, 13 points from Mike Branche and eight points and nine rebounds from senior center Derek Lewis.
AFTER BEING HELD scoreless over the opening five minutes, the Saxons overcame an early 11-2 deficit and actually led briefly at 21-20 before a Hefele swish from the side and a Manning three-point play being hacked on drive down the lane put the Red Dragons back in front.
Alfred coach Dale Wellman noted his team had not played in 10 days, which may have been responsible for his team’s slow start.
“It showed a little in the first five minutes, but we erased that and made it a good game. It was competitive and a lot of fun,” said Wellman. “I think our guys were pumped and ready to play. We didn’t think we’d play until Saturday, so everyone was happy to play earlier and not have to wait longer. We did a good job scouting them. They just did a better job knocking down shots.”
Alfred held second half leads of 57-54 and 63-62, though that final advantage could have been greater if not for a missed Parker breakaway dunk after a steal. That play did lead to a Pat Hollenbeck free throw for Alfred after being fouled trying to score following up Parker’s miss, but that’s when Smith and Winter took over.
And that’s when Cortland could start thinking about the promise of next season with everyone but Sutedjo returning. “We have high expectations. We’re really looking to make noise not only in the SUNYACs but the NCAA tournament,” said Winter.
Not making the NCAAs did not take away from what Cortland accomplished this season, in the eyes of the Red Dragons’ coach.
“We had a fun year,” said Spanbauer. “We talked after Oswego and say that, hey, we’re all disappointed that we didn’t win a championship but really our season was more about what we did do. We had a lot more did-dos than what we didn’t do. We didn’t do one thing, and that was win a (SUNYAC) championship. We did a lot of other things, and this was another ‘do’ tonight.”
To read this article and more, pick up today's Cortland Standard
Click here to subscribe