It was a finale that had all the makings of a tournament highlight reel. But for the Hampton University Pirates, the end wasn't the dramatic, happy one they envisioned.
Instead of a buzzer-beating jump shot like so many other March basketball tournaments have provided through the years, the lasting image of Wednesday night's 57-56 South Carolina State victory over the Pirates will be of Hampton guard Brandon Tunnell fighting back tears after his 15-footer hit the front of the rim and fell to the ground as the final buzzer sounded in Joel Coliseum.
The missed shot helped the No. 2 Bulldogs advance to a Friday night Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference semifinal. The Bulldogs (17-13) will play the winner of tonight's Bethune-Cookman vs. Norfolk State contest.
The seventh-seeded Pirates (16-16) will be left wondering why they came up short yet again in a game in which one shot would have turned a loss into a win.
"That's March Madness," Hampton coach Kevin Nickelberry said. "It was a good shot. We got an open look at the end of the game. That's all you can ask for."
The Bulldogs focused their defensive attention in the final seconds on Hampton guard Vinny Simpson, who had a game-high 22 points, including a 5-for-7 performance from 3-point range. When Jackson drove to the basket as the clock was ticking down, he spotted Tunnell just to the right of the foul line.
"The decision I made was perfect," Jackson said. "I penetrated and got guys collapsing." Nickelberry and Tunnell agreed.
"Actually, I thought the shot was good," said Tunnell, who finished with 11 points. "It just didn't go our way."
The Pirates trailed the entire second half, but time and again, they put pressure on the Bulldogs. On nine occasions in the final 20 minutes, Hampton had the ball and a shot to tie the game or take the lead. Twice in the final four minutes, the game was tied.
"I really thought it was an even game the entire night," Bulldogs coach Tim Carter said.
Carter said his years of experience as a head coach still don't completely prepare him for what transpired in the final nine seconds. "You start to say the same thing," Carter said. "Lord, help my team. You hope and pray that it goes your way."
On Wednesday, it was the Bulldogs who persevered. Behind the play of freshman Jimmy Williams, who had a team-high 12 points, and the 6-foot-8, 265-pound Josh Jackson, who added 11 points in 15 minutes of action, S.C. State effectively countered Hampton's inside tandem of Theo Smalling and Michael Freeman.
Jackson was instrumental in getting Smalling and Freeman into foul trouble. When the Pirates' top two post players were on the bench in the first half, S.C. State was able to fight back from an early nine-point deficit. S.C. State took the lead late in the first half and was up 29-25 at halftime. The Bulldogs couldn't pull away, though, never leading by more than seven points.
S.C. STATE 57, HAMPTON 56
HAMPTON (16-16): Pellum 1-4 1-2 4, Simpson 7-14 3-9 22, Tunnell 3-8 4-7 11, Smalling 1-1 2-2 4, Freeman 2-6 2-3 6, Brooks 0-2 0-0 0, Tolson 0-3 0-0 0, Morgan 0-0 0-0 0, DeGroat 2-2 2-2 6, Harrison 0-1 0-0 0, Ntoko 1-2 0-0 3. Totals 17-43 14-25 56.
SOUTH CAROLINA STATE (17-13): J.Johnson 1-4 2-4 4, Burton 2-4 3-3 8, Williams Jr. 5-11 1-2 12, Flagler 4-11 0-0 8, Telfare 2-8 0-0 4, Jackson 5-7 1-4 11, K.Johnson 0-1 0-0 0, Bennett 3-8 2-2 10. Totals 22-54 9-15 57.
Halftime—SCSU 29-25. 3-point goals—Hampton 8-17 (Simpson 5-7, Ntoko 1-2, Tunnell 1-3, Pellum 1-4, Tolson 0-1), SCSU 4-14 (Bennett 2-5, Burton 1-1, Williams Jr. 1-3, K.Johnson 0-1, Telfare 0-4). Fouled out—None. Rebounds—Hampton 33 (Ntoko, Smalling 6), SCSU 31 (Williams Jr. 7). Assists—Hampton 7 (Tunnell 4), SCSU13 (Bennett 3). Total fouls—Hampton 17, SCSU 16. A—4,974.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times