Sometimes it takes a miracle. Unfortunately for the Cal Poly Pomona Broncos, they were on the wrong end of a miracle Saturday in the NCAA Division II men’s basketball championship game as they lost to Findlay (Ohio), 56-53, in overtime on a last-second step-back three-pointer at the buzzer by Tyler Evans.
It was the end to a magical postseason for the Broncos, who have traveled more than 10,000 miles since the tournament began, from Honolulu to Seattle to Bellingham, Wash., to Memphis, Tenn., to Springfield. No wonder they took to calling themselves the road warriors.
After trailing, 30-20, at the half and 36-22 with just over 16 minutes remaining in the second half, the Broncos went on a 13-0 run in 8 minutes 22 seconds to cut the Oilers’ lead to 36-35. That set up an exhilarating finish at the Mass Mutual Center.
“There is not much you can say,” Pomona Coach Greg Kamansky said. “We have won a lot of those close games, but today was not our day. I am proud of the way our team fought. When he were down 14, I went off on the guys and told them not to quit -- to give the best they got.”
The Broncos knew it would be a challenge to play the Oilers, who were ranked No. 1 nationally all season and came in with a 35-0 record. Pomona was seeking to become the first unranked team since North Alabama in 1979 to win a Division II championship. It was the Broncos’ third appearance in the Elite Eight in the last seven years, more than any team in the tournament, and their fourth appearance overall.
Broncos guard Walter Thompson made a three-pointer with 7:08 to play to tie the score at 38. Larry Gordon’s three-pointer on the Broncos’ next possession gave them a 41-40 lead. Pomona center Tobias Jahn made one of two free throws to tie it, 42-42, with 1:42 remaining, a score that held up until the end of regulation.
The Broncos had two chances to win it on their final possession. Austin Swift missed a three-point attempt and Thomson grabbed the rebound, but his jumper was short and the game went into overtime.
A three-point play by Gordon gave the Broncos a 51-48 lead three minutes into overtime. The Oilers went on 5-0 run to take a 53-51 lead with 24 seconds remaining before Gordon’s basket tied it with 53 seconds left.
The Broncos played great defense on the Oilers’ final possession, forcing a held ball with 2.4 seconds remaining, but Findlay retained possession. After a timeout, Evans caught the inbounds pass and dribbled away from the basket before making his game-winning shot -- his only basket of the game in four attempts.
A crowd of 4,885, most of whom appeared to be Oilers fans, was loud from the start as Findlay took an early 10-4 lead.
The Broncos would rally to tie, 18-18, with 7:25 left in the first half, but the Oilers closed the half on a 12-2 run in which five different players scored. They moved the ball quickly up the floor, preventing Pomona from setting up its signature matchup zone, and hit easy shots from inside the foul line.
Gordon, the Broncos’ best player, was scoreless in the half. He admitted after the game that he was rushing things. Kamansky said he told Gordon at the half to stay physical and let the game come to him. The difference was striking. Gordon had 17 points after halftime, hitting six field goals. He and Findlay’s Morgan Lewis engaged in a compelling one-on-one duel.
Gordon, a 6-foot-5 senior from Montclair High, is the only player in Pomona history to accumulate 1,500 points, 950 rebounds, 500 field goals, 375 free throws, 125 steals and 50 blocks. He is the Broncos’ second leading scorer and all-time leading rebounder.
“He got a lot of isolation matchups because [the Broncos] had a lot of great shooters so we couldn’t double him,” Lewis said. “In the second half, he was able to post up and go right at me. I also had to be concerned about his rebounding because he was averaging 10 rebounds a game. My teammates helped me a lot and today proved that one man can’t beat a whole team.”
But Gordon came awfully close.