NORTH ADAMS -- Not this year.
The MCLA men's basketball team was seeking its first MASCAC Tournament title since 1990 and the automatic berth in the NCAA Division III Tournament that goes with it. For 23 minutes, things looked pretty good for the Trailblazers.
Fifth-seeded Fitchburg State had other ideas, however, and used a 20-5 run midway through the second half to take control of the game. The Falcons went on to beat the No. 2 seeds 80-72 before a raucous crowd in the Amsler Campus Center.
"My first game here was nothing like it was today," senior forward Vernon Cross said. "The stands were packed. People were believing in us."
The fans in the gym believed in the Trailblazers until the very end, and when Ramon Viches hit two free throws with 1:52 left, MCLA had cut an eight-point deficit to two.
The Trailblazers put on a full-court press, Fitchburg's Jeremy Kimber passed over top of the press and Zach Valliere slammed home an uncontested dunk and MCLA got no closer.
Fitchburg's Mike Ingram-Rubin had a game-high 25 points and was named the tournament's most valuable player. He was one of three Falcons to score in double figures.
MCLA's John Jones had 16 points and a game-high 5 assists to lead the Trailblazers. Kenny Suggs scored 13 off the bench, Richard Johnson had 12 and Anthony Barbosa scored 10 in the second half.
"It's been a great journey," said Jones. "We started off with a slow start,
The Falcons will continue on and will find out who they play in the Division III tournament and where after the conclusion of today's tournament championship games.
MCLA led 35-27 at halftime, holding Fitchburg to one basket -- a 3-pointer by Ingram-Rubin, over the final 2:29 of the half. Suggs hit two free throws with 2.8 seconds left, giving MCLA the eight-point lead.
The Falcons opened the second half with a 5-0 run, cutting the MCLA lead to three. MCLA head coach Jamie Morrison had to smile because his team weathered that storm and built the lead back up. When Jones went coast-to-coast after Richard Johnson rebounded a free throw miss by Fitchburg's Valliere, it was 41-33 with 17:20 left.
Fitchburg tied the game with a 9-1 run and when Ingram-Rubin scored on a putback with 14:20 left, the game was tied at 42.
"We have a veteran crew with six seniors and we've been down at halftime before," said Fitchburg coach Derek Shell. "[The key was] rebounding and defense. That's it always."
The Falcons eventually went up 72-64 on a hoop by Kimber with 2:56 left. Morrison's team, however, wasn't done. The Trailblazers got baskets from Barbosa and Cross and two free throws from Viches, making it a two-point game. But the dunk by Valliere put the game back in Fitchburg's control.
The game might just have been lost at the free throw line. The Trailblazers, who were 6 for 8 in the first half, were 13 for 20 from the line in the second, including a 3 for 8 late in the second half.
"Thursday night we were 23 of 27 from the line. Tonight, free throw shooting in critical situations really put us behind the 8-ball," said Morrison. "If we make those shots, we probably surge ahead. If we surge ahead, we probably finish the job.
"We just couldn't get over the hump."
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