KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Lions are out of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics National Tournament, but it took five quarters and more than 40 minutes force them into elimination.
Southwestern Assemblies of God University fell to Montana's Carroll College 87-80 in overtime of the NAIA National Championship Tournament's second round Friday at the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium.
Carroll (28-5, 15-3 Frontier Conference) entered the game the NAIA's No. 4 team facing No. 16 SAGU (24-9, 12-6 Sooner Athletic Conference).
Though it’s not a bad place to end a season — the fifth season consecutive season Waxahachie's team reached the national tournament — Lion Head Coach Donnie Bostwick said the loss was a tough pill to swallow.
“It’s tough not [being able] to coach this group another game," he said. "They’re a special group who really bought into shining for Christ. We had our chances and I am so proud of my guys for all they did today and this season. They represented Christ and SAGU well.”
The road to the end of the season almost mirrored the peaks and valleys of their slugfest with Carroll, though.
With less than two minutes left in the first half, the Saints held a six-point lead, but guard Josh Swearingin sparked an 8-2 run and swung the momentum in the Lions' favor, coming off the bench to score the final four points and give SAGU the 36-34 in the final 60 seconds of the half.
While bench play powered SAGU in the first half, senior Keyunta Watkins awoke in the second. Carroll and its defense were able to shut down stand-out senior Keyunta Watkins and hold him to only five points before halftime.
By the 14-minute mark, Carroll, behind the hot shooting of guard Dane Warp, tied the game at 44 and shifted the momentum in the Fighting Saints' favor. During the next six minutes, the Warp, who sunk an uncontested 3-pointer, and Carroll led an 18-10 run and took an eight-point lead — the largest of the contest — that earned a 62-54 edge.
That's when the SAGU's dynamic 5-foot-8 playmaker flipped the switch.
Watkins drained a stepback, beyond-NBA-distance 3-pointer and outmaneuvered half of the Fighting Saints' defense en route to a layup during back-to-back possessions. He also added a pair of free throws and mid-air adjustment three and went on to score eight of SAGU’s final 10 points in regulation.
He hit three 3-pointers in the second half. One of those could have sealed the game before the fourth quarter buzzer sounded.
“Key is a warrior,” Bostwick said. “He has that special ability to rise to the occasion and make big plays. He gave us a seven-point lead with 2:15 left. One stop and we move on. There were about 10 plays that could have changed the outcome.”
Carroll's Ife Kalejaiye, however, made two free throws and tied the game at 68 with 1:44 left — enough to send the game into the two-minute overtime without its second-leading scorer.
Match Burnham, who finished the game with 18 points, fouled out, but Carroll proved what its capable of when its deep bench steps up to the proverbial plate and continues the strong trend at the free throw line.
The Fighting Saint's went 41-for-44 from the charity stripe in their first two NAIA tournament games against SAGU and Iowa's Mount Mercy, beating each team by 13- and seven-point margins.
“For the most part we made the guys we wanted to take the shots, and to their credit they hit them," Bostwick said. They shot 51 percent for the season, 43 from three, and above 80 percent as a team from the Free throw line. We still fought hard and had that one in our hands."
During the opening minutes of overtime, Isaak Rowe stole the ball, drove the length of the court and finished with a slam dunk that drew a foul and turned into a 3-point play. Carroll, though, relied on time, a game-changing corner three from Kalejaiye and its free throw proficiency to first take the lead and then keep it.
The Fighting Saints finished a perfect six-for-six from the free throw line, which gave them the edge they needed to end SAGU’s season despite Watkins scoring 19 of his game-high 24 points in the second half and recording three steals.
Though he was one of four players in double figures — Williams scored 18 points, Rowe added 15 and Kentton Williams had 11 — it wasn't enough to top Carroll, Burnham and Kalejaiye's career-high 19 points.
"We tried attacking their player of the year candidate who had four fouls late but could not get the official to make the call and then he got two touch fouls," Bostwick said about Zach Taylor, who averages 16.9 points per game. "Good players often get protected. Sometimes when you try hard to draw a foul, you end up forcing things. There is always a call or two that could go either way late, but that's basketball. We had our chances. I am so proud of my guys for all they did today and this season. They represented Christ, SAGU, and I love them like sons."
Thirteen of the 15 players — including key rotational pieces Rowe, Swearingin, Williams, Adrian Palacios, Dareny Sims and Lance Tipton — that reached the national tournament this year are expected to return next year. Only Watkins and forward Junior Mireles will graduate this summer.
Marcus S. Marion can be reached for story idea submissions or concerns at (469) 517-1456. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcusMarionWNI.