By Chris McManes
WASHINGTON – Catholic University's three seniors had played at Notre Dame, Florida and George Washington. They'd won 20 games twice and plenty of inseason tournaments, but they'd never won a Landmark Conference Tournament championship and qualified for the NCAA playoffs.
That all changed at DuFour Center on Saturday night when one of those three seniors – Shawn Holmes – dropped in a floater off the glass with three seconds left to lead the No. 11 Cardinals to a 63-62 victory over Juniata.
The triumph, the first for the Cards in the six-year Landmark Conference, was sealed when a desperation 3-pointer missed its mark, sending the crowd into a midcourt frenzy.
Click here to view a photo gallery from Saturday.
"I feel like I lost a few years of my life, but I got them back when that buzzer went off," said Cardinal Coach Steve Howes, who has led the Cards to three NCAA Tournament appearances in his nine years at the helm of his alma mater. "It was a heck of a basketball game. It's unfortunate that somebody has to lose because that was a great college basketball game."
CUA (24-3) earns an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament. The 64-team pairings will be announced Monday at noon. Play begins Saturday March 2.
Holmes, who finished with a team-high 16 points, was overcome with emotion during an interview while his teammates cut down the nets.
"I just want to thank Coach Howes, our assistants, all my teammates, my family and God," Holmes said as he hugged his mom with tears rolling down his face. "I couldn't have done any of this without them. This is the greatest feeling."
Senior Chris Kearney finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks. He hit the second of two free throws with 38.2 seconds remaining to put the Cards on top, 61-60. Alex Raymond, who was terrific most of the night and scored 22 points largely on his five 3-pointers, sank two free throws eight seconds later to give the Eagles a one-point lead.
With the shot clock off, CUA worked the ball around and retained possession when it went out of bounds to the left of the Cardinals' basket with 8.6 seconds to go. CUA Coach Steve Howes called timeout to set up the final shot.
Juniata Coach Greg Curley called timeout and then waved it off, so his team inbounded the ball with three seconds left. After two passes, the ball came to Brian Scholly, who launched a shot from about eight feet past midcourt. The Landmark's leading 3-point shooter missed right.
"It's always nerve-wracking when that kind of shot goes up," senior Nate Koenig said. "But you could kind of tell as soon as he released it that it didn't look good."
Koenig got caught in the student-infused mosh pit.
"It was extremely hot in there but that's the atmosphere you want," said Koenig, who scored five points.
Scholly finished with 12 points and four steals, and was 4 of 12 from downtown. Jeremy Hays scored 15 points before fouling out with 2:20 to go.
A Scholly 3-pointer gave the Eagles their biggest lead of the second half, 39-31, soon after halftime. The Cards answered with a 12-2 run to assume a 45-41 advantage on two Kearney free throws. A 9-0 run punctuated by Raymond and Scholly treys and a free throw by Hays put Juniata back on top, 50-45 midway through the final half.
Holmes drained consecutive 3-pointers to give CUA a 54-53 lead with 7:15 to play. The visitors scored five of the next six points and went back up, 58-55. Freshman Kevin Phanord (five points, two steals in 13 minutes) gave the Cards a 60-58 lead when he kissed a shot off the backboard, was fouled and made the free throw.
Juniata (18-9) tied it on a corner jumper by Kevin Stapleton that was just inside the arc.
Kearney subsequently missed his only free throw but made the second one for the Cardinals' short-lived lead. Raymond's two from the line preceded Holmes' heroics. Howes was proud of his three seniors, who began their careers part of a nine-man freshman class.
"You could not write a better script," Howes said. "I would like to have played better – clearly – but I trusted the seniors all year. They came in in August on a mission; they had worked so hard during the summer. We were a young and inexperienced team and they taught the underclassmen from day one the way we do things here. And they were determined to win the Landmark and get us back to the NCAA Tournament.
"And for a senior to do this in that fashion is perfect. Shawn worked so hard in the offseason. He struggled in the first half, and when we needed him most, he came through. All three of our seniors have the hearts of a champion."
Kearney, after a 5-for-16 performance from the line in Wednesday's semifinal win over Merchant Marine Academy, came up big from the charity stripe Saturday. His 12 rebounds helped the Cards to a 40-29 advantage on the boards. CUA trailed by as much as 11 points in the first half.
"It's been four long, long years – a lot of learning, a lot of rebuilding," Kearney said. "But it's all worth it. This is the top of the mountain. It doesn't get any better than this, just sharing it with all the guys on the team that worked so hard in the offseason, the preseason, getting better during the season.
"There's nothing better, this is the climax right here."
If the Cardinals advance in the NCAA Tournament, it could get a whole lot better.
"The atmosphere was great tonight," Koenig said. "It feels like all our hard work has paid off. We're trying to stress to everybody that this is just a start, and I think we are capable of some greater things this year."
Fonville added 11 points, four helpers and four rebounds. Limberiou had 10 points, six boards and three assists.
"We just weren't going to be denied tonight," Holmes said.