BY RICKY POLLITT
“Two in a row.”
For the second straight game, the Salisbury men’s basketball team lost in the final second, this time however, it ended their season in heartbreaking fashion.
Junior forward Gordon Jeter tipped in the ball as time expired to apparently tie the game at 75, but a call from the official waived the basket off, claiming he did not get the shot off in time, and the Sea Gulls saw their season end to Middlebury, 75-73.
Salisbury’s previous loss to Christopher Newport in the Capital Athletic Conference championship game was at the center of controversy as well, where the referees called a foul on the Gulls to give CNU one last chance at the foul line with the game tied.
Christopher Newport’s Aaron McFarland made one free throw to give CNU the victory over Salisbury in that game.
Against Middlebury, Salisbury started out slow, allowing the Panthers to start the game on a 16-2 run behind Middlebury guard Matt St. Amour who reached 1,000 career points in the win.
“I think we underestimated the size and strength. They were a much bigger basketball team than we were,” senior guard Rocky Harris said. “At first they were kind of pushing us around until we actually had to get ourselves together. We had to fight and we had to compete.”
The Sea Gulls entered halftime down 36-25, shooting 30 percent from the field and only capitalizing on two shots from beyond the arc.
Middlebury took advantage of Salisbury’s defense, which was ranked No. 2 in the nation coming into the game. The Panthers scored 26 points in the paint, and added an extra seven with points off of turnovers.
However, Salisbury who had lost their leading scorer at the start of the season, had a rookie head coach and relied on an at-large bid to get them into the NCAA tournament was not about to see the season end so quickly.
“Somebody had to come up and make big shots down the line,” junior guard Justin Witmer said. “We did what we had to do, but just came up a little short.”
Salisbury nearly doubled their first half score, scoring 48 second half points. Harris and Witmer combined for eight 3-pointers in the match and helped put the Gulls within three with 30 seconds remaining.
“We ran our stuff a lot better in the second half,” Sachs said. “We did a better job getting dribble penetrations in the paint, get kick outs for threes, but at the end of the day we didn’t stop (St. Amour).”
St. Amour finished with 27 points, five rebounds and three assists. Middlebury forwards Zach Baines and Matt Daley combined for 27 points as well making the Panthers’ offense unstoppable at times.
Along with Witmer and Harris, the Sea Gulls turned to junior Gordon Jeter to give Salisbury the comeback they desperately needed.
Compared to four first half points, Jeter matched Witmer’s 18 points on the day to give Salisbury life near the end of the game.
A quick layup by Jeter, followed by two successful foul shots from St. Amour made the score 75-72 with five seconds remaining.
Senior guard Adrien Straughn was sent to the line but down three, he knew he needed to miss at least one shot to give Salisbury a chance to send the game to overtime.
After making the first of two, the ball was tipped out of bounds by the Panthers. The last-second lob pass was thrown right to Jeter, but his tip-shot was waived off, sending Middlebury to the second round of the tournament.
“We had plenty of chances for this game, but when you turn the ball over, those mistakes get magnified,” Sachs said.
Middlebury outrebounded Salisbury 37-26, recorded a better free throw percentage, but turned the ball over five more times than the Gulls.
“That’s what it came down to: rebounds, free throws and turnovers, so that’s the game,” Jeter said.
Despite the loss, Salisbury advanced to the NCAA tournament and CAC Championship game for a second straight season and tallied 21 wins despite their top scorer from 2015 being out for the season with an injury.
It was hard way to end the season, but a successful year in the eyes of Sachs.
“I think we’re at a good starting point, and I expect to be back here every year,” Sachs said. “I thought we had a good year.”