CENTER VALLEY — The shot clock was off. Misericordia had been preparing for this play all season long.
The Cougars will be thinking about it for a while longer.
Misericordia’s best chance to win the league title and advance to the NCAA tournament ended up in the hands of a DeSales player at the end of regulation. And the top-seeded Bulldogs made the Cougars pay in overtime, completing an impressive rally to capture the Freedom Conference championship, 73-64, Saturday at Billera Hall.
DeSales had erased a 10-point deficit in the final nine minutes of the second half, but the game was tied 61-61 when the Cougars forced a turnover with 25 seconds to go.
Misericordia had been looking to free up the hot hand of Joe Busacca off of a screen to win the title right then and there. But the Bulldogs defense clamped down and never allowed the Cougars to get off a shot, as Kyle Hash come up with a steal before the buzzer.
“Obviously when you get to a one-possession game, a chance to win and you don’t execute, it’s heartbreaking,” Misericordia coach Trevor Woodruff said. “We worked on that play all year long for that situation, to run it one time to win the game in this setting. And we just didn’t…
“A step or two long. We didn’t execute it, and they defended it well. That gets you to overtime. And then obviously they make the big shots, and that’s the difference.”
Busacca (team-high 25 points) had hit a three-pointer midway through the extra frame to pull the Cougars within 66-64.
Two possessions later, Cougars forward Steve Ware — playing down the stretch with what Woodruff believed to be a broken hand — came up with a block on a three-point attempt by DeSales’ Cody Deal.
But the ball ended up right back in the hands of Deal, who dished it to the corner to a wide-open Paul Pammer for a three of his own.
Down it went. Down went the Cougars’ NCAA hopes along with it.
For most of the second half, the Cougars (16-11) seemed to be just one possession away from their second Freedom title in three years.
With DeSales focusing its defense on senior sharpshooter Matt Greene, it was Busacca who stepped up for the second straight playoff game.
Busacca had 16 of the Cougars’ 34 points in the first half as they built a four-point halftime lead and built it to 56-46 with just 8:54 left.
“Misericordia played awesome,” DeSales coach Scott Coval said. “They do such a great job of coaching their kids and putting them in really good positions. And they have such good players. Matt Greene’s a terrific player. And we did everything we possibly could do to try to take him out of the game. We completely changed our gameplan to try to stop him.
“Steve Ware is a terrific player, too. And with 10 minutes to go, they were playing lights out. We just made some really big plays in the last 10 minutes.”
Many of them came from newly crowned conference player of the year Mike Coleman, who finished with a game-high 28 points, including the Bulldogs’ final 10 of the second half.
His runner with 3:26 left drew a foul, and the three-point play gave DeSales (18-9) its first lead of the second half.
Coleman’s efforts earned him tournament MVP honors.
“When you throw the ball to the best player,” Woodruff said, “he’s going to make some plays. … When they’ve got the best player on the court, you do your best, but they’re the best for a reason.”
Ware finished with a double-double (11 points, 11 rebounds) for Misericordia and added six assists despite his injury. Freshman Erik Kerns added 12 points for the Cougars.
Despite the loss, Misericordia’s season will likely continue on. The Cougars are strong candidates to be selected for an eight-team ECAC regional tournament.
If chosen, they would likely head on the road for a quarterfinal game on Wednesday.
And get a chance to move on from Saturday’s heartbreaker.
“They made the plays,” Woodruff said. “But we’ve got the ball with a chance to win the game. I think our kids did a really good job today, too.”
Freedom Conference championship
DeSales 73, Misericordia 64
MISERICORDIA (64) — Joe Busacca 10-18 1-5 25, Matt Greene 1-5 0-0 3, Griffin Sponaugle 2-5 0-0 6, Steve Ware 4-15 3-8 11, Erik Kerns 3-7 6-6 12, Anthony Sergio 1-2 0-0 3, Patrick Widdoss 0-0 0-0 0, Cael Evans 1-1 2-2 4. Totals 22-53 12-21 64.
DeSALES (73) — Mike Coleman 9-21 9-10 28, Michael Guldin 2-4 0-0 5, Paul Pammer 6-7 0-0 17, Cody Deal 4-8 1-1 12, Travis Bryan 2-3 0-0 4, Kyle Hash 2-6 2-2 7, Brian Laird 0-1 0-0 0, Andrew Kohler 0-3 0-0 0, Matt Poorman 0-1 0-0 0, Ryan Callahan 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 25-57 12-13.
Halftime — Misericordia, 34-30; Regulation — Tied, 61-61.
Three-point field goals — MU 8-16 (Busacca 4-6, Sponaugle 2-4, Sergio 1-1, Greene 1-5); DSU 11-26 (Pammer 5-5, Deal 3-7, Guldin 1-2, Hash 1-3, Coleman 1-6, Laird 0-1, Kohler 0-2).