SAINT LEO, Fla. – On a night when it seemed like nothing around them was going right, the Saint Leo men’s basketball team managed to put all the commotion behind them as they posted a 70-66 victory over the rival University of Tampa Spartans in Sunshine State Conference action from a wild Bowman Center on Wednesday night.
A night that began with extended pregame ceremonies thanking Bright House Networks for their support of the Lions, and a marriage proposal by Kyle Rowland at half court, saw the action heat up quickly once the game finally got underway.
Tampa jumped out to an early lead of as much as six points, but an 11-2 Saint Leo run had the Lions sitting in the driver’s seat at the first media timeout.
After that, Saint Leo quickly extended the lead thanks to a trey by the newly-engaged Rowland, five quick points from Brandon Powell and driving layups from both Anthony Gomez and Saladeem Dewberry. The overall team effort from the Lions saw the score jump to 23-14 in favor of the Green & Gold with a little over nine minutes left in the first half.
As quick as SLU had built the nine-point lead, the Lions saw Tampa return the favor as they rattled off 12-straight points to retake a 26-23 lead.
The Lions would go ahead on a tip-in by Josue Vazquez with 71 seconds left, but when Rashad Callaway’s converted the front-half of a one-and-one with 13 seconds left, both teams would head to the lockers tied at 29.
Unfortunately for the Lions, even though the clock read all zeros and both team began to make their way toward their respective lockers, the referees tagged SLU junior Jordan Prais with a Technical Foul for unsportsmanlike conduct after the half had ended. Now, although the teams were tied, UT would get two free-shots to begin the second half.
Callaway converted both free-throws to put the Spartans back on top at the beginning of the second half, but the Lions would quickly rally back to tie the score at 34 just two-minutes in.
The Lions were able to extend their lead to as much as 11 with 10:52 remaining, but neither team could gain momentum because of numerous scoreboard malfunctions that kept halting the pace of play.
Although the frustrations built on both sides, each team used the breaks to work on game plans and strategy and the teams gave fans in attendance a thrilling final seven minutes of play.
Another Tampa run, this time at 12-2, put the Spartans just a single point away from tying the game at 55-54 with 6:53 remaining.
Although they were on the verge of surrendering the lead, the Lions toughened and began a five minute span of time where they would hold a slim lead by answering UT in scoring. For every bucket the Spartans sank, the Lions would respond with a drained jumper of their own.
After the Lions built a three-point advantage with 1:13 left, the Spartans were forced to foul and hope Saint Leo would continue to struggle from the charity stripe, as they shot just 68 percent from the free-throw line for the game.
The Lions didn’t falter.
The duo of Josue Vazquez and Quentin Cullop would sink 4-of-6 free shots to keep the lead at two possessions. The Spartans responded by launching wild three-pointers that sailed wide, and by the time UT dropped a trey, they cut the lead to three with four seconds left and the Lions sensed victory.
Cullop sealed the win by draining the front-half of two free-throws, his 19th-point of the night.
A mediocre shooting night by both teams, with the Lions hitting true on 38 percent (22-of-58) of their shots and Tampa connecting on just 31 percent (21-of-67) of their chances, Saint Leo was lead by Cullop’s 19 on a 6-for-15 night where he nailed four treys.
Prais had another double-double in 2008-09 with 12 points and 16 boards in 35 minutes of play.
Callaway dominated the UT side of the scorebook with 30 points on a 10-of-24 night.
Although the Lions’ arch-rivals led in all the specialty stats and were knotted with SLU in rebounds (45), Saint Leo drained two more three-pointers than Tampa and one more jump-shot, which made the difference in the win.
The Lions will now hit the road as they travel to Ft. Lauderdale to square off against Nova Southeastern in a weekend SSC tilt. The Lions and Sharks will tip-off at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday at NSU’s University Center.