LAKELAND, Fla. - A frantic final 63 seconds saw the Sunshine State Conference Tournament title go up for grabs as the Saint Leo men's basketball team came up just shy of the program's first-ever tournament title with a 61-58 loss to Florida Southern in the SSC Championship game on Sunday afternoon.
"I thought in the first half we played a little fast offensively," Head Coach Lance Randall said of the fast pace in the opening stanza. "In the second half we settled in and Marcus hit some big shots and really got us going. I thought defensively we were very good in the second half (and) we got some big stops in the last six or seven minutes. Unfortunately we put them on the line and they got some free throws. We had a couple crucial turnovers where I didn't feel we executed well, but that's on me. I liked the way we completed and hopefully we have a chance to keep on playing."
Another thriller from the opening tip, the Lions (18-10) found themselves down by eight with 12 minutes left in the ballgame. It was at that point that today's clutch performer, junior Marcus Ruh, took control of the contest, and nearly shot the Lions to a tournament title.
Ruh nailed a contested, off-balance leaner to cut the Moccasins lead to six. He then shed his defender on the Lions' next possession and stroked another jumper to drop the deficit to four; the closest Saint Leo had reached up to that point in the half.
After a Moccasin basket and an unusual but thrilling sight, a Tom Neary three-pointer, Ruh matched Neary on the Lions' next trip down the floor with a trey of his own. He then calmly sank four-straight free throws after a Florida Southern foul and subsequent technical put Saint Leo in a prime spot to claim the advantage.
With the free throws giving the Lions' their first lead of the half at 50-48 the teams would trade a pair of free throws as Neary and Ruh mixed in another jumper and a layup to put Saint Leo on top 56-54 with just 2:17 left.
Holding possession with a chance to lengthen its lead, a Saint Leo miscue put the ball back into Florida Southern's hands as it was quickly flipped out to hot-shooting guard Seth Evans. Quickly spotting up in front of his team's bench, Evans swished a triple that put the Moccasins (20-9) up by a single point and sent the FSC fans wild.
Ruh would provide the answer as the Lions transitioned a missed Moc free throw into a quick two when he drove the lane and dropped the ball off the window into the bucket.
A Florida Southern timeout allowed the Mocs to set up a three-point try by Kevin Capers. The heart-breaking shot seemingly hung in the air for an eternity before dropping true, spinning the scoreboard back to the visitors' favor.
With the score 60-58 and just 34 ticks remaining Saint Leo would try to answer with a triple of their own, only to have it rim out and fall into Florida Southern's possession. A quick foul saw FSC miss one of its two free-throw chances, setting the Green and Gold up for one last chance.
The play, set up by Randall with just six seconds left, saw the Lions get a good look at the basket, but the three-point shot bounced off the front of the rim as the clock expired.
The disappointing final score did not highlight the frantic pace that most of the game was played at, especially with the Lions playing just 24 hours after one of their most physical wins this season in their semifinal-round victory over Eckerd.
It also does not tell of the large cast of Saint Leo Lions, eight in total, that chipped in to give the Lions a chance at the ever-elusive tournament championship trophy. Nothing highlighted that more than the fact that one of the Lions' three big men, Shaun Adams drained three-straight 3-pointers in the first half, proving that the biggest players show up when the spotlight is its brightest. Adams had only hit four triples the entire season.
The score also doesn't pinpoint the loudness of the 896 fans in attendance, with the majority of spectators being those clad in Green and Gold with foam paws as they dominated the tempo inside the Jenkins Field House. It also marked an unfamiliar feeling for the Lions; it was the first time since way back on February 1 that Saint Leo was not the leading team on the scoreboard when the clock ran out, a span of nine-straight victories.
Led by Ruh's 24 points on 9-of-17 shooting, the Lions shot 40 percent (20-of-50) from the floor. Joining the Lions' junior was Adams as he added 14 points with his three treys, while Neary added nine. Saint Leo matched Florida Southern as each team connected on six shots from behind the arc, but most of FSC's came at a more crucial time.
Despite the loss, the Lions' season may not have ended on the Jenkins Field House hardwood. Saint Leo will gather as a community in the Bowman Center and view the NCAA Selection Show at 10:30 p.m. to see if a spot for the record-breaking 2011-12 Lions has been reserved for the Big Dance.
If the Lions go dancing, it will mark another first in a long series of them this season.