SAINT LEO, Fla. – It was approaching 10:30 p.m. last Saturday night and there was a palpable buzz around the Saint Leo University campus. The 11th-ranked Saint Leo men's basketball team had long since arrived back home from its 76-60 victory over Rollins that afternoon, the Lions' men's lacrosse team had just defeated Tampa in an overtime thriller and the softball team held off Columbus State to rack up another win.
Despite all the wins, nearly everyone was glued to their computers and phones watching, with muted excitement, as another basketball game in Lakeland wound down to the final seconds. It was when that game went final, an 83-78 Florida Tech victory over Florida Southern, that Lions' fans realized it – the Saint Leo University Lions were Sunshine State Conference Champions.
It was a feeling never experienced before at the campus as it was the Lions' first-ever title, but it was something that exploded over social media moments after the conference title was guaranteed.
Tied with Florida Southern heading into Saturday, the Lions held the tiebreaker over the Mocs courtesy of a season sweep, but both teams needed to win their final games to remain knotted atop the conference. The Lions did their part in Winter Park, but it was the Mocs' stumble at home against Florida Tech that solidified the Lions' name atop the regular season standings.
The celebration on Saturday started back in late October when the Lions were picked to finish first in the Sunshine State Conference Preseason Poll. While preseason prognostication is accepted in most circles based on those returning from a previous season's team, it wasn't until the Lions' first exhibition game that everyone took notice.
November 2 in Coral Gables saw the Lions put together an exhibition stunner that reverberated across the college basketball landscape when the Lions upended the Miami Hurricanes, 69-67 in a loss that forced Miami Head Coach Jim Larranaga to reexamine his team's direction. Since losing to the Lions, the Hurricanes have stormed through the Atlantic Coast Conference, jumped to as high as No. 2 in the AP Top-25, defeated historical powerhouses Duke and North Carolina, and have not lost a single regular-season home game at the BankUnited Center.
Already getting mentioned in national coverage as the buildup towards March Madness is in full swing, that exhibition game, along with the direction the Hurricanes have taken, will certainly be covered in-depth as Miami advances in the tournament.
The Lions started the season ranked 14th in the nation and jumped to as high as 10th after convincing wins over Shorter, Tuskegee and Lincoln (Pa.). It was back-to-back losses to Winston-Salem State and Armstrong, only one of two total losses at home this season, saw the Green and Gold slip out of the rankings.
It didn't take very long for Saint Leo to regain the momentum as the Lions rattled off eight consecutive victories, including a gutsy double overtime road win over Barry. The Barry game started a streak of four-straight overtime contests that saw the Lions go 2-2 during the toughest stretch of the season with the setbacks coming in road games against Tampa and Eckerd.
Getting back on the winning side of the scoreboard with a dominating 79-54 win at home against Rollins, the Lions have gone 8-2 over their last ten regular season games and are seeded atop two important lists that many fans will show interest in over the coming weeks. The Lions hold the top seed in the upcoming Sunshine State Conference Tournament that will be held at the Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, and they are also at the top of the NCAA's South Region in rankings released on February 27. If the Lions can maintain that top regional spot after the conclusion of the SSC Tournament, then the path to the NCAA Elite Eight may just go through the Bowman Center.
Individually it has already been an amazing year for the Lions, even though all-conference teams have yet to be announced. Senior Marcus Ruh headlined the 2012-13 Capital One Academic All-America® Division II men's basketball team as the 2012-13 Capital One Academic All-America® of the Year. Holding a perfect 4.0 GPA, Ruh is the Lions' leading scorer and was last year's Saint Leo Scholar Athlete of the Year.
So what needs to happen in today's regular season finales across the Sunshine State Conference landscape?
The one thing that is for sure is the Lions are the Sunshine State Conference Regular Season Champions. The only question is whether Saint Leo will have to share the title with Florida Southern, which faces Rollins in Lakeland at 7:30 p.m. If the Mocs win over the slumping Tars, losers of two-straight and four of their last six, then the title will be shared, but the Green and Gold will still claim the top seed.
Heading to the Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee for their quarterfinal round game, the Lions will only need to bring their white jerseys for the tournament and will face the winner of the No. 8-9 seed game on Wednesday night. While both teams still have a game to play, it is guaranteed that Wednesday's game will feature Lynn and Tampa, both with identical 3-12 conference records heading into today.
Second place in the conference could also finish in a tie if Southern loses to Rollins and Eckerd beats Lynn in St. Petersburg. Both teams would finish the regular season 11-5 and because they split the season series the tiebreaker would give Eckerd the No. 2 seed as they swept Saint Leo in the regular season while the Mocs did not win a game against the similar opponent.
If Southern beats Rollins and Florida Tech trumps Tampa, then the Tars and Panthers finish tied in the middle of the conference standings, but if Rollins wins and Eckerd loses, those two teams could be tied for third.
Barry and Nova Southeastern are the only two teams that have direct control over their regular season finish as they are both tied for sixth in the SSC. Later today the Buccaneers and Sharks will square off in Miami Shores to break the 6-9 SSC record.
Once the day's games have concluded, with the Florida Southern – Rollins game being the latest on the docket at 7:30 p.m., the SSC will release the official tournament standings.
Once those standings have been released, the slate will be wiped clean and the quest for the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament will begin.
The excitement at SLU right now is insane. Lax is going into OT and a hugeinning from softball has this stadium going crazy! #lionspride— Andrea Lott (@andrealott16) February 24, 2013
With Florida Southern losing, Saint Leo men's basketball is GUARANTEED a share of the @d2ssc title.— Saint Leo Athletics (@SaintLeoLions) February 24, 2013
Saint Leo University just clinched our first ever conference championship and a #1 seed in the conference tournament!!!— Lance Randall (@CoachRandallSLU) February 24, 2013
@slu_sid UPSET CITY BABY— Dick Vitale (@DickieV) November 3, 2012
Can anyone name the only team in college basketball to beat @caneshoops in Coral Gables this year??— Saint Leo Athletics (@SaintLeoLions) February 25, 2013
Marcus Ruh named Division II Capital One Academic All-America® of the Year bit.ly/ZrHqDd— Saint Leo Athletics (@SaintLeoLions) February 20, 2013
Lions Earn Top-Spot in NCAA South Region Rankings bit.ly/YKHMlU— Saint Leo Athletics (@SaintLeoLions) February 28, 2013
Lots of seeding for the bkb tourney still to be decided by today's final games around the league.— Sunshine State Conf. (@D2SSC) March 2, 2013