The best season in CCRI basketball history ended Saturday as the Knights lost to Mott Community College 70-60 in the championship game of the NJCAA Division II National Tournament in Danville, Ill.
But it was a heck of a run.
The Knights were seeded third and won their first two games at the tournament for a spot in the semifinals. There, they rallied from a 16-point deficit to beat No. 2 South Suburban College 83-78 in overtime for a spot in the national championship.
A win would have given CCRI its first-ever men’s basketball national title, but the loss didn’t take much away from a historic season and a magical postseason ride.
“It was fantastic for the kids, the program, the school and even the state,” said CCRI head coach Rick Harris. “It was a wonderful week.”
The Knights were making their first appearance at nationals since 2007, when they went two-and-out.
This time, they made sure they stayed a while.
CCRI beat MCC-Penn Valley 91-79 last Tuesday then secured a spot in the semifinals with an 85-64 victory over Baltimore City Community College on Wednesday.
That set up a Friday tilt with South Suburban, and when it was over, it would go down as the most memorable game of a memorable season.
The Knights fell behind 14-2 just six minutes into the game as South Suburban’s Sultan Muhammad buried four three-pointers. After the Knights got their feet under them and made it a seven-point game, the Bulldogs pushed the lead back to 12 with six minutes left in the half.
Star freshman Desmond Williams started to bring the Knights back at that point, scoring the team’s final 10 points of the half to make it a five-point game at the break, but South Suburban was undeterred. The Bulldogs out-scored the Knights 16-5 in the first five minutes of the second half to open up a 16-point lead.
Then came the magic.
Harris brought Hendricken grad Steve Bevilacqua off the bench. The freshman hadn’t seen a whole lot of minutes this season, but he quickly made his presence felt in this one. He buried a three as soon as he came into the game and hit another one on the Knights’ next possession.
CCRI had its spark.
“We were floundering a little bit and we put in Bevilacqua,” Harris said. “He hits a three. Next trip, he hits another one. That completely changed the complexion of the game. They started double-teaming him and it opened up the game. We got into a nice rhythm.”
The Knights steadily chipped away at the lead, cutting it to three with 8:26 left. Four minutes later, CCRI jumped in front for the first time on a free throw by Trevor Mabry.
From there, it was back-and-forth until Williams hit two quick baskets to put the Knights up 71-69 with just 43 seconds left. CCRI had a chance to put the game on ice in the closing seconds but a missed layup gave South Suburban life, and the Bulldogs seized it. Keenan Williams hit a shot with 1.9 seconds left to tie the game.
“I was thinking we had missed our chance,” Harris said.
Overtime didn’t get off to a promising start either, as South Suburban jumped in front by four. On top of that, CCRI point guard Bryan Yarce fouled out with 3:41 left.
But after that, overtime belonged to the Knights.
Roger Livramento converted a three-point play to make it a one-point game. Desmond Williams then scored on back-to-back possessions to put the Knights in front before Livramento hit one of two free throws for a 79-75 lead. A steal and a basket by Williams made it 81-75 with just 25 seconds left.
South Suburban hit a three to stay in the game and then watched Williams miss two free throws. But on the second, Williams got his own rebound and was fouled again with 6.4 seconds left. He hit both free throws to clinch the 83-78 victory.
Williams finished with the signature performance of the tournament – 41 points and 12 rebounds.
“It was an unbelievable game,” Harris said. “I won high-school championships at Cranston East and this was right up there with that. It was crazy. When Desmond made the free throws to clinch it, it was one of the great feelings I’ve had in coaching.”
The win moved the Knights into a national championship game for just the second time in program history, and for the first time as a Division II program. Their only previous appearance was in the 1991 Division III championship, which they lost to Herkimer.
Waiting in this title game was Mott Community College of Flint, Mich., the No. 1 seed and a perennial powerhouse. The Bears were the national runner-up in 2011 and came into Saturday’s game with a 34-1 record. They won back-to-back championships in 2007 and 2008.
The Knights weren’t going to back down from the challenge, but they could also see that the formula wasn’t quite right for an upset. Livramento was nursing a shoulder injury and Williams started suffering from dehydration at halftime. He played only limited minutes in the second half.
The Knights managed to keep it close despite those obstacles, but the Bears had too much. They led 29-23 at halftime and blitzed the Knights with a quick 7-1 run to start the second half. CCRI got the lead back down to five with 15:54 left but would get no closer.
The Bears kept them at arm’s length the rest of the way.
“I always tell my teams in a tournament like this, the team that wins has a little bit of luck, gets a fair shake from the officials and stays healthy,” Harris said. “We were not at full strength and that hurt us.”
The Bears’ pressure defense did the rest.
“They had tremendous pressure on the ball, and that negated a lot of what we wanted to do,” Harris said. “We needed to go inside to keep them from getting out on the break, but their ball pressure kept us from doing that. They instilled their will on us.”
Williams had 16 points to lead the Knights, and Livramento charted his fourth double-double in as many games with 13 points and 11 rebounds. John Taylor had 23 points to lead the Bears.
Williams and Livramento were both selected to the All-Tournament team, while Yarce won the tourney’s Fred Pohlman Sportsmanship Award.
“Every team loses their last game of the season but one, yet this Knights team is still champions to me and my staff,” Harris said. “Overall, I have never been more proud of a team than this team.”
And it was a great ride.
“It was a fantastic week,” Harris said. “I had my son with me to share in it, which made it even more special, and we played some great basketball. We had great support. I can’t tell you how many people back home said they were watching online. We had the governor call us before the championship game. It was just a great experience. It was very rewarding for all the hard work that goes on at CCRI and all the support we get.”