Carroll 78, Westminster 75
Nobody expected Westminster to even be in this year's Frontier Conference championship game. But in a season characterized by an unlikely turnaround from a 12-15 record last year — the resurrected program's first — very few expected the Griffins to be in the locker room as the nets were snipped.
Westminster fell 78-75 to the Carroll College Fighting Saints when Griffin star Mitch Montgomery was cleanly stripped by Kirk Stiles on the shot that would have given Westminster the lead with three seconds left.
"The kid made a good defensive play," Westminster coach Tommy Connor said. "We put it in the hands of our money guy — he's made shots to win games for us before."
This time, Montgomery didn't even get the chance to launch his deadly accurate jump shot. But it's amazing the Griffins were even in a position to win the game. With seven minutes to play and the score knotted at 66, Carroll went on a 11-2 run, largely on the play of their go-to-guy J.D. Solomon.
"We showed some fatigue getting back. They got some easy buckets in transition," Connor said.
But it was Carroll that looked tired down the stretch. Following that decisive run, the Saints didn't score again until Stiles hit a free throw following his last-second steal. Down 77-68, Westminster staged a comeback that had the Payne Gymnasium crowd believing in one more miracle in this miraculous regular-season championship year.
Montgomery, who ended up with 32 points, scored three straight points off free throws to cut the Saints lead to six. After Carroll's Eric Peterson missed the front end of a one-and-one, Brad Willden drove to the hoop, twisted and laid it in to cut the score to 77-73. On the Saints' next trip down the court, Willden stole the ball and was fouled, and hit both free throws to put the Griffins down two with 45 seconds left.
But that's when the highlight reel turned on Westminster and Montgomery, and an unlikely conference season came to an end.
Still, Connor wasn't hanging his head. "We went through this league and this tournament 15-2," he said. "I don't think that's been done a long, long time."
Neither has taking a once left-for-dead program and turning it into a nationally ranked team in only two years.
"This season has far exceeded my expectations," Connor said. "I was really happy last year. This has been a phenomenal turnaround."
The season isn't over for the Griffins. Due to their No. 16 ranking, the Griffins will almost certainly qualify as an at-large team in the NAIA national tournament, which begins March 14 in Tulsa, Okla.
And while the Griffins had to endure watching their rivals cut down their nets, the easy money is that Westminster's money guy will lead his team to a couple more miracles.