HUTCHINSON, Kan. — About 214 NJCAA basketball programs across the country would trade their seasons in a heartbeat for the Salt Lake Community College's incredible year.
Only one wouldn't.
Though SLCC held a double-digit lead in the first half, South Plains College spoiled the Bruins' championship hopes by roaring back to take the lead by halftime and then pulling away for a 67-56 win the NJCAA finals.
It will go down as the greatest season in the school's hoops history, but the 32-4 Bruins might need a while before that sinks in. A night they hoped would turn into a celebration party at the Sports Arena ended up in heartbreak instead.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Texans from Levelland, Texas, jumped around wildly as the teary-eyed Bruins returned to their bench with title dreams dashed.
Oh so close. Oh so far.
"It hurts a lot to come this far and play our hardest and not win the championship," said SLCC guard Brian Green, who struggled in this game but was named the Outstanding Small Player of the tourney. "I love my coaches. I love my team. I'd do anything for them. We played our guts out. We just didn't end up winning it, which hurts really bad now. But we had a really good season."
Through three games and 12 minutes of their fourth and final contest, they had an amazing NJCAA tournament run, too.
Its top-ranked defense, which had held the first three tourney opponents to 31-percent shooting, sparkled again as SLCC jumped out to a 17-4 lead with eight minutes remaining in the first half. The Bruins weren't torching the nets on offense, but they pressured and stymied the Texans' high-flying offense.
Just as they had done in wins against Vincennes University, Southeastern Illinois College and Three Rivers Community College to get to the finals.
"It's 17-4 and we're rolling," Green said.
Suddenly, though, it was 17-7 and then 17-9 after quick buckets by Texas Tech-bound guard Nick Okorie. While SLCC missed seemingly easy inside shot after shot, Okorie and company continued to chip away at the lead — 17-12, 17-14. Before the Bruins knew what Texan linebacker had hit them, their lead was gone thanks to a 13-0 surge. South Plains stormed into the locker room ahead 24-22 after David Tairu hit a 3-pointer seconds before halftime.
The Bruins were stunned.
And that despite the Texans (30-5) hitting just 10 of their 32 first-half shots. Problem was, the Bruins were even worse. They took more than their usual share of 3-pointers — only hitting 2 of 12 — and shot 29.4 percent overall in the up-and-way-down first half.
"We could've stayed in it. We should've had the lead at halftime the way we were running stuff. We missed some easy shots," said SLCC coach Norm Parrish. "I thought we got a little impatient offensively. ... We took some shots that we shouldn't. I think we went for the throat in the wrong way."
With momentum, South Plains went for the Bruins' throat in the second half. Okorie scored 11 of his game-high 29 points in the first 6 1/2 minutes, and then hit a three ball to put the Texans up 56-40 with 6:11 remaining. As they pulled away, Tairu made fourth-ranked SLCC pay from the free-throw line, hitting most of his eight freebies en route to 14 points.
Jonathan Hall, who was named the NJCAA tournament MVP, ended up with 13 points for the champs.
"I don't know if we started loosening up or if we quit playing as hard. But they started hitting shots," Green said. "They're a really good team. Give them the credit. They hit their big shots. They played their guts out. They ended up beating us, which sucks, but we played hard."
DaVell Jackson topped the Bruins with 19 points, but he had little help offensively. Andy Palmer chipped in with 10, but Green only made 3 of 13 shots for seven points after averaging 19 in the first three tournament games. SLCC, a 51-percent shooting team, only made 23 of 63 shots overall for 36.5 percent against the quicker and more athletic Texans.
Parrish said the pain will eventually dull a bit. He believes the Bruins, whose previous highest national finish was fifth in 1994, will be able to appreciate a sensational second-place season that included a Scenic West tournament championship and two wins over highly ranked Southern Idaho.
"Unbelievable," he said, describing the year. "I told our players when it's all said and done a week or two from now, they'll realize what they accomplished. It's really hard to do what they did."