The UAA Seawolves are Shootout champions again, and if you saw the mix of sweat and tears as the players celebrated Wednesday evening, you have an idea of what this championship means -- and how hard it was to secure.
The Seawolves beat an athletic Syracuse team that plagued them all night with suffocating defense and superior size, surviving a furious final minute to capture their third straight tournament title with a 58-57 victory at Sullivan Arena.
UAA never trailed the final seven minutes, but it never relaxed either.
Syracuse scored the last five points of the game, making it a one-point difference on Erica Morrow's free throw with 1 minute, 12 seconds to go.
Then came 72 seconds of chaos as the teams traded possessions furiously, missing shots, coughing up the ball and keeping everyone in suspense until the final buzzer ended the madness.
With 1.7 seconds left, UAA's Rebecca Kielpinksi in-bounded from beneath the Syracuse basket. With a wall of Syracuse players in front of her, she found teammate Nicci Miller, who caught the ball and was immediately trapped. But the buzzer sounded, saving Miller and the Seawolves.
"Oh my God," Miller said. "It was just all heart. I am so happy right now."
So much happened in the final 1:12 -- including a UAA timeout with 21 seconds left that enraged Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman -- that the Seawolves were still breathless after the awards ceremony.
"My heart was beating a little," said Kielpinski, UAA's cool 6-foot-2 center who had 16 points, nine rebounds and four blocks in the win.
"It was scary. It was intense," said Elisha Harris, a guard who added seven points and seven rebounds.
"Nervous? Everything's going through your head," said Kiki Taylor, a guard who added eight points and a pair of game-changing steals.
Taylor arguably came up with the play of the game -- make that the plays of the game -- when she stripped Syracuse of the ball on back-to-back possessions late in the second half.
The game was tied 50-50 when she got her first steal near midcourt. She took it all the way for an uncontested layup and a 52-50 UAA lead.
Then she did it again, knocking the ball away from Chandrea Jones and taking it half the length of the court for a layup. With 6:35 left, UAA was up 54-50.
"You've gotta do that sometimes -- taking chances," Taylor said.
UAA coach Tim Moser said the acts of thievery were completely Taylor's work.
"She must have seen something when she was sitting on the bench," he said. "Those two plays got us going."
The Seawolves had to work hard to get anything going at all against Syracuse. The Orange, a school with an enrollment of more than 19,000, play in the always-tough Big East and received a few points in the latest Associated Press poll, though they aren't ranked.
UAA's first-ever victory over a Big East team could make this the sweetest of the Seawolves' Shootout championship three-peat. Two years ago, UAA beat University of California Riverside by five points and last year edged Santa Clara by two. Tuesday's win was only UAA's fourth win against a team from a BCS conference (Wake Forest, 1990; Georgia Tech, 1994; Clemson, 2003; South Florida in 1983, long before the Bulls joined the Big East).
All night long, the Syracuse press did its job, often shaving 10 to 15 seconds off the 30-second shot clock before UAA could cross halfcourt. The Seawolves resorted to long passes, knowing that dribbling out of danger would invite trouble because the Orange's athleticism meant Syracuse would win most one-on-one battles.
Syracuses's size and ability helped the Orange to a lopsided advantage on the boards, where they had 23 offensive rebounds to UAA's 10.
Moser looked at that stat and saw his team's collective heart.
"Twenty-three offensive rebounds and our kids didn't quit," he said.
Hillsman looked at that stat and saw red.
The Syracuse coach unloaded during a post-game interview, using the word "cheating" more than once in reference to the referees and, by association, UAA.
All those offensive rebounds should have added up to a win, Hillsman figures. But, he complained, it's impossible to win when one team has seven fouls and the other two, as was the case in the second half when Syracuse put UAA into an early bonus.
But his biggest beef was with the timeout Moser called with 21 seconds left. Hillsman said his team was in transition, dribbling the ball, when the referees granted Moser's request.
"You know what happens when you've got the ball and you're dribbling down the sideline and they give them a timeout? That is cheating," he said.
It's no wonder teams don't want to come to the Shootout anymore, he told a group of reporters.
Syracuse leaves a 4-2 record.
For UAA, which improved to 7-1, the victory could mean a move up in the Division II poll, which currently ranks the Seawolves ninth in the nation.
Syracuse 26 31 -- 57
UAA 28 30 -- 58
SYRACUSE -- Morrow 8-22 6-8 24; Jones 8-16 5-6 21; Ward 0-7 6-8 6; Gobuty 1-4 0-0 2; Berry 1-3 0-3 2; Lisnere 0-2 2-2 2; Ash 0-2 0-0 0; Harris 0-5 0-0 0; Murray 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 18-64 19-27 57.
UAA -- Kielpinski 4-7 8-10 16; Taylor 3-6 1-2 8; Gruwell 2-3 2-2 8; Harris 3-7 0-0 7; Basova 2-9 0-0 6; Thiel 2-4 0-0 5; Aden 0-2 4-4 4; Miller 1-7 1-2 3; Johansson 0-3 1-2 1; Dekel 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 17-49 17-22 58.
3-point goals -- Syracuse 2-18 (Morrow 2-8; Jones 0-2; Gobuty 0-1; Lisnere 0-1; Ash 0-1; Harris 0-5), UAA 7-23 (Basova 2-8; Gruwell 2-3; Taylor 1-2; Harris 1-4; Thiel 1-3; Miller 0-3). Fouled out -- Syracuse-None, UAA-None. Rebounds -- Syracuse 45 (Jones 15), UAA 35 (Kielpinski 9). Assists -- Syracuse 8 (Morrow 3), UAA 9 (Kielpinski 3). Total fouls -- Syracuse 18, UAA 18. Technical fouls -- Syracuse-None, UAA-None. A -- 5385.