A postseason berth was seemingly there for the taking Thursday night, but you never would have known it watching the Seawolves.
The fire and passion the UAA men's basketball team normally displays on its home court vanished in arguably the biggest game of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference season. That the Seawolves entered the night playing their best ball of the year and riding their highest ranking of the season mattered little.
Central Washington was the desperate team, and that was the difference.
The visiting Wildcats, of Ellensburg, Wash., drained big shots and made effort plays to pull out an 88-85 victory and hand UAA its first loss in 12 games this season at the Wells Fargo Sports Complex.
More than that, though, Central's win forced the Seawolves to beat No. 9 ranked Western Washington on Saturday night in the final game of the regular season to have a shot at advancing to the NCAA Division II Tournament.
Western lost to UAF Thursday night, 85-79, as former Bartlett High star Andrew Smith tied his career-high with 28 points for the Nanooks.
A UAA win Thursday probably would have locked up a postseason berth, but a laughable first-half effort put the Seawolves in too deep a hole, regardless of how hot senior Kemmy Burgess (31 points) got in the second half.
"I'm surprised in the way we performed," said UAA head coach Rusty Osborne. "We were pretty poor defensively and they are to be commended. They did the things to win the game."
All-conference forward Lance Den Boer scored 22 points and senior guard Robert Hicks added 20 for Central (15-11, 10-7), which completed the season sweep after posting a 73-72 home win on Dec. 31. In both meetings, Chris Bannish delivered the winning points. In the first game, he hit a go-ahead free throw with a second left. This time, he sank two free throws with 12.7 seconds remaining.
But the story of the night was how well Central shot the ball from three-point range (12 of 17), keyed by Hicks' 6-for-8 shooting. The 5-foot-11 Hicks bounced back from a scoreless effort the first time he played UAA.
His biggest trey came after UAA had methodically cut into a 20-point, second-half deficit, pulling within 63-54 with 11:24 to play. The Seawolves' student section was on its feet and the crowd was chanting "U-A-A, U-A-A."
With the shot clock winding down and his team in need of points, Hicks silenced the crowd by swishing a 22-footer.
"This is what I've been playing for all my life," Hicks said after scoring seven points above his season average. "This was the biggest game of my Central Washington career. The season is winding down and we want to make a playoff run."
The Wildcats, ranked No. 8 in the West Region, are a step closer toward reaching that goal after their fifth conference road win. They were also the first GNAC team to come to Anchorage and beat the Seawolves, who had won their previous seven conference games by an average of 19.4 points.
"It takes a lot for us to lose on our home court, but they were better than us. It was obvious," UAA's Joe Davis said. "In a sense, they had more to fight for. We should have played the same way."
Central seized control from the beginning, building a 13-point cushion at halftime behind Den Boer, a 6-foot-6 swingman, who scored on NBA-quality turnaround jumpers and deep threes. The Wildcats also got a boost from 6-foot-7 junior Julius McMillion, who had four dunks on the night, highlighted by a double-pump, two-handed jam that rocked the basket in the first half.
Burgess, who recently eclipsed the career 1,000-point plateau, did what he could to get the Seawolves (18-11, 9-8) into it on a variety of drives and jumpers. Burgess sank 12 of 18 shots, including 5 of 7 from long range.
Burgess and Davis combined for 32 of UAA's 54 points in the second half, with Burgess knocking down shots from the perimeter and Davis banging down low.
Brian Hills ripped down seven boards to help the Seawolves win the rebounding battle 36-27.
"We got rebounds when we needed them," Hicks said.
Hicks was referring to the multiple possessions in the second half when Central corralled rebounds after missed shots and turned them into points, often a Hicks three or a McMillion dunk.
"They probably got 80 percent of the loose balls," Osborne said. "I have no explanation for that."
UAA made a frantic push in the final minutes to make things interesting, pulling as close as 85-83 with 46 seconds left.
But in what has become an all-too-common theme this season, the Seawolves couldn't grab a big rebound or get a big stop at crunch time.
Previously, those problems happened on the road. Thursday night, they left the home crowd stunned and silenced.
"We're one of the best home teams in the conference, so to say they wanted it more on our home court, that's heartbreaking," Davis said. "They wanted it more and everybody saw that."
Now the Seawolves must beat Western Washington, the highest-scoring team in the conference. "We're gonna have to strap it on Saturday night," Osborne said.
Daily News reporter Van Williams can be reached at email@example.com or 257-4335.
CENTRAL WASHINGTON (88)
Den Boer 5-12 9-10 22; Hicks 7-15 0-0 20; McMillion 8-9 0-1 16; Bannish 4-9 5-6 15; Assink 4-6 0-0 9; Curry 1-2 0-0 2; Craven 1-2 0-0 2; Spevak 1-1 0-1 2; Luke 0-0 0-0 0; Monti 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 31-56 14-18 88.
Burgess 12-18 2-3 31; Davis 7-16 7-7 21; Hills 4-8 4-4 12; Hartman 3-8 4-6 10; Draper 2-7 2-2 7; Cooper 1-3 0-2 2; Lawrence 1-2 0-0 2; Arts 0-1 0-0 0; Fitt-Chappell 0-3 0-0 0. Totals: 30-66 19-24 85.
3-point goals -- Central Washington 12-17 (Hicks 6-8; Den Boer 3-6; Bannish 2-2; Assink 1-2), UAA 6-17 (Burgess 5-7; Draper 1-5; Hartman 0-1; Cooper 0-1; Lawrence 0-1; Fitt-Chappell 0-1; Davis 0-1). Fouled out -- McMillion. Rebounds -- Central Washington 27 (Den Boer 6), UAA 36 (Davis 8). Assists -- Central Washington 17 (Spevak 4; Bannish 4; Den Boer 4), UAA 15 (Lawrence 4; Burgess 4). Total fouls -- Central Washington 22, UAA 19. A -- 1,032.
Central Washington44 44 -- 88
UAA 31 54 -- 85
By VAN WILLIAMS
Anchorage Daily News