They have cut down a few nets in their time, but there was something special about cutting down their own.
It was a familiar but different feeling for the Centre College men, who added to their collection of conference tournament championships by winning their first one at home.
The Colonels won the inaugural Southern Athletic Association tournament today, beating Birmingham-Southern 46-44 in a ferocious title game at Alumni Gymnasium.
The win gave Centre its third conference tournament title in four years, its fourth in seven years and its eighth overall. And because the Colonels’ new conference rewards the No. 1 seed with the right to host the tourney, they finally got to enjoy the sports of victory in their own gym surrounded by family and friends.
“It’s really sweet,” said Centre guard Bryon Ellis, one of four seniors who have been part of three net-cutting rituals. “A great win today, and it’s great to close out the career with another conference tournament title. That’s always a special feeling. You go three days, and it’s a battle to come out on top. It’s a great feeling.”
While the Colonels are celebrating, they’re also awaiting word on whether they’ll qualify for the NCAA Division III tournament. The SAA does not yet have an automatic bid, so the players and coaches must wait until Monday to see if they are given one of the 20 at-large bids in the 62-team field.
Centre coach Greg Mason said he won’t worry about that tonight, saying he thinks the Colonels are in position to land at at-large bid.
“I would be very surprised if we’re not in,” Mason said. “This will be a night of relaxed celebration. A lot of grins, a lot of smiles. These conference tournaments take a lot out of you — players, coaches, everybody.”
The championship game certainly required a great deal of Centre (21-5) after close games in the first two rounds of the tournament. It was a pressure-packed, physically demanding street fight of a game.
“I think we’re a little bit better built for that, but what concerned me from Southern is all their seniors,” Mason said. “I think you saw two really exhausted teams giving it everything they had, and that’s when defense (comes through), and I think we’re the best defensive team in the conference. That’s what really helped us.”
Centre’s defense, which was ranked 14th in the nation entering the tourney, rose to the occasion. The Colonels held Birmingham-Southern (20-8), which entered the weekend averaging 74.8 points per game, to a score that was nine points lower than their previous low total of the season and was within two points of the lowest total allowed by Centre this year.
“We do a great job scouting. We know what they’re going to go to and when they’re going to go to it, but also, we just play really great team defense,” Ellis said.
Birmingham-Southern shot just 27.6 percent from the field, and the Panthers’ percentage was lowest in the second half, when they were 7 for 28.
Centre didn’t fare much better from the field, shooting 34.1 percent after going 7 for 24 in the first half.
“I think everyone was a little banged up from the weekend, and it was just more of a mental battle than anything,” said center Blake Scinta, who led Centre with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Scinta, a freshman, was named the tournament’s most valuable player after posting 51 points and 23 rebounds in three games.
"I played pretty bad last weekend, but I just knew that I had to give it my all, leave everything on the floor, and that's what we did tonight," he said. "I knew we had an advantage in the post in this game, and I really just focused more on the post and worked from there out."
Mason said that gave the Colonels the kind of weapon they have used to their advantage in previous championship games.
"He’s more of a guy to shoot 3s and take it off the bounce, but during the year he’s developed a low-post game, and in the big games, championship games ... somebody that can go low block and score, and that’s what Blake was today. We couldn’t run our stuff; they knew all our stuff,” Mason said.
Scinta went strong to the basket for a layup that gave Centre a 45-42 lead after Birmingham-Southern had pulled within one point on a Larry Thomas 3-pointer. It was 46-44 after Scinta hit one of two free throws and the Panthers’ Griffin Schamp scored on a tip-in with 1 minute, 57 seconds remaining, but neither team scored again.
Birmingham-Southern had the ball last, taking possession after Scinta missed a jumper with 36 seconds to go, and the Panthers called timeout at :17. Centre had one foul to give, and Tyler Wesley used it with 10 seconds left, fouling a Panther near the center circle.
"We did tell them at timeout that we had one foul to give, and Tyler made a remarkable basketball IQ play," Mason said. "His foul was perfect. I couldn't have drawn it up any better. They didn't have quite enough time to do what they wanted to do."
Schamp got off a 3-point shot from beyond the top of the key with 1 second left that missed the mark, triggering the Colonels' celebration.
The Panthers led by as many as eight points in the first half, but Centre, playing in its eight consecutive conference final, went on top to stay during a 10-1 run that ended with the Colonels leading 41-34 with 6:40 remaining.
CENTRE 46, BIRMINGHAM-SOUTHERN 44
Southern Athletic Association Tournament
At Alumni Gymnasium
Zac Richards 4-11 2-2 10, Colin Henry 0-3 0-0 0, Blaise White 1-6 0-0 2, Kevin Kegarise 3-10 2-3 11, Larry Thomas 5-16 0-0 11, Kelly Assinesi 0-1 0-0 0, Jason Holland 0-1 0-0 0, Schylar Freeman 0-1 1-2 1, Griffin Schamp 3-8 3-4 9, Brendan Marschner 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 16-58 8-11 44.
Josh Karsner 1-1 0-0 3, Tyler Wesley 0-1 4-4 4, Blake Scinta 4-9 7-10 15, Bryon Ellis 2-6 0-0 5, Chris Taylor 3-9 2-3 8, Matt Griggs 1-3 2-2 5, Collin Lopez 0-2 0-0 0, Donovan Whiteside 1-7 0-0 2, Holden Hertzel 2-3 0-0 4. Totals 14-41 15-19 46.
Halftime—Birmingham-Southern 25-21. 3-Point Goals—Birmingham-Southern 4-19 (White 0-4, Kegarise 3-8, Thomas 1-4, Schamp 0-2, Marschner 0-1), Centre 3-12 (Karsner 1-1, Ellis 1-4, Taylor 0-1, Griggs 1-2, Lopez 0-1). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Birmingham-Southern 35 (Richards, Schamp 7), Centre 37 (Scinta 10). Assists—Birmingham-Southern 6 (White 5), Centre 4 (4 tied with 1). Total Fouls—Birmingham-Southern 12, Centre 13. A—850.
Blake Scinta, Centre (most valuable player); Jonathan Abrams, Berry; Tyler Brown, Sewanee; Nick Cortese, Millsaps; Brendan Jovaag, Oglethorpe; Geoff Livsey, Rhodes; Zac Richards, Birmingham-Southern; Jaren Riley, Hendrix; Larry Thomas, Birmingham-Southern; Donovan Whiteside, Centre.