BY CHAD DARE firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — DANVILLE — Phoenix College freshman guard Brandon Brown could find any words to describe the emotions that he was felling as the Bears advanced to NJCAA Division II National Tournament championship game with a 73-72 victory over Central Community College of Nebraska on Friday night at the Mary Miller Gymnasium.
"I'm speechless right now,'' said Brown, who scored a team-high 22 points, including two free throws with 14.7 seconds that proved to be the difference for Phoenix College (27-8).
"Game on the line, you have to hit those free throws,'' Brown said. "I practice free throws every day. I missed a few early, so I got my composure and stuck with it.''
Not only was Brown as cool as ice on his free-throw attempts, but he was also pretty calm as he buried a 3-pointer from almost 30 feet with 1 minute left in the game, giving Phoenix College a 71-70 lead.
"That was huge,'' Phoenix College coach Matt Gordon said. "It won us the game.''
And even though the Bears had the lead after Brown's 3-pointer and they had extended that lead to 73-70 on the freshman's two free throws, Phoenix College still had to sweat out the final seconds.
Central Community College (25-10) got a opportunity to tie the game with 5.7 seconds left as Tra-Deon Hollins drove to the basket, hit a layup and was fouled on the play. But the 6-foot-3 freshman from Omaha, Neb., who had 27 points, came up short on his free-throw attempt.
But, the Raiders secured the rebound as Tyron Criswell, who had a game-high 28 points, grabbed the ball and attempted to go back up with the shot, but he was blocked by Phoenix College's Joel Fiegler.
The ball went out-of-bounds and Central Community College was going to get another chance with an in-bounds play under its basket with 3.2 seconds left, after the official review.
"We thought they were going to go with the alley-oop to the big guy (Riak Bol), so we just stayed at home, contest everything, switch everything and tallk as a team,'' Brown said. "They rolled (Criswell) for an open shot, but we were sitting right there, waiting on him. We knew he was the go-to guy.''
So Hollins instead got the ball inbounds to Bol, about 10 feet from the basket. Hollins then came off the baseline, grabbed the ball from Bol and tried a 12-footer jumper from the left wing. Phoenix College had two defenders right here and one of them came up with the block.
"They are tough. What do you do on an out-of-bounds play when they switch everything,'' Central Community College coach Marty Levinson said. "We did a little screen the screener. We hadn't shown that action before.
"The only thing that I'm biting myself in the butt about, maybe I wish I had put TC (Criswell) in Riak's position as the guy that set the screen and opened up. A lot of times when people switch there is a window right there. Riak got it. but Tra-Deon came back in, and said, "give me the ball.' He went up and they blocked it.''
Surviving those final seconds was just part of what the Bears did on Friday night. Phoenix College, which led by as much 12 in the first half, had the lead for 37 of the game's first 38 minutes.
"Coach kept telling us that they were going to make their run and they made it,'' Brown said. "We managed to stick together as a team and fight back.''
And that's what Phoenix had to do after Criswell gave Central Community College a 70-68 lead with three-point play with 2:05 left in the contest.
"The strength of our team is our confidence,'' Gordon said. "We are just steady. We never get up too much, we never get too down. The other team makes a run, most teams get down and start yelling at each other. We just have the same demeanor whether we are up 20 or down 20, close game or not a close game.
"They are almost like professionals. They just do their job — workmanlike.''
And when it came down to Brown making the big 3-pointer or the clutch free throws, Gordon said he was the exact guy the Bears wanted in that position.
"He has won the games, a few of them at the line for us,'' Gordon said. "That's a guy that is going to make clutch shots for us and he is our guy down the stretch. We are going to win or lose with Brandon Brown.''
And while Brown had the game-high 22 points and Derreck Brooks, the hero of Thursday's win over Fort Scott, chipped in with 20, Phoenix College got a surprising eight points from Steven Green. The freshman, who missed most of the season with a broken foot, hit a pair of 3-pointers and two free throws in just over 10 minutes of playing time.
"He only started playing in our last regular-season game,'' said Gordon. "The kid is very talented, just a little wet behind the ears. He can really score the basketball.
"I thought we needed some scoring tonight because Cam (Cameron Isreal) hurt his ankle last night. So we needed someone to step up and he step up in a huge way.''
Brendon Pineada-Morales also scored in double digits for Phoenix with 11 points, while Ronald Tademy had a game-high 10 rebounds for the Bears.
While there was plenty of big shots and game-changing plays in the contest, the difference in the final score could also be traced back to a pregame technical on Central Community College for dunking during warmups.
Brooks made 1-of-2 free throws, giving Phoenix a 1-0 lead before the opening tip.
"It's crazy when you look back at that,'' Levinson admitted. "It's an elementary mistake. They (give you a technical) since high school for dunking in warmups. All year long, you tell your kids don't do this, don't do that, and this comes back to bite you in the butt.''
With the victory, Phoenix College advances to the NJCAA Division II National Championship game and the Bears will be playing the Essex County College Wolverines.
Both teams are appearing in their first-ever championship game . Tip off for the title game is tentatively set for 7:30 p.m. and the game can be heard locally on WDAN-AM 1490. It's also available online at www.njcaatv.com.
Before the championship game, Central Community College will play Wake Tech in the third-place contest at 5:30 p.m.