ST. MARY'S CITY, MD – Junior guard Julian Watson hit a go-ahead jumper with 31 seconds left in regulation, giving the York College men's basketball team a lead they wouldn't relinquish as the Spartans defeated top seed St. Mary's College 61-58 in the Capital Athletic Conference semifinals on Thursday night in St. Mary's City.
The victory puts the Spartans into the conference tournament championship game for the first time since 2005 and extends retiring head coach Jeff Gamber's career at least one more game. The Spartans captured their lone tournament championship in that 2005 contest against Catholic.
Watson's heroic shot is his second game winner in the CAC Tournament as he gave the Spartans the lead late in the dramatic Frostburg State win on Tuesday. Watson's shot was preceded by some dramatic basketball by both teams.
The action heated up in the last four minutes of the game as the Seahawks took a 55-53 lead on a Chris Hutchinson jumper only to have Adam Earle come up big with a lay up, tying the game with 3:31 remaining in regulation. After a steal and a missed three by the Spartans, St. Mary's turned it over as guard Nick Laguerre was called for a charge, giving the ball back to York. Senior Paul Kouvaris then did what he has done all year for York, hitting a big bucket with the shot clock winding down, giving the Spartans a 57-55 lead.
St. Mary's Devin Spencer answered with his fourth three of the game, giving the hosts a 58-57 lead with 1:34 remaining in the game. York's Todd Maciejewski was called for a player control foul but Spencer missed a three on the Seahawks ensuing possession and Maciejewski came down with the board, giving the Spartans life with 47 seconds remaining in regulation. That set the stage for Watson's huge game-winner as he hit a jumper just outside the lane for the lead.
The Seahawks had one last chance down one point and 30 seconds left. St. Mary's went to Spencer again and for the second consecutive time, he missed the three and Kouvaris pulled down one of the biggest rebounds of his career. He was fouled and calmly sank a pair of free throws with 0.6 seconds left, giving the Spartans the final three-point margin of victory.
The opening five minutes of the game was heavily tilted in the favor of St. Mary's as the Seahawks opened the game with an 11-4 burst. The Seahawks maintained the lead between five and seven points before the Spartans put together six quick points, cutting their deficit to just one at 15-14. The St. Mary's lead bounced between one and three points over the next five minutes until Maciejewski hit a lay up, giving York a 22-21 lead. The Seahawks answered with five straight points, pushing the lead to four. After a Mitch Kemp jumper, Christan MacAuley hit a triple give the Seahawks a five point lead. The Spartans answered with four straight points from Watson just before the break as the Spartan halftime deficit stood at one, 29-28.
The Spartans opened the second stanza right where they left off. York put together a 10-0 run, 14-0 if you include the small spurt at the end of the first half. The run was highlighted by a pair of big Mo Oursler three-pointers as the Spartans found themselves with a game-high lead of nine.
The Seahawks finally caught the Spartans at the 9:42 mark when Spencer hit the second of consecutive threes, tying the game at 46. The Spartans answered with buckets from Watson and senior Andrew Pawlyk as the York lead grew back to four. The Seahawks tied the game at 53, setting the scene for a fantastic final four minutes of basketball.
Kouvaris powered the Spartans as the senior poured in a game-high 19 points while he also grabbed a team-high seven boards. Kouvaris was 7-for-11 from the field while he also drilled all five of his free throw attempts. Watson added 12 points, two rebounds and four assists in the victory. Earle played another steady game as the senior had four points, six rebounds, four assists, a blocked shot and a steals in his 27 minutes of action.
MacAuley led the Seahawks with 13 points and game-high eight rebounds. The talented sophomore was 6-for-11 from the floor while he also had a game-high four blocked shots. Spencer added 12 points with all of his tallies coming on three point field goals. Spencer handed out a game-high five assists while he also pulled in three rebounds. Mike Fitzpatrick was the third Seahawk in double figures with 11 points.
The Spartans shot a blistering 54.3% in the win, the seventh time this year they broke the 50% barrier. York tied a season-low with eight three-point attempts as Oursler converted York's only two triples. The Green and White was excellent at the free throw line, nailing 9-of-11 from the stripe. The 11 attempts at the line was the second-lowest number of attempts for this year for York.
The Spartans held the Seahawks to 38.6% overall shooting but St. Mary's did bang nine three pointers in 25 attempts (36%). The Seahawks had just eight free throw attempts in the game, making five of them.
The win at St. Mary's snaps a few streaks for the Spartans. They had lost five straight to St. Mary's, including the two regular season games this year by a total of four points, while York had lost four straight in St. Mary's City. York's last victory at St. Mary's came on January 9, 2008 as the Spartans escaped with an 85-84 win. The last overall win against the Seahawks came on December 12, 2009 when current assistant coach Nick Brady hit a game-winning three to lift the Spartans to a 64-61 win.
The victory for York is the 492nd of Gamber's storied career and he will get the chance to coach in his 917th game on Saturday at Mary Washington.
The Spartans improve to 17-10 overall while the Seahawks fall to 19-7 as they must now wait to see if they will earn an at-large bid to the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
The Green and White will play for a ticket in the big dance on Saturday, traveling to Mary Washington to take on the second seeded Eagles in the CAC Championship game. The winner earns the CAC's automatic bid to the national tournament. Game time will be determined on Friday morning.
Julian Watson photo courtesy of Mike Zortman