SALEM, Va. — Augustana didn’t go quietly Saturday in the championship game of the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament.
The Vikings wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“Another shot, another rebound, it would have made all the difference. That’s what hurts the most,’’ guard Nolan Ebel said following Augustana’s 79-78 loss to third-ranked Babson at the Salem Civic Center.
“We didn’t play our best, and the little things came back to bite us.’’
The Vikings, with five freshmen and sophomores in their top seven during their postseason run, gave themselves an opportunity as they whittled away at a double-digit deficit in the game’s final six minutes.
Three-point baskets by Chrishawn Orange, Ebel and the team’s only senior starter, Jacob Johnston, inched Augustana within the final score.
Johnston hit the last with 10.8 seconds remaining, but missed free throws by the Beavers’ Joey Flannery and Matthew Droney gave the Vikings two last opportunities.
Ebel had a shot on a drive to the basket rejected by all-American Joey Flannery with just under 2 seconds to play and after Droney missed a foul shot, Brett Benning grabbed the rebound and Augustana took a timeout with 1.5 left on the clock.
Benning was positioned to receive a three-quarter court inbounds pass, but was knocked to the ground as time expired as three Babson players closed in with hopes of catching the pass.
Vikings coach Grey Giovanine felt Benning was fouled on the play, saying, “I don’t understand how you can officiate one way for 39 minutes, 59 seconds and then change the way things are called. If you are going to let the players decide it, then do that.’’
Giovanine also said his team, which led by 10 points in the first half before the Beavers went on a 28-6 run which started midway through the first half, shouldn’t have been in that position.
“We didn’t play well enough to be ahead at that point,’’ said Giovanine, whose team has settled for second place in the national tourney twice in the last three seasons.
“We took some tough shots, did some things that were uncharacteristic of our team, and against a good, veteran team, that’s tough. Their five seniors were better than our six sophomores and freshmen. I think that made a difference for the first time in a long time.’’
Giovanine said he wanted his young team to appreciate the entire experience.
"This one will sting for a bit and it's hard right now, but these guys should be proud of what they accomplished. Nobody gave us a chance to be here,'' Giovanine said.
Flannery, who led Babson with 23 points, tied the game at 28-28 with just over seven minutes remaining in the first half and Nick Comenale hit a shot on the Beavers’ next possession which forced the Vikings to play from the behind the rest of the game.
After initially leading 23-13 following a Johnston basket midway through the first half, Augustana (24-8) found itself down 41-31 at halftime after hitting just 11-of-29 shots in the opening half.
“We had a bad stretch where we got away from the game plan,’’ said Johnston, who finished with 15 points. “It was everybody, we didn’t take the shots we needed, we didn’t defend the way we usually do and things snowballed a bit on us. We put ourselves in a bad spot.’’
Babson helped itself, forcing the Vikings’ big men away from the basket to create some open lanes to the bucket that paid dividends.
“Their freshmen big guys (Micah Martin and Donovan Ferguson), we had to get them away from the basket. They change how you have to play,’’ Beavers coach Stephen Brennan said. “When we were able to do that, it opened some things up for us.’’
The Vikings trailed by a dozen early in the second half, eventually using a 3-point basket by Dylan Sortillo, two Martin free throws and a pair of baskets by Johnston to pull within 56-52 midway through the second half before a pair of baskets by Flannery extended the Beavers' lead.
"When they needed a play, he stepped up and showed why he is an all-American,'' Giovanine said.
Flannery was joined in double figures by 18 points from Isaiah Nelsen and 16 from Comenale, whose 3-point basket with 4:15 remaining was followed by a three-point play and another basket by Flannery that left Babson (31-2) in control 79-72 with 2:38 remaining.
“They had the answers,’’ said Dylan Sortillo, who led Augustana with nine boards to go with eight points. “We’d cut into the lead, but we didn’t get the stops we needed. It was a tough way to end, a real tough loss.’’