Monday, April 15, 2024

Miracle ends Cardinals’ season

Anderson Jr. soaks in the on-court playoff atmosphere in front of Cortland’s loud crowd of 615.

 

By Michael Purtell

For some teams, the season comes down to the luck of a bounce.

For the Plattsburgh Cardinals men’s basketball team, it came down to six.

The first playoff game under Head Coach Mike Blaine ended in heartbreak for the Cardinals when Cortland Red Dragon Kendall Arcuri heaved a contested three at the buzzer, giving Cortland the win 78-77.

The shot hung on the rim and bounced six times before falling through the net.

“I thought we had it. I thought it was in the books,” senior Willard Anderson Jr. said.

Cortland fans stormed the court. The cheers were so loud the microphones of the broadcast were unable to process the noise. 

The Cardinals were stunned behind the mob. Some players couldn’t do so much as stand from their seats. Junior Kevin Tabb dropped to his knees as Cardinals in black were lost in a sea of white.

“When it went the wrong way I didn’t know what to say,” Tabb said.

After maintaining intensity and professionalism throughout the match, the moment was enough to bring emotions to a fever pitch. 

While the Red Dragons cheered, Anderson disappeared into the hall. Graduate student Dylan Trombley kicked a door in frustration. 

“Compose yourself,” head coach Mike Blaine told Trombley.

“Compose yourself for what? My career is over,” Trombley responded. 

When the team tried to meet post-game, those who left first couldn’t be found.

“Emotions were up and down throughout the whole game. There were times when I was crying on the bench,” Anderson said. “I was crying because I wanted to win.”

To help maintain his composure through the emotional battle, Anderson kept the names of loved ones who are “no longer here” written on a band of athletic tape around his wrists. Throughout the evening, he kissed his wrist and pointed to the sky in prayer.

The energy of the playoff atmosphere led to a night of non-stop physicality on defense and tough shot making on offense. 

“Nobody wants to go home,” Anderson said.

The Cardinals opened strong, going up 8-3. Cortland answered with four buckets, three of which came from the three-point line to take the lead.

The tone was set for the next 45 minutes of basketball. Neither team put together a run without the opponent answering, with the largest lead on both sides being six.

In the first half, the Red Dragons did its fire-breathing namesake proud with hot shooting from the perimeter. The team shot 7-17 from three in the first 20 minutes, taking more than half of its attempts from deep.

The Cardinals’ defense allowed a large number of three pointers as they battled down low with Cortland big man Aaron Coston, who their defense limited to just one two point attempt in the half, which he missed.

Coston averaged 13.9 points in the regular season. The attention his post offense drew paired nicely with the shooting of Arcuri, who was 2-3 from deep in the first half.

In the second half, the Cardinals switched tactics to prioritize perimeter rotations over help defense in the paint. While Cardinals were scrambling to chase shooters, Coston found his footing and added eight points on four shots and five free-throws.

Plattsburgh’s defensive pressure was enough to limit Cortland’s secondary shooters, but did nothing to slow down Arcuri, who was 2-2 from beyond the arc.

The Cardinals were given a chance to win with 20 seconds left. While the Cards held a two-point lead, Cortland intentionally fouled junior Ikechukwu Ezike to stall the clock. In a moment that could decide these two teams’ seasons, the crowd made its move.

Cortland’s football team was the cornerstone of the white-out crowd that made itself heard. It wanted an empty trip to the line. 

“I just missed, honestly,” Ezike said. “I know my teammates believe in me and I believe in myself. That’s why it really hurt.”

Arcuri tied up the game on the other end with a layup, a premonition of what would come in OT.

Anderson, with a chance to take the game, dribbled the ball coast-to-coast and put up a three point shot. It missed at the buzzer.

In overtime, Tabb made multiple plays down the stretch to keep the Cardinals alive. In the last three minutes, he grabbed a steal at the half court line and got Ezike an and-one to put the Cardinals up.

A handful of possessions later, Tabb drained a step-back three from the wing to tie the game at 75. It was his only three attempted in the contest.

Tabb, who ranks second in points per game in the SUNYAC this season with 15.7, notched a double double with 14 points and 10 boards, including three offensive rebounds. Tabb also recorded three steals.

Ezike recorded 17 points and eight rebounds with one block, assist and steal.

Anderson finished the final game of his collegiate career with 14 points, five rebounds, one assist and one steal.

Trombley’s final performance included 18 points – five of which came in overtime – four rebounds, two assists and two steals. His playoff nerves were hardened from visits with Oneonta, his previous team. He knew he’d need to come into this game ready to hit big shots.

“I played in the playoffs a couple of times so I knew what to expect coming in,” Trombley said. “I kind of tried to be that guy for the team.”

The experience of the graduating seniors will be remembered fondly by the young players on the team. Ezike said that Anderson’s impact specifically on the underclassmen has helped them take great strides in developing their competitive mindset and basketball skill.

  The 2023-24 Cardinals had been defeated, but the season was more than just its gut-wrenching finish. The team made its first playoff appearance under Blaine, a huge step for Plattsburgh.

“The hope for us is that we can take the strides that we made this year and also understand the things we need to do to make another leap towards the next level,” Blaine said. “Not just being in the playoffs, but contending for a conference championship.”

 

Additional reporting was done for this story by Collin Bolebruch and Justin Rushia.

 

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