It wasn’t supposed to end this way this time.
The unfortunate thing is that it did.
For the third straight season Wagner fell in the semifinals of the Northeast Conference tournament on its own home court. Despite all the success Dan Hurley and Bashir Mason have brought to Grymes Hill, neither coach has been able to make it past the final four in the conference tournament.
“It’s on me to figure out a way to get us past this point,” Mason said.
This time Mount St. Mary’s went to the Spiro Sports Center and pulled out a 77-72 victory on Saturday afternoon. With the victory the Mount will go to their second straight NEC finals.
The loss dealt a cruel final blow to the careers of Kenneth Oritz, Latif Rivers, Naofall Folahan, and Orlando Parker. While Ortiz scored a game-high 26 points, his classmate Rivers struggled, shooting 2-14 from the field and scoring seven points.
The loss was certainly frustrating for Ortiz. He had a three with 19 seconds to play that could’ve tied the game, but it fell off the left side of the rim. Wagner’s feisty point guard finished 1-3 from distance.
“I’m so used to making big plays that I was so confident about it going in,” Ortiz said. “For it not to go in, it hurt.”
On the other side, the Mount’s senior guards – Rashad Whack, Julian Norfleet, and Sam Prescott – were brilliant. They fought through foul trouble in the first half to grab a four-point lead after 20 minutes thanks to an 8-0 run, including four points in the final five seconds. Whack, who played with two fouls for the final six minutes of the half, carried the Mountaineers’ offense with 12 of his team-high 21 points before the break.
While Wagner (19-12) played with confidence in the second half, it was Mount St. Mary’s seniors that seemed to hit every big shot. The Mount built the lead to 10 points with 16:15 to go in the second half. The Seahawks cut the deficit to a single point twice, but they could never get that final shot to go down.
“I just thought if we made that shot. Just one more shot you put a little bit more pressure on the other team,” Mason said. “In those situations the ball just wouldn’t go in the hole.”
Instead the Mount found ways to extend to lead back to a more comfortable margin. Prescott scored 10 of his 16 points during the second half and every single basket seemed to tilt the game more in the Mount’s favor. Both times Ortiz found a way to score and cut the lead to a single point it was Prescott that answered, including two clutch free throws with 46 seconds remaining. Norfleet, who picked up three fouls in the first half, also scored 10 points in the second.
Having all three perimeter threats clicking made Mount St. Mary’s a tremendous challenge for Wagner to defend. The Seahawks blocked nine shots, but if a Wagner player didn’t get a hand on it the shot was most likely going in. The Mount shot an even 50% (28-56) from the field and scored 1.20 points per possession. It was Wagner’s worst defensive performance of the entire NEC season.
“They just made really tough shots,” Mason said. “There wasn’t many uncontested shots where they got wide open looks. There was always a guy in their face and they were good enough to make them.”
Mason didn’t blame his players afterwards though. He said that it wasn’t due to Wagner’s lack of energy, but the Mount’s ability to hit those tough, timely shots that was the issue. The Mountaineers also did a good job of finding trailers and kick-outs around the rim.
“They have three guys down there that if you get past their first line of defense it’s tough to finish over them,” Norfleet said. “We started to learn that if we could penetrate in there it wasn’t going to be for us, it was going to be for the next guy.”
Mount St. Mary’s (15-16) also got a big lift from sophomore forward Gregory Graves. While the Mountaineers front court – and paint defense – has been a huge question mark for Jamion Christian all season, the Mount were only outscored by four points down low. Graves was 5-6 from the field and scored 12 points. He also grabbed seven rebounds as the two teams played to a stalemate on the boards.
“He’s great in games like this because he played in a lot of them in high school as the best man on the floor,” Christian said about Graves. “Today I had a really good feeling he would play well because he really has no fear and he has a confidence level that sometimes we have to try and break down a little bit.”
For those Wagner seniors this loss potentially ends their collegiate careers – a postseason bid is a possibility, though not necessarily expected. Ortiz said that while the loss was frustrating, it’ll be an important lesson he takes forward.
“I’ll never forget these moments. I’m going to remember this 10 years down the line,” Ortiz said. “It really hurts though to not come out with a championship. Being here and fall short. This is not the end of basketball for me, I’m pretty sure. I’m just going to learn from this and continue to play the way I play. Play hard. Play to win and keep pushing. On the next level I’m not going to try and come up short like I did here.”
Because wherever he ends up. Ortiz doesn’t want this to happen again.