Unusual excitement colors last-second Shepherd win
If Shepherd athletics employed an outside publicity agency to bring the area information about the school’s men’s basketball team, it wouldn’t take much imagination to create any well-placed interest in the team.
Last Saturday at the crowded Butcher Center, the over-achieving Rams showed their backers another in a season-long series of Mountain East Conference games decided in the emotional last moments.
The publicity handlers could write in all upper case letters: SHEPHERD FACES WHEELING JESUIT TONIGHT. CHECK YOUR HEART RATE. AND THEN CHECK YOUR EMOTIONS AT THE DOOR.
After already showing its followers a home schedule full of overtime games, last-moment victories and one last-gasp loss, Shepherd used a trio of superlative individual plays from senior guard Marcus Pilgrim to thwart visiting West Virginia State.
The Rams were behind the fiesty Yellow Jackets. They had been behind for nearly all of the second half. The game was ominously slipping away. Only two minutes remained.
Pilgrim, the smallest of Shepherd’s Big Six, first-line players, connected on a three-point field goal. Still the Rams trailed. Back came Pilgrim with another three-pointer. Still the Rams trailed with less than a minute left to rescue the game.
Shepherd’s Naim Muhammad made two free throws. Fairmont scored with about 20 seconds left. Austin Cunningham gave Shepherd a lead with two free throws. Fairmont scored as masterful Bo King (28 points) made two free throws.
Finally, after a timeout with seven seconds to play, a pressured Pilgrim drove the length of the court and cast off a running jumper from about eight feet. The diminutive guard was fouled. The overhead scoreboard clock showed 1.9 seconds were left.
Even with no morals, no parables about hard work and perseverance being rewarded, Pilgrim made both free throws.
Shepherd had achieved a 93-92 conference win to improve its overall record to 14-4. Its own work ethic was little solace to West Virginia State as its troops slowly trudged off to a dressing room waiting with a bushel of rhetorical “what if’s” that could not be answered.
Both teams had enhanced the tempo with full-court pressure defense.
The Yellow Jackets managed to hurry their way through the Shepherd defense. The Rams weren’t as fortunate as they fumbled away 13 turnovers by halftime. But the Rams had six more rebounds to give themselves seven more field goal attempts.
An important factor in the long run came with but four seconds remaining in the half. Shepherd coach Justin Namolik took a timeout. His strategy was rewarded when the Rams counted a layup that enabled them to carry a 42-41 lead into the intermission.
A different complexion came to the game’s face when the second half sprinted from the starting gate and found both sides scoring more freely.
West Virginia State was scoring more freely when it took a 55-48 lead.
All too soon, the Rams’ Kevin Jones and Brantley Osborne both had three fouls.
Shepherd would be looking up at a deficit for the final 17 minutes of the spurt-filled action. Or until the very last minute.
Muhammad committed his fourth foul.
But the Yellow Jackets were consumed by the same frenetic pace that had Shepherd players grouped in foul trouble.
In fact, Shepherd reached the bonus at the free throw line even before the Yellow Jackets.
Shepherd would eventually show an 88 percent success rate at the foul line, making 28-of-32 attempts. West Virginia State was nearly as true, going 27-for-33 from the line for an 82 percent showing.
Even with the Rams and their collection of five double-figure scorers continually nipping at the Yellow Jacket lead, that lead was always in West Virginia State’s corner.
There were also five Yellow Jackets managing double figures, but it was King as the guiding force and commander in chief.
Finally, Shepherd had the final possession. It trailed by a point. Until Pilgrim (17 points and 7-of-8 free throws) took his last long trip along the sideline in front of the Shepherd bench. He launched his shot and was fouled.
Shepherd had won again in the final blue and yellow moments.
A publicity agency would just sit back and show a collective smile as wide as the Grand Canyon. And as long-lasting as the Rams’ tenacity and plucky grit.