Zach Thomann, Sports Editor
The weekend was filled with intense moments and buzzer-beating shots for the Pioneer basketball team, but Utica’s seven-game win streak came to an end against the top-seeded, and now Empire 8 champion, Nazareth College.
The Pioneers went into the conference tournament riding a six-game winning streak and faced Stevens Institute of technology in the semifinal.
Utica had beaten Stevens the game before in overtime after sophomore Tyler Jollie tied the game in regulation with a three-point-shot and would have similar late-game heroics from another underclassman in the second matchup.
UC found themselves in a two-point deficit with 2.6 seconds left in the game after Stevens was sent to the line and made two free throws. Head coach Sean Coffey designed a play for freshman Avery Coston to win the game and, after a pass from senior Ivan Iton, Coston drained a prayer from the top of the key to put the Pioneers ahead 63-62.
The team rushed the court to celebrate and Coston was greeted by several players tackling him.
“It was one of those moments I will never forget,” Coston said. “Watching the video still brings back goosebumps. I’m also very happy to say that I survived the dogpile after.”
Coston was happy with how the team played in the last few weeks and thinks they made doubters second guess the legitimacy of the team.
“This team went through all the ups and downs possible but still found a way to stick together and grow,” Coston said. “We earned a lot of respect this season. Winning seven straight to make it into the E8 final was incredible, and I’m proud to have been apart of it.”
Coffey thinks his players executed the final play perfectly and was stunned when Costons shots went through the net.
“Everyone was looking at me differently during the timeout because we knew our chance of winning was a longshot,” Coffey said. “We wanted Avery to get the shot but it was a much better shot than it was a play call.”
The team was excited over the win, but Coffey knew that the team still had work to be done. He said the team talked in the locker room about not letting the game get to their heads because they had to play in the championship game the following afternoon.
“We have a bunch of guys who have been in this league for a few years that have never made it to that point yet,” Coffey said. “But they understood how difficult it is to get into the playoffs, let alone win a championship.”
Nazareth was the top seed in the Empire 8 and had the luxury of having home-court advantage in the championship game. Utica battled back into the game after facing an 11-point deficit with under seven minutes left in the game. After a 17-6 run, the game was tied at 64, but the comeback came up short when tournament MVP and senior Tyler Stenglein sealed the game with a score in the final moments.
Looking back at the game, Coffey has regrets on mistakes that were made as a team but is happy with the way everyone competed.
“You can dissect any game,” Coffey said. “Even your wins aren’t perfect. There will always be plays that keep me up at night thinking.”
Utica had one last chance at the end of the game to tie or take the lead with a similar scenario to the game against Stevens, but Coffey elected not to call timeout and senior Carl Taylor’s shot at the buzzer failed to go in.
“I should have called timeout,” Coffey said. “At the time I thought that we may have a better chance pushing the ball before the defense got set.”
Taylor’s shot was another low percentage shot and Coffey was skeptical that it almost went in.
“I would have been sick to my stomach if his shot went in, and I called a timeout before,” Coffey said.
Coffey has no regrets with how the team competed throughout the game and thinks he learned more about the tendencies of college basketball where “anything can happen.”
“Our team had its back against the wall for eight games in a row,” Coffey said. “It showed me that a team can still find its identity at the end of the season.”
The Pioneers are losing four seniors this year, including Ivon Iton who is a two-time defensive player of the year in the Empire 8. He finished the season nearly averaging a double-double with 16.1 points and 9.7 rebounds while shooting 60 percent from the floor.
Coffey is sad to see the senior class graduate but has an optimistic attitude for the future.
“It’s going to be hard next year,” Coffey said. “The top half of the league is returning most of their starters. It’s a huge void to lose the seniors but also a huge opportunity.”
The coaching staff hopes the underclassmen learned from the seniors on the team and can adjust next season. They have concerns on the defensive end losing the top shot-blocker in the conference, but believe the Pioneers can still compete.
“We are excited for the future,” said assistant coach David Wadas. “We will treat the sophomores this year like seniors from now on, and it will be their turn to run the team.”