LYNCHBURG — Excruciating, nail-biter, heart-breaker. These were just three of the adjectives used on Friday night by Cougar fans immediately after their semi-final round game in the Region VII Conference basketball contest between Cleveland State and Walters State. The Cougars led most of the way and were nine seconds and an unlucky roll of the ball away from securing the win and a spot in the National Tournament.
Instead, the Cougars fell one point short of their goal as their season came to an end at the hands of the Senators as Walters State moved into Saturday's Conference Finals with a 52-51 win.
There were two spots open in the National Tournament for the Region VII Conference on Friday. Top seeded and regular season champ, Motlow State had already secured one spot with the other going to the winner of the Cougars and Senators game.
The Senators scored the first four points of the contest, but a layup by Travis Jones and a steal and slam dunk by Ralph Eason tied the game seconds later. The lead changed hands six times over the next several minutes before four straight Cougar free tosses put them on top, 13-10.
The Cougars would hold a small lead the rest of the half as Eason and Dantario Dansby hit a shot from downtown each to help their team to its largest lead of the night, 31-22 at halftime.
An 11-2 run by the Senators to start the second half erased the Cleveland State halftime advantage in a hurry. Denard Williams hit a three and jumper in the paint while Leland Robinson added a turnaround jumper as the Senators tied the game at 33 all.
The Cougars then righted the ship as Jones and Dansby connected from behind the stripe again to regain a slim lead. Cleveland State held the lead until the 3:20 mark when Robinson finally put the Senators on top with a nice turnaround jumper.
The lead changed hands five more times down the stretch as the tension level went through the roof. Down by a point, Dansby put the Cougars on top with a driving layup with only 9.9 seconds to go. A foul was called on the Cougars with 5.3 seconds to play and Cedarious Taylor calmly sank two free tosses to put the Senators back on top.
The Cougars had one last chance. Eason took the inbounds pass, streaked the length of the court and drove the lane for one of his patented layups. There was contact, but no foul was called. The ball rolled along the rim for what seemed to be an eternity for Cougar fans, and then rolled off the other side to end the game.
The Senators celebrated their spot in the tournament finals on Saturday and their spot in the National tournament while the Cougars sat in disbelief.
Eason led the Cougars (19-10) with 19 points and 12 rebounds and Dansby finsihed with 11 points. Williams and Robinson paced the Senators (15-15) with 11 points each while Jeffrey Simpson added 10.
On the ladies side of the draw, top seeded Walters State eliminated Chattanooga State while second seeded Volunteer State got past Dyersburg to set up their finals matchup on Saturday.