All Bashir Mason could do was smile. What else was there to do?
Keith Braxton faked, got stuck, and self-admittedly threw the ball at the basket, and it subsquently made one revolution around the rim and dropped, giving Saint Francis University a 71-70 victory in the NEC semifinals Saturday afternoon. As the ball finally finished its circuituous journey to the bottom of the net, it simultaneously stunned the home crowd at the Spiro Center and set off wild celebrations among the Red Flash and their faithful, as it marks the first time since 1991 they will be in the NEC final, well before anyone in uniform Saturday was born.
“Welcome to March Madness,” Mason said. “What else can you say?”
That was the short answer, of course, but possibly one that Mason might not have been able to give four years ago as a rookie head coach. However, now at the ripe old age of 32 and five years into his coaching career, perspective is much easier to grasp, even after the most brutal of losses to end his campaign and another 12-month wait (this was the second consecutive home NEC Tournament for Wagner) to try to reach the holy grail of the NCAA Tournament.
Wagner lost arguably their best player, Romone Saunders, after the season opening upset of UConn, another starter – Marquis Salmon – after just three games, and then senior Mike Aaman – who had made such a great comeback after dealing with concussions for almost a year – tore his ACL in the penultimate game of the regular season last week. But still they persevered and just came up one bounce of the ball short.
Unfair? In a way, but Mason for one, has no regrets.
“I’ve been doing it for a little bit now,” Mason said. “You win some, you lose some. Some of them are really tough, but not just this loss, but losing three starters and everything we’ve been through, for us to lose in that fashion, I’m not going to be restless tonight because I know we maxed out. We got the most out of this group the entire year and today, we got the most out of every kid that played.”
— Ron Ratner (@NECHoopsRon) March 4, 2017
Mason – who is no stranger to buzzer-beaters from his playing days, either – was also immediately able to grasp how big a moment it was for St. Francis and Rob Krimmel, who began his head coaching career at the same time he did. He mentioned how often he and Krimmel talk (or text) during the regular season to compare notes and stories.
“I’ve always felt like he was a really good coach,” Mason said. “I don’t know how he got that type of talent way out in Loretto, PA. I’m really happy and excited for him and the opportunity he has now.”
While Mason took the relatively quick road to a Division I head coaching position, Krimmel bided his time as a St. Francis U. lifer. He played for the Red Flash from 1996-2000 (averaging 10.4 points per game and hitting 60 three-pointers in his final season) then immediately joined the coaching staff.
When Bobby Jones (who took over before Krimmel’s senior season) resigned after nine seasons in 2008, it looked like Penn State assistant Kurt Kanaskie would take over, which made sense, the relatively new athletic director in Loretto had spent most of his career at Penn State. His name? Bob Krimmel, Rob’s father. But the reported deal with Kanaskie fell through, and Don Friday, formerly of Division III Lycoming ended up taking the job, with Rob carrying on as an assistant.
All the while, the Red Flash were suffering through losing seasons, all but two since their NEC title way back in 1991. After four more losing campaigns, Friday was out. By then, Krimmel had certainly paid his dues, but a father hiring his son is always going to raise an eyebrow or two (even though Rob was at St. Francis a decade before his father). And it did. (Rob’s brother John also works in the St. Francis athletic department while another brother, Ken, works behind the scenes at St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia).
There was only one way to truly make the doubters go away and that was to win, easier said than done, of course. Entering this season, St. Francis had posted 9-9 records in the NEC the last two years. But the Red Flash graduated three starters and then had their most experienced returner, Malik Harmon, tear his ACL in the preseason. Then sophomore Basil Thompson was arrested and left the school.
What was left? Some athletic players, led by sophomores Isaiah Blackmon and Josh Nebo, so Krimmel decided to do what the Red Flash have never done, at least since KenPom was keeping track: run. St. Francis went from 273rd to 84th in adjusted tempo, and it opened things up for the athletic team to get good looks and, remarkably (although they were third last season) lead the NEC in adjusted offense this season.
How did Krimmel get these players to come to Loretto? Well, largely, very few schools wanted them. Blackmon – from Charlotte, where there are a few college basketball teams that could use his services – doesn’t even come up as the first Isaiah Blackmon on recruiting searches. Nebo, the NEC Defensive Player of The Year who didn’t allow Wagner near the basket for most of the contest and finished with eight blocks, most in the NEC Tournament game since 1983, came from Houston. Braxton was a little more acclaimed coming out of New Jersey, but few envisioned him jumping all the way to a second-team all-NEC selection (and Rookie of the Year) this season.
Of course, perhaps Krimmel’s most important recruit was a hometown kid named Jorden McClure just after he took over the reigns of the program. McClure was born with Larsen Syndrome, but has become a vital part of St. Francis basketball, one of the first texts Krimmel got after the final buzzer.
“As a coach, when you see that belief in a player or in a team, there are very few things that are more powerful in a locker room than belief and that word wasn’t always a part of our program,” Krimmel said. “Jordan McClure for those who know the story of Team IMPACT and what Jorden has meant to our program. He’s the one that brought the word believe in.”
They torched Bryant for 100 points (and 1.22 ppp) in the quarterfinals, and although the Red Flash could not get the pace where they wanted Saturday (Wagner played a big role in that), still finished at 1.16 ppp, and made so many huge plays down the stretch in an ending that will go down in NEC lore, even before Braxton’s game-winner that you’ve likely seen several times by now.
“I was going to make an extra pass, but I wasn’t sure how much time was left, so I just threw it up, and thankfully it went in,” Braxton said. “It wasn’t the prettiest of shots, but I saw the backboard go red and the shot go in, and I was overjoyed.”
With Wagner matching its biggest lead of the afternoon at 62-59 (on a Michael Carey three-point play; Carey finished with 29 and 10 after scoring 32 in the quarterfinal and was remarkably composed and poignant in the postgame press conference), two Blackmon free throws made it 62-61 with 2:33 left. Then Jamaal King, pressed into more action due to the Harmon injury this season, got a run-out to give the Red Flash the lead back.
“We were at the point as a team where we were bending and we were about to break,” Krimmel said. “You saw our guys come over to the sidelines, they were a little down on themselves, but give these guys credit. They responded in this unbelievable atmosphere. Big shot after big shot, and our guys didn’t get rattled.”
After Corey Henson answered with a three, Blackmon tied the game at 65-65 with 1:11 left. Wagner then ran the shot clock down only to have Henson bury another three with 42 seconds left to put the Seahawks back in front, 68-65. But it was King again 10 seconds later to tie it. On the next possession, Wagner ran the shot clock down and Carey got loose for what he called a Magic Johnson hook shot (“I saw him on film, I wasn’t old enough to see him live, but I practice that shot all the time”,” Carey said) with 7.4 seconds left, giving the Seahawks what would be their final lead of the season at 70-68.
The rest was all Keith Braxton and the basketball gods that have been so cruel to Mason and Wagner in the last couple of seasons.
Final tally: the two teams combined to make their final seven shots from the field, four of them from beyond the three-point arc with no turnovers in between. Can you do any better than that?
— Saint Francis U MBB (@RedFlashMBB) March 4, 2017
And that’s why, in addition to feeling great for Krimmel and his team, Mason can hold his head up high and be proud of his team’s effort, even though his season – again – ended in such heartbreaking fashion.
— Saint Francis U MBB (@RedFlashMBB) March 4, 2017
“Those kids played their hearts out,” Mason said. “All of them on both teams. Just a March type shot happened, but I couldn’t be more prouder of my group to battle back and take the lead and the guts they showed down the stretch. My relationship with my guys is bigger than basketball. When the game’s over, I think about the seniors and the emotions they’re going through and help them pick up the pieces. That’s what we’ll do.”
Wagner's Mike Carey, who was fantastic with 29 points, congratulates Saint Francis' Keith Braxton on incredible winning 3-pointer. pic.twitter.com/zgaBI4zfk3
— Cory Giger (@CoryGiger) March 4, 2017