LUBBOCK — Howard College's whole season came down to a free throw. With the game tied at 59 with 4.32 seconds left on the clock, if New Mexico Junior College's Desmond Lee missed his second shot from the line, the NJCAA Region V championship game at the Rip Griffin Center would have likely gone into overtime. But he made it, putting the Thunderbirds up 60-59.
In dramatic fashion, the No. 22 ranked Thunderbirds punched their ticket to the national championship in Hutchinson, Kan. HC gained possession of the ball one last time after Lee's foul shot, but turned it over when a player stepped out of bounds.
The atmosphere was electric as fans chanted “Howard Hawks” as the game was getting under way.
Cameron Forte — the Hawks' leading scorer on the season — scored nine points in the opening minutes, leading the charge as HC took a 16-6 lead.
Then it was NMJC's turn to dominate, as it closed out the first half with two consecutive three-point baskets to cap a 21-8 run and take a 28-24 lead before the intermission.
“It wasn't our best performance, but I thought we played hard” HC Head Coach Mark Adams said. “(NMJC) shot the ball better than we did. When you shoot under 50 percent from the free throw line in a championship game, it's difficult to win. We missed some critical block-outs and we didn't take advantage of opportunities late in the game to win.”
The Hawks deficit only got larger until a pair of three-point plays by Goran Huskic and Forte and a basket by Ladon Carter got some momentum going for the Howard. After being down by 13, Jacob Thomas' three-point shot brought the score to 54-56.
Carter had a chance to tie it up at the free throw line, but missed both of his shots. NMJC sank a three-pointer as the shot clock expired to run their lead up to five.
With 21 seconds remaining, Hawks fans leaped to their feet when Thomas knotted the game at 59 before Lee sank the winning basket for the T-Birds.
Forte led all scorers with 27 points, Thomas added 13, Carter chipped in eight and Rico Richardson put up five.
The Hawks may benefit from a NJCAA rule change which went into effect this year. At-large bids are being awarded and Howard College appears to be an obvious contender for the designation. Selections will be finalized today.
Adams said that with a little luck, the Hawks have the potential to make a run, should they be chosen to go to Hutchinson.
“There's always luck involved in certain games,” Adams said. “You may need to play five games to get to the championship game, so you need everyone to be healthy, you have to stay out of foul trouble and there's no question about it, you need strong contributions from the bench. A lot of it depends on preparation, but the ball's got to bounce your way, too.”