By Rob Knox
OWINGS MILLS, Md. – Stevenson University coach Gary Stewart tried to find the perfect analogy to describe his team's amazing and pulsating, 103-99, double-overtime triumph over 15th-ranked Messiah Wednesday night in a Commonwealth Conference game before a packed house that lived up to the hype and then some.
"I told my guys after the game, and they may be too young to understand, but this game was like Ali and Frazier," Stewart said. "You have to give credit to Messiah. I thought they fought and fought and they're so disciplined and run some good things. I thought our kids really battled and it was a terrific game to play, coach and watch."
To help the younger generation understand Stewart's reference, here's a perfect translation, the game between Stevenson and Messiah had more suspense and surprises than an episode of Scandal. It was an edge-of-your-seat thriller in which both teams treated the capacity crowd to one of the best Division III basketball games of the season.
The game was so good and wonderfully well-played that fans should have paid upon exiting the gym. It will be a contest that many who witnessed will be talking about forever and a day. For the Stevenson student body it was a post-Christmas gift from its men's basketball team as they just recently returned to school from break.
When the dust cleared, Stevenson (11-3 overall, 6-1 Commonwealth) handed Messiah (12-1, 6-1) its first loss of the season, moved into a tie for first place, topped 100 points for the third time and knocked off its second nationally ranked opponent of the season. Both teams went toe-to-toe with each other, trading layups, 3-point baskets, blocked shots and clutch plays throughout the tightly played game that featured 23 lead changes, 14 ties.
Once the final buzzer sounded, an entire gym exhaled as players from both teams barely had enough energy for the postgame handshake line.
"We're just happy to be in games like this and the opportunity to compete in front of a great crowd against a great team," Messiah head coach Rick Van Pelt said. "Obviously our guys are hurting for each other. They feel like they let each other down. But these are great games and why you play. This will be a game they will remember for a long, long time. Hats off to Stevenson, they made some plays and did some great things. We'll battle again. We have a great team and they have a great team."
Both teams had five players reach double figures with Stevenson's Justin Kuntz leading the way with a monster performance of 23 points, 16 rebounds and three blocked shots. He scored six points in the second overtime and was the difference in the game for the Mustangs. His layup with 64 seconds remaining in the second overtime gave Stevenson the lead for good, 96-94.
Trailing, 100-97, Messiah had two great looks at 3-pointers that could have tied the game and possibly forced another overtime. Both shots looked good, but they hit off the front of the rim.
Even when Messiah's Brad Bolen opened the second overtime with four quick points to give the Falcons a 93-89 lead with 3:40 remaining, Kuntz and the Mustangs remained calm and immediately answered with four points in 35 seconds to tie the game.
"We knew that this game would be like this," Kuntz said. "They came in here No. 1 in the conference and we were determined to protect our home court. We had been in this position where we were down on the road against Arcadia so that helped us tonight. During the timeout when we were down four, we just said to each other, 'just keep playing basketball and let's see what happens.' I was tired in overtime, but we didn't want to lose, so we kept battling. It was a team win."
Messiah's Taylor Groff forced the first overtime when he made a 3-pointer with 26 seconds remaining in regulation that knotted the score at 80. In the first overtime period, Messiah had an 88-85 lead with 2:15 remaining, but the Mustangs fought back to force a deadlock at 89 when Christian Roberts made a layup with 23 seconds remaining.
The Falcons had an opportunity to win the game in overtime, but a wide open layup off of a perfectly executed backdoor play rolled off the rim as the buzzer sounded. Players on the Stevenson bench put their hands on the chest and breathed a sigh of relief at the unexpected second chance.
Erik Fisher was huge for Stevenson as he also finished with 23 points. Alfonzo Hawkins contributed 18 points and made three 3-pointers in 48 minutes. Darius Walker scored 12 points and Roberts finished with 11 points.
Groff scored 13 points in 48 minutes for Messiah. David Fernandez was special as he scored 18 of his 27 points in the first half. He played 46 minutes. Brad Bolen didn't start but still scored 23 points, grabbed eight rebounds, had five steals and blocked two shots. His brother, Scott had 17 points and Aaron DeVan chipped in with 11 points. Overall, six players played more than 40 minutes.
The largest lead team either team enjoyed was when Messiah opened the game scored the first six points of the game. During the final 45 minutes, neither team led by more than four points. Every time it looked like one team would pull away, the other came up with a big play. Stevenson enjoyed a slim 46-45 halftime lead. The only dunk of the game belonged to Brad Bolen on a breakaway in the second half that tied the game at 61 with 10:30 remaining.
"A game like this is hard to put into words," Fisher said. "We thought we had the game won and then they hit the 3-pointer. We gave them two chances to win the game, so I am just happy that we were able to get another chance.
"Hats off to Messiah. They are a great program and proven winners. Double overtime does wear on your legs, but we were just happy to win. I love my team. We gave up a lead and we still fought and continued to trust each other."