The Berkeley College men's basketball team captured its third-consecutive USCAA Division II Men's Basketball Championship on Saturday evening, outlasting the No. 6 seeded Nittany Lions of Penn State York by a score of 80-76 in the title game of the tournament. The contest was played on the campus of Penn State Fayette. With the victory – the Knights capped their unblemished 2016-2017 season at 29-0, while also becoming the first team to win three straight USCAA crowns. Berkeley College also extended its program winning streak to a staggering 53 games in a row. With the defeat, Penn State York finalized its successful season at 21-8.
"During the preseason, the coaching staff, the student-athletes, and I – we all had the same primary goal – the same dream – and that was to be standing on this court celebrating a USCAA Division II National championship," Head Coach Chris Christiansen said. "I am so tremendously proud of the heart, determination, and grit exemplified by these young men here this evening. They went after this championship with every fiber of their beings, and they were rewarded for that diligence. I also want to give ample credit to Penn State York – that team gave us everything we could handle and more. There is a famous proclamation that nothing worth having or achieving ever comes easy, and the Nittany Lions made sure it didn't come easy for us. However, when the final buzzer sounded, seeing the smiles on the faces of these young men made everything worth it. This will be a memory we will all cherish for the rest of our lives. I couldn't be more proud of these student-athletes and coaches. I love them all."
The USCAA Division II men's basketball Player of the Year Massiah Merritt led the way with a signature performance, as he scored a team-high 28 points while connecting on four of his eight attempts from downtown. He also collected four rebounds, tallied three steals, and added two assists. The 6'2 guard also came up clutch down the stretch, as he drilled a game-tying 20-foot jumper with 0.9 seconds remaining – a shot that helped send the Knights to the extra session. Following the game, he was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player.
Second Team All-American Stephon Jennings put together a versatile performance, as he scored six of his 16 points in overtime while snatching nine rebounds, adding six assists, and tallying two steals. He was also tabbed to the All Tournament team following the contest. Sparkplug Ricardo Ayuso contributed 11 points on the night, and Emmanuel Osama connected on his first four shot attempts for the evening, and he finalized his night with eight points, five rebounds, and three steals.
Unlike a day earlier in the semifinals against Penn State Greater Allegheny when the Knights fell behind by 12 points in the early stages of the game, Berkeley College raced out to an early lead in this one, grabbing a 25-16 edge over Penn State York with 9:51 remaining in the opening session. A 6-0 Nittany Lion run over the next 1:19 cut the Knights' lead to three points at 25-22, but Berkeley answered with an 9-0 run (highlighted by a three-point basket by Ayuso, back-to-back lay-ins by Osama and Merritt, and a pair of converted free throws by Jennings). The Knights led by 11 at that point – and would eventually take a 43-34 advantage into the locker room at halftime.
In the second session, things looked very promising for the Knights, with Berkeley College holding a 57-47 lead – and 12:30 remaining in the contest. Penn State York then went on an incredible 14-0 run to catapult ahead by a score of 61-57 with 9:09 to go. That 14-0 spurt was highlighted by Trent Thomas who had eight points during the run. The Knights would answer, going on a 8-0 run thanks to a basket by Ayuso and six consecutive points by Merritt. Berkeley College then led 65-61.
The next 3:13 saw Penn State York use a 7-0 run to jump in front by a score of 68-65. Merritt would make a layup for Berkeley College to bring his team to within a point at 68-67 with 3:01 remaining in the contest, but neither team would score another point over the net 2:49 until Matt Achille converted on one of two free throw attempts to give his team a two point lead.
Berkeley College – down 69-67 with 12 seconds to go – would need a basket to save its season. Penn State York, though, played smart basketball, committing two "fouls-to-give" over the next eight seconds to bring the clock down to four seconds. On the ensuing inbounds play, Merritt caught the basketball and took a falling-away jumper from 20 feet away, draining it with 0.9 seconds to go. That evened the contest at 69-apiece, giving the Knights new life.
The series of events that transpired inside the final 0.9 seconds were too bizarre to believe. Berkeley's Stephon Jennings was whistled for a foul on Penn State York's inbound pass. That meant a one-and-one opportunity at the free throw line for Lucas Jewell. He would step to the line with a chance to give the Nittany Lions the lead – and perhaps the victory. He missed the free throw, though, and as the Knights' Ayuso and Jewell would jump for the rebound, Ayuso would be whistled for a foul for contacting Jewell. That meant another one-and-one opportunity for Jewell with 0.3 seconds remaining. The Knights felt helpless – and could only watch. Jewell, with destiny in his own hands, would misfire again – sending the game to an extra session as Berkeley College's bench and fans erupted.
Once the game went to an extra session, Berkeley College would not be denied, as the Knights raced out to a 75-70 lead just 1:17 into the overtime period. The Nittany Lions continued to battle, though, as Penn State York cut its deficit to two points – 78-76 – with 1:17 to go. Merritt and Ayuso would add a free throw apiece – and the Knights would not allow another field goal in the final 77 seconds – as Berkeley capped its perfect season in dramatic fashion, winning the game by four in overtime.
Despite the loss for Penn State York, Trent Thomas put forth one of the best performances in tournament history, as he drilled 17 of his 25 attempts from the floor (including six shots from downtown) to finish with a game-high 40 points. He also added nine points and a pair of assists, as well. Richard Grant nailed seven of his 12 shot attempts to finish with 18 points. He snatched nine rebounds as well, and swatted three shots.
Penn State York was much more efficient from the floor in this game (29-54, 53.7 percent conversion rate), as the Knights drained just 27 of their 69 attempts (39.1 percent). Berkeley – however – was more effective at the line – as the Knights drilled 75 percent of their attempts from the charity stripe (18-24), and the Nittany Lions connected on just 10 of their 19 shots from the line – including two key misses inside the final second of regulation. Penn State York held a slim 40-36 edge on the boards, while also tallying nine assists to the Knights' nine. The Knights' feistiness on defense led to 26 Nittany Lion turnovers, while Berkeley protected the basketball very well, committing just 13 miscues.
The Knights will enjoy this dramatic title game victory tonight and into the offseason, and will look to make a run at a fourth consecutive USCAA Division II National championship when the 2017-2018 season tips off in early November!