By the time No. 1 seed Talladega started its Sunday net-cutting celebration, No. 2 seed Xavier University had reached its home locker room at the Convocation Center, pondering the latest misstep in the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference tournament.
Yet again, Xavier will fail to enter the NAIA national tournament on a winning note. Instead, Talladega (24-9), NAIA’s top-ranked program, earns the conference’s automatic bid.
The Gold Rush fell 76-58 in the GCAC tournament finals, and will once again look to earn an at-large bid to nationals. Thanks to a 24-win season and a No. 18 ranking in the latest NAIA Division I Coaches’ Top 25 poll, they are expected to qualify for the tournament, which starts Wednesday in Kansas City, Missouri.
But this isn’t the way coach Dannton Jackson wanted his 2014-15 squad to be remembered in its last game in front of a home crowd — trailing by five with 2:44 left, Xavier committed two turnovers, sealing its fate. Overall, the Gold Rush had 20 turnovers.
“We just have to fall forward, try to learn from some of our mistakes,” Jackson said.
Xavier players were not made available for comment.
Xavier was aiming for its first GCAC tournament championship since 1996. Sunday’s game marked the school’s first appearance in the GCAC finals since 2011.
And the Gold Rush were less than six minutes away from cutting their own nets.
With 5:49 left, Morris Wright rebounded a blocked shot, scoring to put Xavier within one of Talladega. Then after a turnover by Gary Smith, Talladega’s Brandon Peters scored. Xavier failed to score on its next two possessions and watched Courtney Mack convert two free throws.
Xavier’s Sydney Coleman added two free throws with 3:11 left, trimming the deficit to 59-56. But seconds later, Peters reached the line again, converting two free throws.
“It’s hard to beat a team that shoots as many free throws as that team,” Jackson said, whose Xavier team converted 15 of 19 free throws. Talladega made 31 of 41.
The turnovers occurred with less than three minutes left, as Smith and Wright lost control of possession in the front court on consecutive possessions. GCAC Tournament MVP Shondel Stewart took advantage, capturing the first Xavier turnover and scoring and watching teammate Wendell Pierre add two more free throws with 1:48 left, the Xavier deficit grew to nine.
Stewart finished with 20 points. Peters added 19, including 15 of 17 from the line.
“We try to attack the rim, get them to foul us,” Stewart said. “Go to the free throw line as much as we can, knock down free throws.”
Wright led Xavier (24-9) with 21 points and seven rebounds. Coleman added 16, and Anthony Goode had 13.
Xavier is a 15-time participant at NAIA nationals, including the last four seasons.