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The Barton College men’s basketball team didn’t anticipate entering its six-day Christmas break coming off an excruciating 91-87 loss to the Tusculum (Tennessee) College Pioneers on Wednesday night in Wilson Gym.
The Bulldogs of the NCAA Division II Conference Carolinas owned an 84-71 advantage with seven minutes left. But Barton managed but one field goal the last seven minutes and the deadly shooting Pioneers of the Division II South Atlantic Conference stormed to a 20-3 tear against the rattled Bulldogs.
In completing an eight-game homestand, Barton, before a stunned and late-arriving turnout, tumbled to 9-4 — going a disappointing 4-4 in the homestand.
“Frustrating,” reacted 6-foot-3 Barton sophomore Jake Kakar, spectacular in defeat with a career-high 29 points. “We took a punch in the face and didn’t have the energy needed to pull it out. This one probably hurts the most.”
Tusculum upped its record to 4-6 and first-year head coach J.T. Burton spoke of a signature win for his program.
“It’s huge for our school,” Burton declared. “It came on the road against a great team; these guys have won a national championship (2006-07). It’s hard to beat a team that moves the way they move and with the way they share the ball. That was the best movement we have seen all year.”
The Bulldogs claimed their 84-71 margin with 7 minutes, 16 seconds remaining on junior Michael Boykin’s layup. But from that point, Barton was limited to a free throw from Boykin with 1:48 left and a basket by 6-8 sophomore Blake Burdack that provided Barton with its final lead at 87-86 with 1:03 showing.
The Pioneers moved back out front on senior guard Donovan Donaldson’s field goal with 47 seconds to go. Dooming Barton was 6-2 junior Tariq Jenkins’ three-point play with 15.7 seconds left.
What happened to the Bulldogs those final seven-plus minutes?
“We took bad shots and missed a number of layups — some uncontested,” Barton head coach Ron Lievense explained. “But the big thing goes back to what we’ve tried to do my 23 years — and that’s defend. We lost the rebounding battle (35-31).
“We are not any more talented than any other team but, if we play to our capability defensively and rebound, we can play with anybody. Our game plan was to drive the basketball against their zone but, obviously, that didn’t happen the way we wanted it to happen.”
During the disastrous stretch, Lievense contended his shooters settled for 3-point attempts when they should have been going inside. Barton’s head coach pointed to the Pioneers’ second-half shooting: 18 of 30 from the floor for 60-percent accuracy and 6 of 9 from 3-point land for 67-percent accuracy.
The long-distance shootout produced 28 3-pointers with the Bulldogs outscoring Tusculum 45-39.
Donaldson and junior Tariq Jenkins triggered the furious Tusculum comeback. Burton requested a time-out with the Pioneers trailing by 13 and some seven minutes remaining.
“I just told them to stay with what we know and everybody do their job,” Burton said. “And we changed from a zone to man(-to-man) and stayed with it. I think that forced them out of their rhythm a little bit.”
Kakar drained 10-of-17 shots from the floor and 8 of 14 from beyond the 3-point arc.
“It happened to be my night,” Kakar reasoned. “It was fun when we were up. But winning is all that matters.”
“He’s a great player,” Burton commented of Kakar. “I didn’t feel like he was going to cool off, but I knew we had to make it tough for him.”
Boykin wound up with 17 points, Burdack 10 and senior guard Zach Grant 11 — all in the first half. Kakar also led with six rebounds. The Bulldogs committed but five turnovers.
The balanced Pioneers got 18 points from Donaldson, 17 from Jenkins, 14 from 6-7 sophomore Brandon Mitchell, 12 from 6-4 freshman Trenton Gibson and 11 from 6-8 junior Caleb Hudnett, the team’s leading scorer. Cam King, a 6-8 junior, snared nine rebounds and Mitchell seven. Tusculum turnovers totaled only six.
Grant and Boykin ignited Barton to an 8-0 start. But with less than five minutes elapsed, the Pioneers owned a 12-11 edge on Hudnett’s bucket. Kakar, Burdack and Isaiah Buck-Lowman teamed for a 7-0 spurt that triggered Barton to a 33-25 cushion.
But Tusculum surged again. A pair of 3-pointers from Donaldson twice staked the Pioneers to a one-point lead — a 45-44 halftime margin on the second one.
Leading Barton scorer Bobby Stenborg scored his first points to open the second-half scoring and Kakar drained a trio of 3-point shots in the first four minutes.
The Bulldogs’ lead reached nine points on four occasions and became 10 at 79-69 on Kakar’s three-point play with 9:32 to go. The 13-point margin occurred two minutes later.
“We did some good things (including 25 assists),” Lievense reviewed. “All was not negative. For a number of minutes, we were the better team but just didn’t close out. We have a long ways to go and things to perfect. I’m frustrated, but we are going to come back better.
“We are going to have to be a lot tougher team. Now, we are going to have to win on the road.”