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The Barton College-University of Mount Olive men’s basketball rivalry is viewed by veteran Barton head coach Ron Lievense as the greatest with which he has been associated in a coaching career that spans four decades.
And as Lievense, in his 23rd season at the Bulldogs helm, noted, two outstanding teams representing two outstanding programs embellished the storied rivalry before a large turnout at Wilson Gymnasium on Tuesday evening.
“You saw a classic,” Lievense expressed after his third-place Bulldogs escaped with a draining, thrill-filled 105-100 NCAA Division II Conference Carolinas victory in triple overtime.
Mount Olive head coach Joey Higginbotham concurred with Lievense’s observation.
“Another classic,” Higginbotham remarked, “but the ‘bad guys’ won. It was a great game; both teams deserved to win. We just came up short.
“We were hoping to get out of here and get lucky — maybe for a last-second chance, hit a shot and get out of here.”
To say the Bulldogs escaped is not an unfair assessment. The fourth-place Trojans missed the final shot at the end of regulation and the first overtime, and stole a chance to play a third extra period of five minutes when 6-foot-7 Tanner Poole took a feed from sophomore Darius Spragley and scored a layup at the buzzer for a 95-95 tie.
But an 8-of-10 showing at the foul line and a huge putback from 6-8 sophomore Blake Burdack boosted the Bulldogs to their second 2018-19 win against Mount Olive. Barton climbed to 11-4 in the conference and 18-7 overall. The Trojans, who have lost five scholarship players since the season’s outset, departed 9-6 and 11-14, respectively.
“Exhilarating!” Burdack described the outcome. “You feel like you reached the peak of it. They’re a good team and we knew they would come after us with a vengeance. It was good high-level competition; you can’t take anyone lightly in this conference.”
In the third overtime, the Bulldogs never trailed after opening with a free throw from Burdack and a bucket from junior Michael Boykin. Still, Barton experienced hiccups that enabled the Trojans to stay within striking distance.
Sophomore Jake Kakar’s jumper and another Boykin field goal left the Bulldogs out front 104-98 with a minute and 28 seconds left. With Barton ahead 104-100, Kakar added a free throw for the final margin with 10.8 seconds showing.
“Our guys were able to fight through long enough to win,” Lievense commended. “They’re a great team and have great athletes. Our games are always wars. I am proud of the toughness we showed. When it looked like we might lose the game, there was no quit — just grit and toughness. I am really proud of the guys.”
Boykin drilled in a Barton-high 22 points, while 6-5 sophomore Isaiah Reddish responded with a double-double of 19 points and 10 rebounds. Burdack notched a double-double of 17 points and 10 rebounds, while 6-4 senior Bobby Stenborg flirted with a double-double, finishing with 14 points and nine rebounds. Kakar tossed in 14 points.
The Trojans were spearheaded by Spragley with a game-high 26 points, Jamal Martin with 25, Mike Brown and Alan Treakle with 15 each and Poole with 12.
Burdack credited Lievense and assistant coach Joel Zimmerman with helping him become a better free-throw shooter.
“Last year, that was something I struggled with,” he admitted. “I know I am shooting better than last year. I shoot the ball decent enough; there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to shoot free throws.”
The Bulldogs started 7-0 and upped the cushion to 21-10 on a 3-pointer each from senior Zach Grant and Kakar. Reddish’s spectacular dunk upped the margin to 35-22.
Barton, getting spark off the bench from Jeff Gordon, would lead by as many as 14 points before settling for a 43-35 halftime margin. The Trojans hung around by draining 5-of-6 shots from 3-point range.
Mount Olive never led or tied until Brown bombed in a 3-pointer for a 69-68 edge with 5:46 left in regulation.
Behind Spragley, Matin and Treakle, the Trojans led as much as 75-71. Barton retained the lead at 78-77 on a goal-tending call on senior Matt Woods’ shot off a steal. The Trojans answered with a 3-pointer from Matin, but Barton drew even at 80-80 on Boykin’s basket with 31.4 seconds left. Overtime resulted when Matin’s shot missed at the buzzer.
The Bulldogs sneaked out front by two points thrice in the first overtime, but Matin drilled in the tying field goal with 47 seconds left. Mount Olive managed the last chance and, this time, Brown’s shot missed.
Barton erased a 92-88 deficit in the second overtime. Burdack canned two foul tosses for a 93-93 tie with 35.3 seconds to go and added two more with 9 seconds showing for a 95-93 edge. But Mount Olive’s Poole got free inside at the buzzer.
“I took a deep breath,” Burdack of said of shooting the overtime free throws. “I pretended I was by myself in the gym. That’s the kind of mentality I’ve tried to keep.”
But Burdack fouled out with well over a minute remaining in the third overtime and the Bulldogs clinging to a four-point lead.
“My first reaction was: ‘Oh, crap!’” he admitted. “But I just said let my team rock and do what they are good at doing — and that’s winning ball games.
“The two bullets we dodged in the first two overtimes made by heart stop a little bit. But I don’t think anyone was thinking about losing.”
Lievense credited switching from man-to-man to zone defense for the extra 15 minutes. He pointed out the Trojans shot 83 percent from 3-point range in the first half, 55 percent the second half but only 24 percent in the overtimes.
“The key of the game was that the guys did a tremendous job in the zone,” Lievense declared. “We eliminated a lot of penetration. We were trying everything; something must have worked.”