LAKELAND, Fla. – The term 'battled for the win' has a whole new meaning for the Saint Leo men's basketball team as the final seconds ticked down on the Lions' thrilling 73-67 win over Eckerd College on Saturday afternoon. It was a hard-fought Sunshine State Conference Tournament Semifinal win where the Lions had to withstand a hard-nosed Tritons' team that made Saint Leo earn every point.
Saint Leo now moves on to play in the SSC Tournament Championship game, rare territory for the Lions as they have only appeared in one other final in the 36-year history of the conference.
Coming down to which team had the most clutch performer, the second-seeded Tritons watched as Saint Leo's Trent Thomas stole the show, hitting key jump-shots and free throws in the waning moments of the game; some coming when it looked as if Eckerd was ready to take control.
With just 1:21 left, Thomas squared up a dagger from just inside the three-point arc to extend the Lions lead to two possessions, the gap that Eckerd (20-8) would not be able to close in the final 81 seconds. The shot by the Lions leading scorer also marked the final basket the Lions scored as Eckerd resorted to fouling after that point. Shining as a highlight on a team that has won a program-record nine straight games, the Lions calmly walked to the line and stroked nine free throws true to lock up a memorable victory.
Playing as the visitors with Eckerd holding the tournament's no. 2 seed, Saint Leo (18-10) jumped out to an early 13-4 lead but the Tritons would rally back to tie take a 16-15 lead with 9:40 left in the first. The Lions would retake the advantage on a Thomas triple and hold the lead until the halftime horn.
The first half saw the two teams combine for 20 fouls, making for a very physical ballgame. While the Lions' only attempted six free throws in the half, Eckerd went to the line 20 times, making 14 shots.
The thriller developed into the second half when Eckerd took an early lead, but the Lions rallied to retake the advantage on a Thomas 3-pointer with 11:24 left. The trey would give the Lions a slim advantage they would hold on to until Thomas took over.
It was nearly a career night for Thomas as he finished with 30 points on 11-of-18 shooting. He finished just one point shy of his career high of 31 reached against Florida Tech in January. Junior Marcus Ruh was just behind his fellow SSC First-Teamer with 24 points in an exhausting 38 minutes of work. The tandem also made it to the free throw line 16 times, only missing three shots. They were the ones called upon in the clutch as the Tritons fouled both in the late minutes. Ruh, seemingly playing with ice in his veins, stepped to the charity stripe a calmly stroked six free throws in the final 60 seconds to keep the Lions ahead.
This marks only the second time in program history, the first coming in 1986 that a team wearing Green and Gold will play in the men's basketball championship. Their first resulted in a 73-66 loss to Florida Southern. Saint Leo was the no. 4 seed in that year's tournament and Florida Southern was the second seed.
Looking for a bit of distant revenge in championship games, the Lions get a rematch with Florida Southern a mere 26 years after the final horn sounded on the first matchup. The fifth-seeded Moccasins advanced courtesy of a 108-80 drubbing of top-seeded Florida Tech.
The Lions swept the season-series from the Moccasins for the first time in 45-year history of the match-up, defeating Florida Southern 60-57 in January, and 75-72 in a road thriller on the same hardwood tomorrow's game will be contested.
Everything will be decided when Saint Leo and Florida Southern square off for the SSC tournament title at 1 p.m. on Sunday at Jenkins Field House. The matchup will also be televised live on Bright House Sports Network, channel 47 and HD channel 1147.