LAKELAND, Fla. – The 16th-ranked Saint Leo men's basketball team managed a season-defining 79-75 win over No. 6 Florida Southern on the road in thrilling Sunshine State Conference action from a rowdy George Jenkins Field House on Wednesday night.
Over 1,000 fans, mostly rooting for the home team tried to pressure the Lions (18-4, 10-2 SSC) into missing shots and making mistakes, but Saint Leo held tough in the game's most pressure-packed moments.
Erasing a nine-point deficit to take the lead with 3:54 left, Florida Southern (18-3, 10-2 SSC) looked prime to snatch the victory, but it would be a clutch performance from three of the Lions' seniors that would tilt this epic contest in Saint Leo's favor.
After the Mocs took a three point lead on a Dominic Lane layup with two minutes left, Trent Thomas was able to draw a foul on a three point shot attempt. Not only did the foul put Thomas at the line, but it also handed Florida Southern's Kevin Capers, arguably their biggest player, his fifth foul and disqualifying him for the rest of the game. Thomas headed to the free throw line and calmly stroked three free shots to knot the game at 75.
Following an FSC turnover, Marcus Ruh, who had been stifled by the hosts all night, drove the lane and dropped in an off-balance jumper to give the Lions the lead at 77-75. Another Moccasin turnover with 54 seconds left saw the Lions try to run as much clock before Thomas hoisted up his shot. The attempt was no good but Tom Neary's effort for the rebound gave the Lions the ball with just 19 seconds left.
Another foul put Thomas back at the line where he again calmly swished two free throws to make the margin four at 79-75. Florida Southern would try a desperation three-pointer, but it would sail wide and Ruh would pull down the board and manage to run out the clock for the Lions' victory.
It was a night where the Lions looked toward performances from a number of unlikely players. While Thomas, a familiar face, dropped in 15 points and Shaun Adams added 14, Cale Girten's 5-for-6 night shooting with three 3-pointers saw him notch a career-best 13 points. In addition, freshman Jaylon Bell added 11 points.
The win put the Lions in a tie for first-place in the Sunshine State Conference with Florida Southern. After tonight's result it essentially gives the Lions sole possession of the top spot as the Green and Gold holds the season sweep over the Moccasins. This is only the second time in the 46-year history of the rivalry that the Lions swept the season series, with the first coming last year.
Another tough road contest awaits the Lions this weekend as Saint Leo will travel to Melbourne, Fla. and face Florida Tech on Saturday. Tip is scheduled for 4:00 p.m.