By Eva Dean Folkert
A fade-away jumper by Wes McKinney of Hanover College at the buzzer gave the No. 12-ranked Panthers a dramatic 79-77 win over No. 18 Hope College in the sectional semifinals of the NCAA Division III Men's Basketball Championship at DeVos Fieldhouse on Friday night.
With the score tied and with 1.8 seconds left, McKinney — Hanover's leading scorer — rolled off a screen by the baseline, took the inbound pass, and immediately shot the ball, swishing it through the net from near the three-point line as time expired.
The loss ended the MIAA champion's season with a 23-7 record.
Hope led much of the game despite an arrhythmic start that saw the Flying Dutchmen shooting just 36 percent in the first 10 minutes. They recovered to shot 51 percent for the first half and lead by 11 points, 45-34, at halftime.
"We challenged our team at halftime a little bit," commented Hanover head coach John Miller in the post-game press conference. "Hope is good and they're hard to guard but I don't think we were playing in this game tonight based on how we performed defensively in the first half… But it's kind of what our guys have done most of the year. We haven't always won pretty. But we've been really good at hanging around and sticking around and persevering through some tough spots."
So Hanover hung on. A 10-0 run by the Panthers late in the second half turned a 68-61 Hope lead at the 6:22 mark into a 71-68 Hope deficit with 3:05 to go. Hanover held a slim lead until Hope junior Dante Hawkins nailed a three-pointer at the 1:47 mark, tying the game at 75-75.
And then it became a brand-new ball game with little time left.
A steal by Dutchmen Mitchell O'Brien gave the ball back to the Flying Dutchmen, a possession that ended with two made free throws by Hope captain and senior Harrison Blackledge. Those important freebies gave Hope a two-point lead, 77-75, with 27 seconds to go.
Hanover's next turn down the floor resulted in a put-back basket by Corey Muchmore off a McKinney miss. Game tied again, at 77-77, with two seconds left.
It appeared as though Hope would get one last shot at their basket until the inbound pass by Hope senior Cody Stuive was deflected by Hanover freshman Logan Ratts back into Stuive's hands. But an official blew his whistle, ruling Stuive had not established position coming in from out-of-bounds. Turnover. And the ball goes back to Hanover, McKinney fades away as time expires, and the crowd of 3,037 mostly-Hope fans is stunned.
"It was a devastating loss, it goes without saying," said emotional Hope head coach Greg Mitchell. "I'm really not permitted to say what I really feel right now, but the most important thing I want to say is that I have six unbelievable seniors, guys who completely understand how to put everything else ahead of the individual. That's the reason we had the season we had. I just feel so bad they didn't get what I think would be the faith and reward for doing things the right way….Congrats to Hanover. We wish them well. But right now my heart is with our seniors. I just love them to death."
Hawkins and Blackledge provided much of the offensive momentum and output for the Dutchmen, scoring 28 and 20 points respectively.
Senior Chad Carlson added 12 points. O'Brien scored nine and grabbed the most Hope rebounds with eight. Stuive chipped in six points with six rebounds. Senior Keith Brushwyler scored a bucket and gathered a rebound; and, senior Zach Littleson contributed five minutes off the bench.
Blackledge again etched his name into another Hope record ledger, finishing his senior season with 601 points, third all-time for a season behind only Floyd Brady (712) in 1967-68 and Jesse Reimink (604) in 2008-09. For his illustrious career, Blackledge finished 13th on the all-time scoring list with 1,399.
Hanover was led by McKinney who scored 28, followed by Muchmore with 20. Levi Buck added 15.
Statistically, Hope shot 44.1 percent from the floor for the game (50 percent from behind the three-point line) to Hanover's 51.6 percent (27.8 percent from the arc); from the free throw line, Hope shot 93.8 percent (15 of 16) while Hanover shot 50 percent (10 of 20); and, Hope grabbed 34 rebounds to Hanover's 35.
Saturday's NCAA sectional final will be played at DeVos between Hanover and Augustana College, an 80-69 winner over Wartburg College. Tipoff is at 7:00 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m.