Movin' Mavs fall one point short in national championship game
Tell coach Jim Hayes before the game that one of his best players would get an open 15-footer to take the national crown, and he would have bet you that his Movin’ Mavs would be celebrating their seventh championship.
The scenario unfolded perfectly.
Trailing 61-60 with five seconds left in the title game of the National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball Tournament, UTA worked the ball to junior Michael Paye, who was open coming into the lane. He lofted a soft shot toward the basket.
“The shot felt great,” said Paye, a member of Team USA in the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece. “I had enough time and space not to have to rush it at all.”
The ball hit the front rim and rolled to the back, hanging on the cylinder as an anxious Texas Hall crowd waited to explode.
“That’s a shot he makes nine out of 10 times,” Hayes said. “It just didn’t fall that time.”
UTA hosted the 28th NIWB Championship in March with the theme “The Long Road Ends Here.” The road ended in familiar fashion, with UTA and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater battling for the title for the fourth straight year. UWW’s victory was its third in a row.
Wisconsin-Whitewater finished 20-0 during the regular season, pinning the only three losses on a UTA team that entered the tournament 17-3. Both teams advanced to the finals as UTA downed Illinois, 61-44, and UWW blasted Edinboro (Pa.), 68-38, in semifinal games.
“We felt like we were peaking at the right time, plus we were playing them before a home crowd,” Hayes said. “Still, it would have been an upset for us to win.”
The first half of the championship game was a knockdown, rollover contest that featured three ties and seven lead changes.
“We came out strong with some of the best defense we had played all year,” Hayes said. “We took away their inside game early and forced them to go outside for lower percentage shots.”
The Movin’ Mavs scored seven straight points to take their biggest lead, 33-27, with 1:46 left in the first half. Junior David Eng hit the last five points during the run, and UTA held on for a 33-29 edge at intermission.
“We got the shots we wanted in the first half, and they were falling,” Hayes said.
The second half was as close the first — five lead changes and five ties.
Wisconsin-Whitewater led, 45-43, with 12:40 remaining before UTA managed an 8-0 run to go up, 51-45, with 9:05 to play. Four players scored for the Movin’ Mavs during the stretch.
“We felt pretty good at this point,” Hayes said. “If we could have gotten it to an eight-point lead, I was going to pull some of the starters and rest them for a couple of minutes.”
But UTA never took that eight-point edge. The Movin’ Mavs still led, 56-52, with six minutes left when Jeremy Campbell hit a three-pointer to pull the Warhawks within one.
“Jeremy Campbell was just red hot in the second half,” Hayes said. “We made adjustments to try and keep the ball out of his hands, but they made solid picks and got him open.”
Matthew Scott put UWW ahead briefly at 57-56, but an Eng bucket and free throw gave UTA a 59-57 edge with 2:10 left. The Warhawks’ Dustin Ferreira and Eng traded free throws as UTA clung to a 60-58 lead with 1:15 remaining.
Campbell then sank his fifth three-pointer of the second half to give UWW a 61-60 lead with 46.8 seconds left. UTA lost the ball out of bounds on its next possession, and the Movin’ Mavs were forced to send the Warhawks to the free throw line.
“David said he got hit on the head as he was trying to shoot. That’s what caused the ball to go out of bounds,” Hayes explained. “Then we had to foul three times in a row because Whitewater wasn’t in the bonus yet.”
With 24.1 seconds remaining, Rob Welty missed the front end of a one-and-one for the Warhawks and Eng rebounded for the Movin’ Mavs. UTA worked the ball to Paye for the final shot.
“There are seven different spots where we could have taken a shot, and it worked out where Mikey was the one who was open,” said Hayes, who received the National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s Spirit Award for 2005.
UWW’s Jake Counts snared the rebound and was fouled with 1.4 seconds left. He missed the free throw and Chris Kommer rebounded for UTA, but the Movin’ Mavs could not get off a shot as the game ended.
Eng, a first-team All-American, led UTA in scoring with 25 points while also grabbing nine rebounds. Paye, a second-team All-America choice, added 14 points. Junior Joe Burmania (nine points, seven rebounds) was also a second-team selection.
It was Wisconsin-Whitewater’s sixth national title, equaling UTA’s total. The Movin’ Mavs’ last championship came in 2002 against UWW.
UTA graduates only one senior, point guard Jason Nelms. “We will have a good core group back,” Hayes said. “We have some sophomores ready to step in, and we have a chance to get a couple of good recruits.”
Next year’s national championship will be played at the University of Illinois. If history is any indication, it will come down to UTA vs. UWW again. Paye longs for another chance at the game-winning basket.
“As a person who lives for basketball, that’s something you dream of,” he said. “And I would love to take the shot from the same spot.”
— Jim Patterson