The ball hit what looked like every part of the rim, came up off the backboard and back down again.
When it finished its journey by dropping through the net, the UW-Parkside men’s basketball team’s season was over.
Just like that.
Season-ending losses are always tough, but the way the Rangers lost Saturday evening in Grand Rapids, Mich., was as cruel as it gets.
With a berth in both the GLIAC Tournament championship game and the NCAA Division II Tournament at stake, the third-seeded Rangers and seventh-seeded Lakers battled tooth-and-nail until Grand Valley State’s Jeremiah Ferguson — who had been 3-for-14 from the field — made a desperation baseline shot at the buzzer that might go in one out of 100 times for a 55-53 victory.
“I don’t have a lot of words for it,” Parkside coach Luke Reigel said.
Over the last month-plus, every game the Rangers have played has gone right down to the wire. Reigel could only figure that sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce your way.
“We played so many close games,” he said. “I guess maybe it was our turn for it to not go our way.”
A season that saw Parkside win a GLIAC North Division championship and come within a fingernail of a sixth trip to the NCAA Tournament in seven seasons ended with a 16-12 record.
Grand Valley State (18-12) advanced to face top-seeded and host school Davenport — which improved to 27-3 with an 88-77 win over fifth-seeded Northern Michigan (17-12) in Saturday’s first semifinal — in today’s 2 p.m. championship game.
And while the Lakers and Panthers have the pride of a conference title on the line today, the GLIAC’s automatic bid to the Midwest Regional in the NCAA Tournament will go to Grand Valley State.
Davenport, formerly an NAIA program, gained acceptance into the GLIAC last season. Per NCAA rules, the Panthers are completing Provisional Year Three and won’t be a full member of the NCAA — and therefore eligible to compete for NCAA Division II championships — until 2019-20.
So after Davenport beat Northern Michigan on Saturday afternoon, Parkside and Grand Valley State already knew their game was for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Which made the way it ended that much more thrilling for the Lakers and heartbreaking for the Rangers.
“You get that close to it, and you know you’re two minutes away from getting back to the NCAA Tournament, and it’s not easy to get there,” Reigel said. “When you make five in a row, I hope people don’t take it for granted that it’s easy to do.
“… It would’ve been a perfect story for our seniors, because our seniors deserved to keep playing.”
To nobody’s surprise, the game came down to the final seconds, and Grand Valley State had the ball with the game tied 53-53 and about 45 seconds remaining.
Ferguson pulled up for a 3-pointer with 23 seconds left and drew iron, but Shaquan McArthur — who grabbed seven of the Lakers’ 17 offensive rebounds, which was the key stat in the game — got the board, giving Grand Valley State a chance for the final shot instead of Parkside, which had a timeout to set up a game-winning shot.
“If we get that rebound with 20 seconds to go, I feel great about our chances,” Reigel said.
Instead, Hunter Hale — who scored a game-high 19 points — dribbled near the top of the key and was guarded by Parkside’s best defender, fifth-year senior forward Chip Flanigan.
The left-handed Hale drove left, but Flanigan’s defense was tight, and Hale lost control of the ball.
But it rolled right to Ferguson, who was camped out on the left baseline. Ferguson was almost behind the backboard and had a defender run at him, but he had to shoot with time running out.
And the iron was kind for Ferguson, as Grand Valley State players piled on him jubilantly after his shot dropped while the Parkside players walked off the court stunned.
“They had the ball with 45 seconds left, we played great defense,” Reigel said of the unlikely final sequence. “The ball takes an awful bounce, they get an offensive rebound.
“We play great defense for another 20 seconds. Their best scorer falls down and almost throws it out of bounds.”
Neither team shot the ball well, with the Lakers going 23-of-55 (41.8 percent) from the field and the Rangers going just 19-of-49 (38.8 percent).
The teams also combined for 32 turnovers, 18 by Grand Valley State and 14 by Parkside. But it was the Lakers’ 16-4 advantage in second-chance points that loomed large in a game where scoring was tough to come by.
With Flanigan having to guard Hale off the ball, Reigel knew his team would be exposed to offensive rebounding by the Lakers’ cast of athletes. He said there wasn’t much his team could do about the likes of the 6-foot-4, 200-pound McArthur or the 6-8, 196-pound Isaiah Brock (13 points, 12 rebounds) crashing the glass.
“There’s no way we were going to take Chip off Hale, so we knew playing against them that there were going to be some matchups that weren’t good for us,” Reigel said.
“Sometimes the better athlete’s just going to get it.”
In the final game of his stellar college career, Flanigan finished with 13 points, six rebounds, four assists and three steals. Guard Adam Bonk, a four-year senior, scored all 13 of his points in the first half on a red-hot start.
Redshirt freshman guard Brandon Trimble nearly carried the Rangers on his back in the second half, scoring all 10 of his points after halftime. Sophomore point guard Ramar Evans totaled seven points and four steals, while redshirt freshman center Joey St. Pierre had seven points and a team-high nine boards.
Trailing 52-50, Evans found Flanigan on the right wing behind the 3-point line. His shot hit nothing but net, giving the Rangers a 53-52 lead with 2 minutes, 16 seconds to play.
Those would be Parkside’s final points of the season.
After an offensive rebound, McArthur split a pair of free throws with 1:12 to play to tie the game at 52-52.
The Rangers had an empty possession when an Evans banker high off the glass wouldn’t go, and the Lakers pulled down the rebound to set up the winning sequence.
Bonk opened the game on fire, drilling three 3-pointers as Parkside got out to a 15-4 lead with 13:22 left in the first half.
The Rangers led 26-21 at halftime, but Reigel felt like it could’ve been more.
“We had good looks and didn’t score,” he said. “We could have been up maybe eight or 10 instead of five.”