Thomas coach Stephen Cox gritted his teeth in angst as he tensely watched Northwood mount and execute an improbable 87-85 come-from-behind win over the Night Hawks on Monday.
Thomas, which looked as rhythmic as it had all season in the first half, held a double-digit advantage for nearly all of the first half – one that reached as high as 20 points – but were outscored 49-33 in the final period.
Justyn Watkins launched what would’ve been a game-winning three in the final seconds, and RJ Sturkie rebounded and made another attempt, but it wasn’t to be.
Cox attributed Northwood’s rebounding ability, especially on the offensive side. The Seahawks won the overall ratio, 48-36.
“I don’t think it was anything they were doing as much as how we were handling it,” Cox said. “We had a lot of offensive rebounds too, including that last one at the buzzer. We got two quality shots late game, but came up short.”
The Night Hawks’ second half starkly contrasted the first; everything that seemed to be going right went wrong.
Shots weren’t falling. Fouls were escalating. Momentum couldn’t be clung.
The Seahawks jumped to a 17-5 to start the second period but Thomas responded with a horde of three pointers and a slam dunk by Watkins with just over nine minutes remaining.
Then Northwood charged late, forced a few turnovers and took their their first lead since the opening basket with 3:17 remaining.
The final three minutes consisted of stout defense on both sides as the teams combined to score just seven points during that stretch.
Northwood held on to the lead, though, and stole one from a shocked crowd on the Thomas west campus.
“It was an emotional game for both teams,” Cox said. “We had a great crowd; a really good college basketball atmosphere.”
Watkins walked off the court in exhaustion. The senior, who was named Sun Conference Player of the Week a few weeks back, played in 36 of the 40 minutes and scored a game-high 34 points. He also led Thomas with five rebounds and 11 free throws on 13 attempts.
The Night Hawks were on the verge of a statement win that would’ve catapulted their momentum heading into this weekend’s conference tournament.
Northwood (23-6, 14-4) has finished first in the Sun Conference in six of the last seven years. The only exception was a second place outing in 2009-2010.
Thomas (16-12, 9-9) retains the No. 5 seed despite Monday’s loss. The Night Hawks travel to take on No. 4 Embry-Riddle in the first round on Saturday at 7 p.m.
The teams split the season series, including Thomas’ 96-97 win over the then NAIA No. 6 Eagles in Thomasville on Feb. 4.
“They’ll be ready,” Cox said of Embry-Riddle. “They’re extremely well coached. Any time you go on the road in the conference, especially in the tournament, you’ve got to be mentally tough.”