Two Rushton free throws with 2.5 seconds left leads Men's Basketball past Mount Union in OAC Tournament First Round
By: Jay Garneau
ADA – A pair of free throws in the final seconds from junior Branden Rushton helped the sixth-seeded Ohio Northern men's basketball team defeat seventh-seeded Mount Union 56-52 in the opening round of the Ohio Athletic Conference Tournament at the ONU Sports Center on Monday night.
The Polar Bears improve to 13-13 overall and advance to the quarterfinals, where they will take on third-seeded Marietta (17-8 overall, 12-6 OAC) on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in Marietta.
Despite defeating ONU by scores of 71-66 and 67-57 in the regular season, Mount Union ends its year with an 11-15 record.
After two Mount Union free throws cut ONU's lead to 52-50 with 2:02 remaining, each team failed to score on its next possession.
ONU missed another shot with 37 seconds to play and the Purple Raiders grabbed a rebound and called a timeout with 30 seconds left.
Mount Union elected to score early in the shot clock, as a Nate Jacbec layup tied the game at 52-52 with 21 seconds remaining.
On the ensuing possession, Rushton drove the lane and was able to draw a foul in the act of shooting, then sank a pair of free throws, giving ONU a 54-52 lead with two seconds to play.
The Purple Raiders turned the ball over on the throw in, and sophomore Dominique Royal connected on a layup in the final second to push the lead to 56-52 and seal the game.
Royal led the Polar Bears with a game-high 16 points, shooting 7-for-14 from the field.
Rushton finished with 15 points, while sophomore Jared Horstman added 13 points and six rebounds.
"We've been in several close games all season long, so we knew we had the experience down the stretch," head coach John Rhodes said. "Our guys were resilient all game and I'm proud of the way they played."
The Polar Bears were also able to limit the OAC's leading scorer, Jimmy Wood (18.6 ppg), to seven points on 2-for-8 shooting.
Mount Union jumped out to a quick 11-0 lead out of the gate, but Rushton and Horstman each scored four points during an 11-0 ONU run to tie the game at 11-all with 12:28 left in the half.
A few minutes later, ONU scored four straight points to take a 20-19 advantage, the team's first lead of the game.
A quick 7-0 spurt for the Purple Raiders gave them a 26-20 lead with 5:25 left, but ONU chipped away at the lead, cutting it to 30-27 heading into halftime.
The second half started out with nine lead changes in the first ten minutes, neither team able to capture the momentum.
With the game tied at 46-46 at the 7:19 mark, Royal sank a layup and Horstman tipped in an ONU miss to give ONU a 50-46 lead with 6:25 to play.
Wood scored for the Purple Raiders to cut the deficit to 50-48, but Rushton answered with a jumper to push the lead to 52-48 at the 4:17 mark, setting up the late game dramatics.
The teams were nearly identical in most statistical categories, but the Polar Bears forced 17 turnovers, while committing just 12 of their own.
Mount Union out-rebounded ONU 30-21, led by T.J. Gillespie and Matt Piloto, as each pulled down seven boards.
Jacubec led the Purple Raiders with 12 points, while Clayton Patton contributed 10 points of his own.
ONU has a quick turnaround in Tuesday's game at Marietta, playing games on back-to-back days for just the third time this season.
Northern swept Marietta during the regular season, winning 70-63 at home and 59-57 on the road.
"We'll definitely be going into a hostile environment," Rhodes said. "But Marietta's a great team, so we'll respond with energy and intensity of our own."