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Three seems to have been the magic number for the Lakeland College men's basketball team during the 2008 postseason.
The Muskies, the No. 6 seed in the Northern Athletics Conference Tournament, capped an improbable week Saturday with a 82-77 upset win in overtime in the NAC Tournament Championship game at No. 1 Aurora.
For the week, it was three upset wins over the tournament's top three seeds for Lakeland, all three on the road in overtime.
On Saturday, not only did the Muskies (17-11 overall) hit 11 3-pointers and shoot 33.3 percent from behind the arc, they did it without three key players.
Senior forwards Danny Ehnert and David Hoerres and junior forward Peter Worth had all fouled out with over two minutes to go in regulation, forcing the Muskies to make do without their contributions during overtime. However, the Lakeland faithful needn't have worried.
Even without that experience, the Muskies pulled off an unimaginable third-straight overtime victory to cap off this week's NAC Tournament run with a total team effort en route to Lakeland's first conference tournament championship since 2004.
"Going into overtime, we had a flash of losing that confidence just because we had to go with our little line-up without those guys," said senior guard Kris Saiberlich, who led Lakeland's offensive drive with a game-high 27 points, including five made 3-pointers and a perfect 10-10 effort from the free throw line. "But, Anthony Cobb really stepped up and had some big rebounds to help us out."
Cobb, a sophomore forward, delivered in a pressure cooker of a situation, hitting a free throw with 35 seconds left in regulation to keep the Muskies even with the Spartans at 65. He continued to calmly perform in overtime with a crucial offensive rebound followed by a lay-up and hit three of his four free throw attempts with under nine seconds to go in OT to pad his squad's lead.
"You just don't have time to think about it like that," said Lakeland head coach Kyle Brumett of heading into overtime without Ehnert, Worth and Hoerres. "You're trying to figure out how to score and going one possession at a time. I don't think it mattered who we were playing because everyone was ready to step up. Anthony Cobb had his best game of the season going 2-3 from the field and 4-6 from the line, grabbing some humongous rebounds down the stretch and playing good defense. Khendal (Andrews) was also great and made two huge shots and his free throws.
"Even more than those two, it was the rest of the guys as well. Our team feeds off each other, and the guys who don't play are just as important as the guys that do. Every single one of those guys are conference tournament champions."
The squad's two other monumental overtime wins in the NAC quarterfinals on Tuesday over No. 3 Wisconsin Lutheran (99-94) and in the semifinals on Thursday over No. 2 Marian (76-75), may was seemed unbelievable enough to some, but to pull of a similar feat against a team the Muskies lost to, 85-73, just one week ago was enough to leave even the players speechless.
"I don't think it has sunk in yet," said Ehnert, who battled through foul trouble to register his third-straight double-double with 15 points and 15 rebounds. "It's a really unbelievable feeling. It was great to see how everyone stepped up big, and we've been on fire in our last three games. Regal hit big shots, Kris made all of his free throws and it was a real team effort."
That team effort made for some eye-popping excitement as early as the first half when the Muskies went up by as many as 14 points riding a 13-0 run featuring four different Muskies, capped off by back-to-back 3-pointers by Saiberlich.
The Spartans made a run to trim the Muskies' lead to 34-31 by halftime, then went ahead to lead by as many as five at the 13:17 mark in the second half. Lakeland responded to the challenge, and simply refused to go back down by continuing to match Aurora's point runs.
Senior guard Aaron Regal, who finished with 15 points, also dealt with his share of pressure, delivering a pair of crucial free throws with three seconds on the clock to tie the game at 67 to give his team the opportunity to win in the extra period.
"We have had a really tough road to get it done, but that's the ironic thing," Brumett said. "We played ourselves into being the No. 6 seed, but maybe if we hadn't had those losses and those overtime losses during the season we wouldn't have made it here. We thought we could get here and compete better than we did the first time. Aurora is a tough, talented team that plays hard and is well-coached, and it makes it even sweeter to be able to beat the best team."
Lakeland changed up its defensive scheme for the game, throwing a zone at Aurora instead of the traditional man-to-man look. Clearly it helped, as the Muskies held the Spartans to a 31 percent shooting effort from the floor for the game, and kept them below their average point total.
"I knew that if we came in and executed what we wanted to do with our zone and made our shots, we would have a chance," Saiberlich said. "After we won our last two games, we were as confident as anybody in the country. I think we really caught them off guard with the zone and made them settle for jump shots."
Since the NAC will not receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament until next season, Lakeland will have to wait to see if it will receive one of the coveted at-large (Pool B) bids when the NCAA tournament pairings are announced on Monday.
Regardless of what happens, the Muskies can be sure they sent their five seniors off with the ultimate career highlight - the program's first NAC tournament title.
"I'm just really excited that we could get this for our seniors," Brumett said. "They're such good friends, they have worked so hard and they believe in me and in each other."
Saiberlich can certainly agree, as he and his teammates finally reached the goal of becoming conference champions after falling in the semifinals for each of the last three years.
"It's the best feeling I've had in all my years of playing basketball," Saiberlich said. "There's no better way to end your senior year if this is our last game."