LOCK HAVEN - Millersville's Tyree Smith waited patiently in the corner of the court as his teammate Jalen Lester drove left and straight down the baseline before running out of space. In Lester's line of vision was Smith, hands ready and awaiting the bounce pass that was chasing the shot clock which was nearing zero.
The pinpoint pass bounced off the wooden floor waist-high, and Smith cleanly grasped the ball. He bent his elbow without any wasted motion into a shooting position as Lock Haven's Bootsie Walker charged in, trying to close the gap knowing his team needed a defensive stop down two points and with under 15 seconds remaining.
Smith calmly ignored Walker and released a shot that was about to sink the hearts of more than 1,600 fans watching their team in a home PSAC playoff game for the first time in 25 years.
The shot swished through the basket, and as it hit the floor so did Smith after being fouled on the play. He made the ensuing free throw after hushing the crowd with his pointer finger in front of his lips, and Millersville closed out a remarkable turnaround with an 81-75 victory in the first round of the PSAC playoffs on Saturday at Thomas Fieldhouse.
"I'll take a road victory over a home one any day," said Smith, whose team has lost 11 games on the road this season. "I hope I can keep this feeling for ever."
Millersville will play at East Division champion East Stroudsburg (25-1) in Tuesday's quarterfinals. The Warriors' only loss this year came to Lock Haven.
The Marauders (13-13), the fifth seed in the PSAC East, came into Saturday's game under .500 and with two losses to the fourth-seeded Bald Eagles (17-10). A third loss appeared likely when Lock Haven took a 19-point lead with 16:18 remaining on a free throw by PSAC scoring champion Wali Hepburn, but Millersville never panicked. Not when the "The House of Noise" erupted early in the second half on a Walker alley-oop dunk and not when its deficit was still 17 points with 14:38 left.
The Marauders stuck with who they are. Millersville head coach Fred Thompson said it was difficult to remain in his zone defense looking up at the large deficit, but he never strayed from the defense and when Lock Haven finally went cold, Millersville slowly crept back into the game.
An 11-0 run took care of the majority of the deficit. Kelvin Parker hit a 3-pointer to cap the run to make the score 56-50 with 11:39 left.
It was one of six 3-pointers for the Marauders in the last 20 minutes after missing 10 of 13 attempts in the first half.
"We did a good job of getting that lead and then we kind of lost what we were doing," Lock Haven head coach Mike Nestor said. "It slowed down a little bit too much for us on the offensive end and that really hurt us."
Millersville took its first lead at 68-67 after a Smith free throw with 4:31 left, but a Hepburn jumper gave the home team the lead right back.
Hepburn, who finished with 23 points, tried to guide the Bald Eagles to the finish line by scoring nine consecutive points during a four-minute stretch late in the second half.
"I told Wali and Mike that if Wali doesn't get MVP of this league, it should be a disgrace," Thompson said, "because he has been by far the best player in this league all year long."
While the Bald Eagles were looking to Hepburn to carry them to the PSAC quarterfinals, Millersville went several different routes. Parker, Smith and Brandon Brown all hit big field goals over the final 5:25.
Brown, who scored a team-high 21 points, hit an off-balance jumper in the paint after absorbing contact for the game's final lead change with 3:49 left. The senior added a critical 3-pointer with 1:04 remaining to give his team a four-point lead.
"We have two seniors Brandon Brown and Nate Bollinger and they just want to keep playing," said Smith, who later called Brown a horse and a junkyard dog. "They kept drilling us by saying let's just keep working, keep working. They told us that we needed to go out with our guns blazing and whatever happens, happens."
Parker added 17 points and Smith 12. Carl Wallace finished with 18 for the Marauders who shot 56 percent in the second half after struggling to 34 percent in the first half. Millersville made 6 of its final 7 shots and turned the ball over once in the final 20 minutes.
Lock Haven went the opposite direction. The Bald Eagles shot 47 percent in half one, but 36 in the second.
"Not only did we have to be perfect on offense, but we needed to be perfect on defense," Thompson said. "When you are down 19, you can't let a lot get by."
Walker added 12 points and Brahieme Jackson came off the bench to score 10 and grab 12 rebounds for Lock Haven.
Several of the disappointed fans gave the home team a standing ovation as time expired, thanking their team for a memorable year after finishing winless just two seasons ago and 6-19 last year.
Still the heartbreak will linger after losing an 19-point second-half lead on their home floor, but how the Bald Eagles take advantage of their first winning season in 21 years could determine how soon they will return to the PSAC playoffs after an 11-year hiatus.
"I told the kids I was proud of them for what they've done," Nestor said. "It's a tough taste to lose this one being up 19 in the second half.
"It was a great accomplishment for our team and hopefully it puts us in the right direction and we can build on this and extend on what we've been doing the last three years."
MILLERSVILLE (13-13, 8-8 PSACE)
Brandon Brown 8-12 3-4 21; Carl Wallace 6-8 6-7 18; Kelvin Parker 6-15 1-1 17; Tyree Smith 3-8 5-9 12; Nate Bollinger 2-7 1-2 7; Kyle Richardson 1-4 2-2 4; J.D.Ricapito 1-7 0-0 2; Daniel Nagle 0-0 0-0 0; Ryan Aker 0-0 0-0 0; Jalen Lester 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 27-62 18-25 81.
LOCK HAVEN (17-10, 10-6PSACE)
Wali Hepburn 7-19 7-8 23; Bootsie Walker 4-7 4-7 12; Brahieme Jackson 5-7 0-0 10; Kasheef Festus 3-7 2-3 8; Elijah Cooper 2-4 0-0 6; Julian Bond 2-5 0-0 6; Al Blount 2-7 0-0 5; Nate Walters 2-5 1-2 5; Dave Garcia 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 27-63 14-20 75.
Halftime - Lock Haven 45-33. 3-point goals-Millersville 9-23 (Parker 4-9; Brown 2-3; Bollinger 2-5; Smith 1-3; Lester 0-1; Richardson 0-2), Lock Haven 7-22 (Cooper 2-3; Bond 2-5; Hepburn 2-7; Blount 1-6; Garcia 0-1). Fouled out- Bollinger. Rebounds - Millersville 32 (Wallace 7; Brown 7), Lock Haven 43 (Jackson 12). Assists - Millersville 8 (Lester 2; Bollinger 2), Lock Haven 16 (Hepburn 10). Total fouls - Millersville 17, Lock Haven 19. Technical fouls - None. A - 1,615.