BETHANY - With the two top offenses in the President's Athletic Conference meeting for the league championship Saturday night, there was no reason to believe the game might be anything but an old-fashioned shootout.
However, Bethany coach Andrew Sachs and his nationally ranked Bethany men's basketball team showed Thomas More College that it can play a little defense also.
After forcing the Saints into a miserable first half performance, the Bison managed to build a 20-point lead early in the second half before holding on for its second consecutive PAC title.
Bethany’s Nick Wilcox, who tied a career high with 13 rebounds, goes to the basket on Saturday.
Junior guard Reece Mabery picked off a pass with 18 seconds to play and knocked down four free throws in the waning seconds as Bethany escaped with a hard-fought 58-53 victory against a determined Thomas More squad before a large and very loud crowd at Hummel Field House.
With the victory Bethany, which entered the week ranked No. 25 in Division III, improves to 25-3 and punched its ticket into the national tournament. The 25 victories is also a new school record.
''We won as the No. 3 seed a season ago and it gave us something to build on,'' an elated Sachs said. ''But now we need to take the next step and get some wins in the NCAA Tournament.
''The crowd was just great (Saturday). Everyone loves a winner and people want to come and watch when you are doing these kinds of things.''
Both teams were inconsistent offensively early on before the Bison went on the game's first real run, turning a 17-15 lead into a 12-point bulge at 27-15.
The Saints snapped the 10-0 spurt by the Bison with a pair of free throws before Leslie Addy's 3-pointer at the 58-second mark sent the hosts into the half with their biggest lead, 30-17.
However, the biggest key to the first half was Bethany's lightning quick defense that seemed to be everywhere the ball was. The Bison forced eight turnovers while holding Thomas More to 19.2 field goal percent in the initial 20 minutes of play.
The Saints did not make a field goal in the final 10:32 of the opening half. The Kentucky-based squad not only entered the finals as the league's top-scoring offense, but also the leader in field-goal percentage at 47 percent.
While Thomas More was able to break an 11-minute field goal drought early in the second half, Bethany quickly went on a 9-0 spurt to push the led to 39-19 at 16:30 and forcing a timeout.
It was a very good break by Coach Jeff Rogers, who watched his Saints slowly climb back into the game from that point on.
Leading 41-28 with 12:43 to play, the Bison got a huge hoop from senior standout British Alexander, who cleaned up a missed shot with a monster dunk that nearly took the rim down. Unfortunately, it was more than 2 minutes before James Barton provided the next Bison hoop at 10:09 of the second half, and that turned out to be the hosts' final field goal of the night.
A 9-0 Thomas More rally cut the count to 45-40 and the Saints got the deficit down to three on three occasions before a Ryan Hamm 3-pointer with 40 seconds to play made it a 52-51 Bethany lead.
It was still 54-51 when Mabery stepped into the passing lane at 18 seconds, stole the ball and was fouled with 16 ticks showing. He canned both for a five-point advantage. Following a Saints basket 10 seconds later, Mabery again drained a pair for all the insurance the Bison needed.
As soon as Thomas More missed its final attempt and the buzzer sounded the Bethany student section charged the court and ''We Are The Champions'' began blaring through the speakers.
While the Bison were charted with just seven assists on the night, there is no question that a eighth should have been awarded to the student section, which seemed to cause the visitors problems all night long.
''The first half we were just great on defense and we weren't bad in the second half either,'' Sachs said. ''It got a bit tough late, but the guys hung in there and did a great job. We found a way to win and at the end of the day that is what this is all about.
''Reece (Mabery) and Nick (Wilcox) are our big steal guys and they have been 1-2 the last couple of years. We like to get into the passing lanes and make things tough for the other team and that was a huge steal that Reece had late.
''We have some very good players on this team and you normally don't see good teams with bad players. Right now we are playing at a pretty high level of Division III basketball and that is fun to watch and see.''
In a game that was very physical most of the way through, Bethany had to play a good bit of the second half without Alexander, who picked up his fourth foul with 9:45 to play before getting his fifth with 5:17 still showing.
While Thomas More battled back in the second half, Bethany still held the Saints to 26 points below their league-leading average of 79 a game and well under their field-goal percentage with just 30.2 on Saturday.
Mabery finished with a game-high 16 points while Leslie Addy had 15 and Barton 10. Colt Stafford tallied 15 for the losers. Wilcox and Brady Pacific, who normally combine for over 28 a game for Bethany were held to just 8 Saturday, all coming from Wilcox, who also had a game-high 13 rebounds.
Another key statistic was the fact that the hosts forced 18 turnovers and scored 21 of its 58 points from them. Thomas More, meanwhile, had just six points off of turnovers.