On a night when things didn’t seem to be going so smoothly for the Roger Williams University men’s basketball team on their home floor against Commonwealth Coast Conference (CCC) opponent Gordon College, the Hawks put on a second-half clinic in what perhaps was their best performance of the season.
In the same week of the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, the Hawks pulled off a stellar come-from-behind victory of their own; a 92-85 double-overtime triumph even the New England Patriots would be proud of.
“The double overtime win was special because we stuck together when we went down,” said senior captain Josh Syska, who tied his season-high with 17 points along with seven boards. “Not one of us gave up and it took everyone from the last person on the bench to the five guys playing in the game to pull off the win. It is a conference win and just like any other conference games, there isn’t one bigger than the other. Gordon is a very good team with a lot of talent and they shot very well, not to mention having the best rebounder in the country on their team. The most important thing from this double overtime win was that we stuck together.”
While it is true a comeback from 16 down is not exactly the same as rallying from a 25-point hole like our idols from Foxborough, Massachusetts did—and the fact that this comeback came to be won in two, not one, extra session—anyone could admit these boys were just as gritty.
“Our team is always positive,” said junior guard Nick Marini, who had a near triple-double on the night putting up 14 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds. “Win or lose we’re always sticking together and in a game like that we’re encouraging each other to just focus on making the next play and chip away at that lead one possession at a time.”
For the bulk of the Hawks’ season, it has been a party in the home team’s gymnasium, going 11-1 in front of their home crowd since the season kicked off in early November.
However, for the majority of Wednesday’s contest, the Fighting Scots of Gordon College played the part of party crasher.
The Fighting Scots held RWU to 33 percent first half shooting, partly with the help from some unfortunate bounces that didn’t go RWU’s way. And while the Hawks were missing, Gordon was hitting, shooting 59 percent in the opening frame en route to a 35-27 halftime lead. In the first two minutes of the second half, GC doubled their cushion to 16, giving the Hawks their biggest deficit of the night.
But for the last 28-plus minutes, the Hawks turned up.
Roger Williams would turn up on the defensive end for the remainder of the night, forcing GC into long jumpers and tougher looks at the rim.
The Hawks would score nine unanswered points to cut the lead to seven, 43-36, highlighted by two of sophomore Austin Coene’s 22 points on a steal and score.
Gordon then ended the Hawk run on a layup by GC’s Sam Johnson to push the lead back to nine, but was quickly answered by junior Conor O’Brien’s sensational four-point play with just under 14 to go in the second half, cutting the lead to five, 45-40.
Over the remainder of regulation, the Hawks continued their surge and the momentum in the gym had begun to shift, but Gordon was doing everything in their power to keep the home goers at bay. Largely due to GC’s Garrison Duvivier—one of the leading rebounders in the nation who also dropped a game-high 30 on the night—helped keep the Hawks at a distance.
While all season it’s been guys like Marini and Coene leading the Hawks, thrilling victories aren’t spurned without unsung heroes. Junior guard Jaylen Jennings was the guy.
Jennings would step up big off the bench in the waning minutes of the final frame to keep the Hawks alive. With just under nine ticks to go in regulation, Syska would make a spectacular acrobatic save from a ball headed out of bounds to freshman reserve guard Justin Leip, who’d find a wide open Jennings and drill a 3-pointer to pull the Hawks to within three, 54-51.
After trading a few possessions, the Hawks would tie it at 57 on a layup by Marini, but Gordon College would push the lead back to five, 65-60, with 3:20 to go on a free throw by Duvivier.
A layup by Coene with 2:53 to go cut the lead to three, so Gordon turned to Duvivier in crunch time. Syska wound up drawing a charge on Duvivier, sending the home crowd into delirium and gave RWU a chance to pull within one or take the lead. On the following possession, Jennings then sank another triple to tie the game at 65 with just over two minutes to play.
On the next play, Duvivier would make up for his foul on the previous possession by hitting two on this trip down the floor, giving GC a slight 67-65 advantage with 1:45 to play, but every chamber was filled for Jennings in the second half plus, answering from way downtown again, giving RWU their first lead since the opening minutes of the first half with 1:30 remaining.
A foul by Coene on Gordon’s next possession would send Duvivier to the line, making the first, but missing the second, knotting it at 68. As the clock wound down with under a minute left, Hawks senior guard Andrew Wasik would make a go-ahead layup with 38 seconds left to put RWU up two, but then a layup by Duvivier would tie things up again at 70 with 23 ticks to go. Marini would get a chance for a drive to the bucket on the final possession of regulation, but he’d lose the ball and the game would be sent into overtime.
In the first five-minute extra session, it would be more of the same for Gordon, as Duvivier fueled the Fighting Scots to a slight four-point edge, 77-73, with 2:54 to go and also forced the Hawks’ leading scorer in Coene to foul out. Leip would fill in for Coene in the overtime periods, knocking down two freebies to pull them within two, 77-75.
The Hawks followed with a stop then a Jennings 3-pointer to give the Hawks a one-point edge again, but Gordon wouldn’t go quietly as GC’s Jake Haar answered with a three of his own, putting the Fighting Scots up two with 1:24 to play.
In the closing seconds of the first overtime, Marini would have a chance to drive to the basket, but lost the handle of the ball with six seconds left, leaving the bout undecided at 80 points apiece.
Although, however battered and beaten RWU was for most of the night, the Hawks refused to throw in the towel and delivered the knockout punch in the final overtime.
Gordon College would score the first point of the final extra session on a free throw, giving them an 81-80 lead, but little did they know it would be their last.
Although Jennings started the game 0-of-5 from distance, it seemed he couldn’t miss when it mattered most, scoring all 16 of his points in the second half and overtime frames, including a dagger in the second overtime.
After a pair of misses by both teams, Jennings hit his fifth of the night from distance to put the Hawks up for good by two at 83-81, sending the Hawk bench and home crowd into a frenzy.
“To be honest, I was frustrated the first half,” said Jennings. “My teammates and coaches kept on telling me to shoot. At the time, they had more confidence than I had in myself, but it’s just important to keep a positive mindset throughout the whole 40 minutes of basketball. I had some open looks and knew I can knock the shots down, so without any hesitation I let it fly.”
Seven straight points by Syska then extended the Hawk lead to seven, 90-83, putting the game out of reach and securing a crucial come-from-behind win against a top CCC opponent.
On what spurned that comeback, Syska said the team’s faith in each other, as well as poise was the key to overcoming the deficit.
“We kept telling each other ‘next play,’” he said. “We reminded each other as we went down like you said that we need to pick it up and we were going to win the game on the defensive end. We knew we needed to cut the lead but also knew it couldn’t be done all at once. Little by little with encouragement from each other, we got it done.”
After an emotional win against a top conference team, Jennings says while the team is optimistic they’re headed in the right direction, they need to remain focused down the stretch if they want to bring home the hardware.
“We’re all hungry and humble, which is what we talk about after each game,” said Jennings. “We’re still ready to work and position ourselves these last two games in preparation for the playoffs. Every practice we continue to strive and push each other in order to get better, because we’ve been determined the whole season for one common goal in mind—the CCC championship.”
However much work is left to be done for these Hawks, Syska says this team will let the work they’ve put in and trust he and his teammates have for one another determine how their magical season plays out.
“I don’t think there is a limit on this team,” said Syska. “Win or lose we have each other’s backs on and off the court. With this type of commitment from each one of my teammates, we have no limits and will work hard everyday to achieve the best.”
Since this game, RWU dropped a 101-71 decision against Endicott College on the road and won against Western New England 101-83 on the road, putting the Hawks third in the conference with a 19-5 overall record (13-4 CCC). They finish off the regular season with a home matchup versus Wentworth Institute of Technology on Sat., Feb. 18 at 3 p.m.