The trip to Division III’s version of March Madness looked like it was going to Sage, up by 21 in the first half at Farmingdale State. Yet there was Brendan Twomey, standing on the ladder at the end, in no way surprised to be up there as he cut the last strand of the net and twirled it in sheer joy.
“We’ve come back from 20-point deficits,” the Farmingdale State coach said. “They never quit. I told them at halftime there was no doubt in my mind that we’d come back and win this game.”
The top-seeded Rams climbed out of their hole and grabbed an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament with a 77-75 win over second-seeded Sage on Saturday in the Skyline Conference championship game.
They’re going to the NCAAs for the first time since 2012, the last time they had claimed the conference tournament.
George Riefenstahl, a sophomore forward from Bayport, secured this ticket to an NCAA first-round game, likely Friday on the road, by scoring on a layup with 0.6 seconds on the clock, the final two of his 16 points. Matthew Graham, a sophomore guard from Valley Stream who was the tournament’s most outstanding player, paced the 20-7 Rams with 18.
“It’s amazing,” Graham said. “This is a dream of mine since I was a little kid, since I first started playing basketball. So it’s a good feeling right now.”
Marcus Patterson, who topped the Gators with 20, nailed a three to cut Farmingdale State’s lead to 75-71 with 18.4 seconds remaining.
Then the Rams turned the ball over. Jordan Devaughn went up for a three from the left corner. Liam Monaghan fouled him. The ball went through. The free throw did, too.
Four-point play. Tie game. Just 5.4 seconds left.
“That was my worst nightmare right there,” said Monaghan, a junior guard from Rockaway Beach who contributed 14 points and five assists. “But my roommate, George Riefenstahl, he helped me. He saved my life.”
Monaghan inbounded, and Ali Mableton, a sophomore guard from Brentwood, found Riefenstahl for the winner.
“Some things just happen for a reason,” Riefenstahl said. “Ali came down, two-on-one, made the unselfish play.”
Sage coach Brian Barnes called it “a terrific play” and added, “Obviously, a tough moment for our kids, but we wish [Farmingdale] all the best.”
His Gators (17-10) had dominated, leading 35-14 with five minutes left in the first half. But the Rams picked up their play and had it down to 43-29 at the intermission.
It was 57-48 with the clock ticking toward 12 minutes remaining. Then seven Rams scored to power a 20-3 burst, good for a 68-60 advantage with 3:15 left.
Graham hit two free throws with 49.4 seconds left and two more with 35.5 left, making it 74-68. Mableton increased it to a seven-point edge with a free throw at 24.5. It got sweaty until 0.6.
“We think we can play with just about anybody,” Graham said. “We should be able to do some damage in the tournament.”