For one half of Wednesday night’s state tournament quarterfinal game against nationally ranked Florida Southwestern State College, the Santa Fe men’s basketball team appeared to be headed to an upset win and a semifinal berth.
However, the Bucs (24-5), ranked No. 14 in the NJCAA D-I poll, rallied from a 13-point first half deficit and ended the Saints’ season with a 67-59 win in the FCSAA/NJCAA Region VIII tournament at Northwest Florida State College in Niceville.
Former Wildwood guard Marcus Niblack, a transfer from East Tennessee State, scored a game-high 25 points, including 12 in the second half, and sophomore Kaiyem Cleary scored 16 points and grabbed 11 rebounds off the bench, as Florida Southwestern outscored Santa Fe, 39-24, in the second half to advance to Friday’s semifinals against NJCAA No. 2 Indian River State College.
“First of all, they’re really good,” said Santa Fe coach Chris Mowry, whose team won the Central Florida Conference and celebrated the program’s first conference title in 10 years. “They’re big, long, athletic, strong, and physical. The officials let the game go in terms of physicality and that doesn’t help us. We struggled to shoot the ball.”
The No. 5 seed Saints (24-6) made just 6-of-33 shots behind the arc and was just 7-of-13 at the foul line. They also made just 36.5% of their attempts from the floor.
“You’ve got to make shots to beat people, especially really good teams,” said Mowry, who was the conference’s coach of the year.
Bradley Douglas, the conference player of the year, got off to a fast start and scored 16 points in the first half to give the Saints a 35-28 lead at the half.
Florida Southwestern, which led the state in shooting at 50% from the floor and was second in 3-point shooting (38%), was held to 37.9% and 11.1%, respectively, in the first half.
However, the No. 4 seed Bucs shot 53.8% and 33.3% in the second half and held Santa Fe to 25.8% and 15.8% (3-of-19 from behind the arc).
“That’s tough to overcome,” Mowry said. “We just weren’t quite good enough tonight for 40 minutes.”
Douglas finished with a team-high 20 points, marking the fifth time this season he had scored 20 or more points. The freshman added seven rebounds and six assists.
Freshman Hasan Abdul-Hakim added 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting for the Saints, who trailed by 13 with 5:54 to play but were able to get within four, 63-59, with 27.8 seconds to play.
Florida Southwestern freshman Jordan Mitchell added a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds off the bench, as the Bucs’ bench outscored Santa Fe, 26-5. They also outscored the Saints, 36-28, in the paint.
Despite the loss, Mowry was proud of his team.
“They fought really hard all year long,” Mowry said. “We weren’t always the biggest, most athletic team on the floor, but I don’t think there’s a game all year where the other team played harder than we did, not that some didn’t play as hard as we did, but I don’t think there were any games where we got outfought.”
It was one of the best seasons that Santa Fe has had over the years and the spot in the state tournament could serve as a motivator for future teams.
“Your roster’s always changing a lot in junior college, but it lets the guys that are coming back and the new guys coming in understand, ‘hey, we can be pretty good at Santa Fe, we can compete with the best teams in the country,’ and these guys showed that they can do that.”