Last-Second 3 Sank Hayden Ward and His Teammates

Hayden Ward, at right, forced overtime in the second-round N.C.A.A. game by making two foul shots near the end of regulation. Oswego State Sports Information

   Basketball is arguably the most exciting game inasmuch as the presumptive victors can become the vanquished in the blink of an eye.
    Such was the case Saturday at Oswego State’s Max Ziel gymnasium as a line-drive N.B.A.-length 3-pointer by Eastern Connecticut’s Brian Salzillo with 2.5 seconds left in the second overtime period stuck a dagger into Hayden Ward and his Laker teammates’ hearts.
    As a result of the stunning 70-69 loss, Oswego State, which, with the 6-foot-6-inch Bonac graduate making major contributions, had gone through the regular season undefeated, was ousted from the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division III tournament.
    The night before, Ward and the Lakers had come out on top of another thriller, turning back Endicott 72-71 in OT. It was the second year in a row that Oswego State had lost in the second round of the N.C.A.A. tournament.
    “It was a battle the whole game,” the junior from Montauk said during a conversation Monday afternoon. “Very much like Friday’s game. We were able to force two overtimes. We were down by 5 points in the last minute of the first one. . . . We never gave up; we weren’t going down without a fight.”
    In Friday’s first-round contest (both of the weekend’s games were played on the higher-seeded Oswego’s court), Ward, who normally hits 80 percent of his free throws, suffered at the line, going 3-for-10, including two misses at the end of regulation that could have clinched it for Oswego.
    Ward’s fellow forward, Chad Burridge, saved the day, however, scoring all 6 of the Lakers’ points in O.T. Endicott managed to can a half-court shot at the buzzer, but this time, with Oswego having been up 72-68, the 3-pointer was moot.
    Further testimony to Oswego’s never-say-die grit can be found in the fact that the Lakers came from behind in both games — from 13 points down in the second half of the game with Endicott, and from 10 down in the second half of the game with Eastern Connecticut, as well as from 5 down in that game’s first overtime period.
    Ward, who finished Friday’s game with 18 points and 14 rebounds, made 6 of 7 free throw attempts the next night, including two that tied the score at 54-54 with 32 seconds left and forced overtime.
    Eastern Connecticut, according to an account on Oswego’s Web site, “went on a 6-1 run in the first four minutes of the overtime, but a 3-pointer by Sean Michele, a senior from East Rochester, with 15 seconds left, gave the Lakers new hope.”
    “After the Warriors missed two free throw attempts on the other end, the Lakers brought the ball up the floor, down 60-58. Michele drove the lane and found an open Chris Gilkes right under the basket with three-tenths of a second left, sending the game into a second overtime.”
    “Ward hit a 3 early in the second OT and Burridge added a free throw, but a quick 5-0 run put the Warriors up 65-64 with 1:50 to play.”
    “Ward put the Lakers back in front with a bucket in the paint, and a Warrior miss allowed Oswego State to run some time off the clock.”
    “Ryan Sheridan drew a foul with one second left on the shot clock, and hit both free throws for a 68-65 Laker lead.”
    “With 12.1 seconds left, Eastern Connecticut put back an offensive rebound for 68-67 and fouled Michele. Michele made one of the free throws for 69-67. The Warriors came down and, with 2.5 seconds left, Brian Salzillo hit a deep 3-pointer from the top of the key. Much like the night before, Burridge threw a long pass to Ward at the top of the key for one final shot, but the Warriors defended it well, the shot fell short, ending the game and the Lakers’ season.”
    While he hadn’t seen Salzillo’s game-changer, which had been “pretty well defended,” Ward said fans had told him later it had followed a line-drive trajectory. “Unfortunately, it went in. . . . While it was a tough loss, there was no better way to lose.”
    A business administration major with a minor in coaching, Ward, who was recently named to the all-SUNYAC first team, said he would take a couple of weeks off before resuming weight training and individual skill work.
    And next year? “We’re graduating five or six seniors, but we have a strong junior class. I’m confident we’ll have a very good year, that we can repeat as the SUNYAC champion and, hopefully, get a chance to go deeper into the national tournament.”
    Yes, he agreed, basketball was an exciting game, “though sometimes it doesn’t go the way you want.”