No. 5 Moment of 2012-13: The comeback Panthers

Keith Burgess vs. Pitt-Greensburg
Sophomore Keith Burgess

Over the next 10 weeks, Pitt-Bradford athletics will bring you the Top 10 Moments of the 2012-13 school year.

Each week a new moment will debut, featuring insight from coaches, players, and Sports Information Director Scott Elliott. It all leads up to the No. 1 moment in Panther athletics, which will be revealed the week of Aug. 5.

In sports, if you wait long enough, you'll witness something special. For the 2012-13 Pitt-Bradford men's basketball team, three games will forever define its season. Two will be addressed in this space; the other will be saved for another day.

The Panthers opened the year with three straight wins, the first team to do so since 1991-92. Consecutive losses to start AMCC play quickly tarnished the once promising young season. A date with Juniata loomed on the first Tuesday in December, a team that was 5-1 on the year and very capable of dealing the men their third straight loss.

The Eagles were fundamentally sound, creating points with their pressure defense and motion offense. They thoroughly dominated the game for the first 30 minutes, building a seemingly insurmountable 19-point lead.

"When we were down 19, coach called a time out and got us together and asked us if we believed we could come back and win," said senior Tyler Ferguson. "Of course everyone said yes. However I wasn't too confident. Juniata was a very good team, and up until that point they were beating us in every aspect of the game."

Head coach Britt Moore recalls that timeout, too.

"I remember calling a timeout when they stretched the lead to 19 and said this is going one of two ways," said Moore. "Our guys responded, and we may have played our best defense of the season those last 10 minutes."

Despite repeated efforts to cut into the lead, the Panthers still trailed by 15 with 6:55 remaining. A second-chance three-pointer by junior Brandon McClester proved to be the ultimate spark.

Freshman PJ Blanch hit one-of-two free throws on the next possession and followed with a long three from the top of the key moments later, pulling Pitt-Bradford within eight at 61-53. As the shots started to fall for the Panthers, the defensive intensity picked up. They forced Juniata into three straight turnovers.

"The thing I recall the most was the intensity that we brought on the defensive end because that's what brought us back," said McClester.

Ferguson scored four straight points to draw Pitt-Bradford within four at 61-57. Blanch scored again, this time on a layup with 2:02 left, and following another turnover, McClester scored in transition to knot the game at 61-all.

McClester nearly put the Panthers ahead in the closing minute but missed a layup after another steal. The Eagles grabbed the rebound yet missed a long-three pointer in the final seconds.

The Panthers had rattled off 15 straight points while holding the Eagles scoreless over the final 11 minutes. It was a remarkable comeback, only there was still more basketball to be played. The fans erupted with each made basket while at the same time trying to grasp what they were witnessing.

In overtime, the Eagles surged ahead and led by four with 1:09 remaining. Sophomore Keith Burgess scored four points in the final minute, including a game-tying off-balanced layup in the final seconds to extend the game another five minutes. By this point,, the national website for NCAA Division III basketball, had picked up the story and was following closely.

With 48 seconds remaining in the second overtime, McClester hit a free throw to even the score at 77. It was the 11th tie of the game. Juniata missed a layup on its ensuing possession, and with eight seconds left, McClester hit a running shot in the lane and was fouled. He sank the free throw attempt and Pitt-Bradford hung on to win 80-77.

"Juniata may have been the most exciting game I have ever been a part of as a player or coach," Moore said.

The comeback in regulation was extraordinary by any means. The two overtimes were an incredible display of sheer will. Neither team refused to give in, trading barbs like two heavyweight boxers only to fight back time and time again. And as noteworthy as the game was-it was the lead story for that night-the Panthers would top that performance, the most astonishing aspect of it all.

Losers of four straight, the Panthers entertained Penn State Altoona on Saturday, Jan. 19, in a must-win scenario as their playoff hopes were diminishing with each game. The Lions had knocked off the men earlier in December, scoring the game's final six points to win a close contest. Now on the road, Altoona caught fire in the first half, hitting seven triples, including a 30-foot shot as time expired to lead by 18 at the break.

Three minutes into the second half, the Lions pushed their lead to 22 for the second time. The Panthers were well on their way to being run out of their own house, and even with Juniata fresh in the minds of everyone, a 22-point turnaround appeared impossible. But then Altoona went cold as the Panthers cranked up the defensive pressure.

"At halftime I challenged the seniors to be leaders and not accept that effort," said Moore. "They responded as did our whole team."

Burgess' three-pointer with 6:55 remaining capped a run of 14 unanswered points. Ferguson's jumper on the next possession cut the lead to 59-56. Despite going through a seven-minute stretch without scoring a point, the Lions still led by four with 2:28 left. Burgess hit two free throws moments later to make it a one-possession game.

With a chance to tie, Burgess, who was brilliant in orchestrating the comeback, committed a critical turnover with 48 seconds left. Altoona worked the clock down yet missed on a chance to ice the game. After Justin Quiggle had his shot blocked, Ferguson took an inbounds pass from DeLoof and scored with seven seconds left to level the score at 68 and force overtime.

Over the final 13 minutes of regulation, you could see the game slipping away from the visitors. The Panthers were relentless, wearing down the Lions inside. Ferguson's game-tying basket was the proverbial nail in the coffin. Riding momentum, Pitt-Bradford pounced early in overtime and never looked back, outscoring their counterparts 12-3 to win 76-67.

"Keith Burgess was tremendous, and it felt like he was making the right play every time down the floor," said Moore.

It was an unbelievable turnaround. Over the final 17 minutes of regulation and the duration of overtime, the Panthers held Altoona to just five made field goals, outscoring the Lions 45-14 during that stretch. Now go back and read that again.

The players weren't surprised at all, nor should they be.

"It showed how poised and focused we were as a team," McClester said. "I saw that if we stayed focused and disciplined, we were a tough team to beat."

"In both games, when we cut the deficit to single digits I knew we were going to win because they started playing tight," said DeLoof.

Ferguson commented on the support of the coaching staff in each instance.

"It would have been easy to give up and throw in the towel, but we as a team truly believed we could win," Ferguson said. "It also showed me that our coaching staff was not going to give up on us."

"As a coach you hate to get down by that many, but it does make the win more exciting," said Moore.

Throughout the course of any 40-minute basketball game, an athlete's pride will be put to the test. For the Panthers, throwing in the towel was not an option. Their pride was too great.

"Out of my college career these two games definitely go down as two of my favorite games," Ferguson said. "If you weren't there to witness the comebacks it's hard to believe."

Two comebacks: Each one special in its own regard. There are very few words to describe either one, and in each instance, only the players in that huddle believed it was possible. That's the beauty of sports.