In a South Central Regional championship game for the ages, Eric Cazenave hit a 3-point basket with 4.56 seconds remaining to lift Central Oklahoma (28-5) past Tarleton State (25-7) at Wisdom Gym on Tuesday, and into the Bronchos' first NCAA Division II Elite Eight since 1992.
The trip to the Elite Eight is the second all-time for UCO, who also won both the Lone Star Conference North Division title and the LSC Tournament during its current run of wins in nine consecutive games and 19 of its last 20. Sam Belt, who was MVP of the North and the conference tourney, added a third trophy to his 2008 collection, earning regional MVP honors.
The Bronchos were led in scoring by Brian Walker with 16, while Belt (15), Cazenave (12) and Sosanya (12) were also in double figures. Belt led in rebounds with eight.
Tarleton received valiant efforts from seniors Jeffrey Henfield and Terrence Gamble, who combined for 39 points. Henfield hit four 3-point baskets and finished with a game high 22, while Gamble had 17. Both had six rebounds, and Gamble blocked four shots. Also in double figures for the Texans were Mike Daniels, who scored 11 to go with nine assists, and freshman Warren Webb, who had 10 and six rebounds.
"It was an incredible game between two outstanding teams," Tarleton coach Lonn Reisman said. "I thought we played really well as a team tonight. We were certainly in a position to win the game, but they made great plays down the stretch, and we didn't. I couldn't have asked for anything more from these seniors or this team."
Central Oklahoma coach Terry Evans, who will make his first Elite Eight appearance as a head coach, agreed with Reisman.
"They have a great team," Evans said of the Texans. "They outplayed us most of the way tonight in a great game. Our guys are just so tough. I don't know that we have the best team in the region, but I think we have the toughest."
UCO led by four with 20 seconds remaining in the opening half, but Henfield drained one from deep in the left wing at the buzzer to pull the Texans within one, 36-35.
Tarleton tied the score early in the second half, but the Bronchos moved back ahead, 41-38, on a Belt 3-pointer at the 18:15 mark.
The Texans answered right back when Henfield was fouled in the corner and buried three free throws. He struck again moments later, drilling a 3-ball for a Tarleton lead that would not be relinquished until Cazenave hit the game winner.
Terrence Gamble followed Henfield's three with four consecutive points to make it a 10-0 Texan run for a 48-41 advantage. The lead would grow to double digits when a deep ball by Marlin Cloudy made it 53-43. Mike Daniels added another bulls-eye from downtown with 8:33 remaining to give Tarleton its biggest lead, 61-48.
Everything changed from that point forward, as the Bronchos turned to full court pressure defense to fuel the comeback. Walker hit a jumper to end an 8-0 Tarleton run and pull the Bronchos within 11, and after a stop, Lance Harper scored to make cut the difference to single digits, 61-52, with 7:58 still on the clock.
"We had to take some risks," Evans said of the Bronchos' aggressive defensive play during the closing stretch. "We caused some turnovers in the back court and started penetrating for easy shots or kick outs for good outside looks. With eight minutes to go, we were beat. But these guys looked around at each other and decided they didn't want this run to end. We just didn't want to lose tonight."
Baskets and defensive stops were traded until a Cazenave 3-ball pulled UCO within eight. The lead would shrink to seven on two occasions, and finally to five when Michael Sosanya grabbed a rebound and knocked down a lay-up to make it 74-69 with 1:44 to go.
Broncho free throws stretched the run to seven straight points, as Belt hit two and Walker added one.
Webb hit one of two from the line for Tarleton, and after a Cazenave lay-up, Henfield did the same for a two-point advantage with 18 seconds to play.
During a timeout, Evans drew up a play for Belt, who was immediately double-teamed once he had the ball in his hands just outside the right elbow.
Cazenave was left open just left of the top of the key when his defender helped on the MVP, and Belt found him. The shot barely grazed the back of the rim as it fell softly through the net.
"We're always going to try to go to (Belt) in situations like that," Cazenave said. "He got the ball, and when my defender decided to help on him, it left me open. Sam being the unselfish player and leader that he is, he gave me the rock in good position for the shot."
Mike Daniels used the remaining four-plus seconds to sprint up the court, stopping just outside the arc in the left wing and tossing up a potential game-winner of his own. The ball clanged off the back of the iron, and Central Oklahoma began the celebration in front of a suddenly silent crowd of 2,448, the largest of the season in Stephenville.
Season-long Tarleton scoring leader Avery Patterson was in foul trouble from the start, logging only 11 minutes. His only points came on a 3-point basket to get Tarleton on the board with a 3-2 lead early on.
"Avery has done a great job for us all year," Reisman said. "We certainly wish he could have played more tonight, but you can't place blame on any one player. We played as a team, but it just wasn't meant to be tonight. That's what makes this such a tough business."
UCO improved to 2-2 in regional championships. The Bronchos were eliminated in the round of 16 by Central Missouri State in 1995 and West Texas A&M in 1998. They meet South Atlantic champ Augusta State at the Mass Mutual Center in Springfield, Mass. on March 26.
Tarleton fell to 2-2 in South Central championships, having won the regional at Texas A&M – Commerce in 2005, and again at Southwest Baptist in Bolivar, Mo. in 2006. The Texans other loss in a regional final came at Wisdom Gym in 2003 to eventual national champion Northeastern State.
Tarleton seniors Patterson, Henfield, Daniels, Gamble and Wilson played their final game for the Texans.
Patterson and Henfield were named to the All-Tournament team from Tarleton , along with Belt and Cazenave from UCO.