I wanted to catch one last hoops game before heading south for the Daytona 500, and it was definitely worth the trip to Nichols as the Vikings won a fun one against St. Mary's, 75-56.
Nichols came out playing outstanding defense and rattled St. Mary's as it went up 15-4 ... 20-4 .... 24-8 .... 28-8 ... and 28-10 at the end of the first quarter.
And I'm sitting there thinking: "I could be packing right now."
However, the Lancers hung in there in the second, trimming it to 36-26 ("Ten points! Ten points!" a St. Mary's fan yelled in support) before going to halftime down, 43-31.
St. Mary's then played some outstanding ball in the third, starting the period with an 18-5 run to unbelievably take a 49-48 lead with 2:25 left in the third.
Great game, huh?
It turned on what turned out to be a huge play late in the third. Will Regan hit two big-time-recruit-looking jumpers, then scored on a nice inbounds pass from Andy MacKinnon to put Nichols up, 55-50, with 30 seconds left in the quarter. He also blocked a shot on the other end. Nichols standout junior guard Ron Canestro had an off-night, partly due to picking up three fouls in the first half, and Regan showed some great leadership in being so aggressive.
Following Regan's basket to make it 55-50, Canestro pushed the ball upcourt. St. Mary's junior Joe Barnhardt did some great guarding as he did an excellent job to draw an offensive foul on Canestro, his fourth. He knew how important it was, the St. Mary's bench knew how important it was, the St. Mary's fans knew how important it was -- they were all fired up because St. Mary's was down five and one of the best guards in Western New York, perhaps Nichols' most important player, had four fouls.
But then, Barnhardt got too fired up. He decided to tell Canestro a little something, and was deservedly issued a technical for taunting. Some quality officiating.
So instead off all that momentum going the way of the Lancers and their boisterous fans (who did a nice job making themselves heard, some quality support when you're playing an excellent team on the road), Regan went to the line, hitting 1 of 2 with 27 seconds left to go up, 56-50. Nichols gets the ball back, and Regan makes a great, aggressive drive to the basket and finishes for a 58-50 lead to end the quarter.
Despite what had been a terrific third quarter, the momentum was gone for good for St. Mary's.
Regan added a free throw and Ben Meyer knocked down a killer three-pointer for a 62-50 lead to start the fourth (Meyer also had a clutch three just before the halftime buzzer to put Nichols up 12). Nichols regained the defensive form it had in the first quarter -- playing without Canestro. The Lancers lost its offensive vibe and never got the lead under double digits as Nichols hit six straight free throws.
Regan had several plays where he showed why he is a big-time Division I recruit: knocking down the jumper that he'll need to do at the next level, making strong, aggressive post moves -- and drives -- to the basket and even throwing in two three-pointers.
St. Mary's -- which I was seeing for the first time -- also showed why it is a top five small school by playing tough defense, smarty running through its offense, bombing threes and playing hard.
Vince Kazmierczak, a 6-3 junior, can do a little bit of everything. Senior Dan McFarland is a heady, gritty 6-footer who isn't afraid to get in the lane among the bigger boys.
The Lancers got a three-pointer from senior Matt Bittner to give them a great start to the third quarter (it was instantly answered by Regan, who followed that up with a big-time fadeaway jumper on the baseline). St. Mary's took its only lead of the game at 49-48 when senior Mike Donnolly drained a deep three from the left side.
Kazmierczak hit two very smooth threes in the third and had one of the highlights of the game when he used a behind-the-back dribble to get around a defender on his way to a fast-break finish. Late in the second, he also had a nice traditional three-point play off of a strong driving bank shot.