Courtesy of GCAC
TOUGALOO, Miss. – Another buzzer beater marked the final game of the 2023 Hope Credit Union Men’s Basketball Championship. In the end, the top-seeded Tougaloo College Bulldogs completed its unblemished conference season with a 62-61 win over the No. 2 Philander Smith Panthers, securing their second consecutive title.
The first half opened with the Panthers scoring first off of a quick basket from All-Defensive Team selection Rayonte Childs off the tip. Both teams came in energized with hustle and defensive tenacity as scoring came at a premium in the first few minutes. Midway through the first half, Tougaloo would get a spark on the offensive end from Second Team All-GCAC selection Trajan Fielder and Player of the Year Cameron Copeland with two quick jumpers to give the Bulldogs a slim lead.
Philander Smith would respond with a quick score to tie the game up at six. The Bulldogs would string together a run, thanks to a pair of shots from the charity stripe from Fielder and a huge alley-oop dunk from First Team All-GCAC selection Cameron Woodall shifting the momentum back to Tougaloo. Philander Smith would respond with a combination of two consecutive baskets and stops on the defensive end to take a 12-11 lead with eight minutes left. The Bulldogs would close out the first half on a 19-12 run, carrying an eight-point lead, 32-24, into the lockerroom.
The second stanza would begin with a 5-0 run for the Panthers as Childs would connect on a right-wing triple to cut the Bulldog lead to five. Both teams showed grit and toughness but the momentum remained with the Bulldogs as Second Team All-GCAC selection Darryl Jones would make an and-one layup to extend the Tougaloo lead back to double digits, 41-31. Midway through the half, both teams’ defenses found their rims lidded as neither team could find an offensive rhythm. While the Bulldogs held the lead, the momentum began shifting towards Philander Smith as their aggressive defense out of the timeout played a role in the Panthers cutting the lead to four, 45-41.
The Bulldogs would capitalize on the offensive end, thanks to Jones but the Panthers would not go away easily. The No. 2 seed would go on a 9-8 run down the stretch to cut the lead to seven points. However, the Bulldogs were able to pull ahead with an and-one layup from DeArius Henyard to pull ahead, 54-46, with under seven minutes left in regulation. Meanwhile, the point differential would dwindle to two points by the 3:11 mark with both teams logging baskets at the line due to the double bonus on both ends. The teams would find themselves separated only by a single possession one minute later. The Panthers battled in the lane and earned a trip to the line for Childs. He was only able to connect on the back end of the pair, narrowing the gap to one point, 60-59. With 1:20 left, Jones was fouled, going on to hit one of two free throws to put the Bulldogs ahead, 61-59.
Kroger Gymnasium was thunderous for the final minute of regulation. Tougaloo dribbled the clock down to 24 seconds but missed a jumper in the lane, allowing the Panthers to call for a timeout with possession with only 16.1 ticks remaining. Philander Smith’s Raymond Reece battled for a putback with 0.5 seconds to knot the game at 61. Tougaloo attempted to heave the ball over the mid-court line but Tougaloo’s André Brunt was fouled before he could possess the ball so no time elapsed off the clock. At the free throw line, he missed the first but hit the second shot, putting the top seed ahead by one, 62-61. With the same 0.5 left on the clock, the Panthers attempted the same long-distance heave as their opponent but time expired before the attempt bounced off the backboard, sealing the back-to-back titlewin for Tougaloo.
Philander Smith had three players reach double digits, paced by Christione Rufus’ 15. Reece posted a double-double with 13 points and a game-high 11 boards while Childs added 10 points. Copeland and Fielder each added 11 points for the Bulldogs.
With the victory, the Tougaloo College Bulldogs earn an automatic berth to the 85th annual Men’s Basketball NAIA National Championship Tournament. First and second round games are slated for campus sites, March 7-8. The selection show will be held on Thursday, March 2 at 7 p.m.CT on the NAIA YouTube Channel. For more information, visit www.naia.org
Hope Credit Union GCAC Men’s Most Valuable Player
From Tougaloo College, Cameron Copeland
All GCAC Men’s All-Tournament Team presented by Central Mississippi Health Services
From Fisk University, Michael Ashley
From Wiley College, Maurice Harvey
From Philander Smith College, Rayonte Childs
From Tougaloo College, Darryl Jones
From Tougaloo College, Cameron Copeland