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Postseason awards: Lipscomb vs. NC State is the Game of the Year

Big shots. Crazy plays. Two opposing players who just went the hell off.

NCAA Basketball: NIT Final Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to awards week at Mid-Major Madness! This week, we’re honoring the best players, coach, and game from the 2018-19 season, continuing today with our Mid-Major Madness Game of the Year.

All-Mid-Major Madness First Team
All-Mid-Major Madness Second Team
All-Mid-Major Madness Third Team


As our writers were voting on the best game of the 2018-19 season, I was not initially on board with this one. Full disclosure: I also didn’t catch this game live, so I could not truly appreciate its greatness until I watched the whole thing.

I am so glad this is what our staff decided on and I’m even happier that I was able to watch it in its entirety, then write about it.

The Game:

March 27, 2019
Reynolds Coliseum
NIT Quarterfinals
Lipscomb vs. NC State

How they got there:

Lipscomb ended up in the NIT thanks to an ASUN championship game loss to Liberty. The Bisons had a reasonable case for an at-large bid, but missed out thanks to a few stumbles down the stretch in the regular season. They got a 5 seed in the NIT, though we are told it’s mainly because they did not want to host first- or second-round games and the NIT did not want to give hosting duties to a far inferior team. And so the Bisons went on the road where they took down Davidson and UNC Greensboro — The Other Top 25 mainstays — in the first two rounds. Their quarterfinal game against the Wolfpack was their first chance to take down a Power 5 team since December and served as a showcase for what mid-majors can do, when given the chance.

As for NC State, the Wolfpack landed in the NIT thanks to a putrid non-conference strength of schedule (ranked last in the nation) and not enough big wins in ACC play to make up for it. Their first two NIT games featured a pair of close calls against top-tier mid-majors. They beat Hofstra by six and Harvard by one.

Watch the damn game:

Why it was great:

You would have never guessed it by the opening few minutes, which featured a five-minute delay because the shot clock didn’t work and then two minutes of a scoreless tie, but this game had everything.

In the first half, Lipscomb star Garrison Mathews and NC State senior Torin Dorn carried their teams and gave viewers one hell of a show. Dorn scored eight of NC State’s first 10 and Mathews scored each of the Bisons’ first nine.

After the teams traded baskets over the first 10-or-so minutes, NC State upped its defensive intensity. It sped Lipscomb up — even faster than the high-scoring Bisons like to play — forcing forced turnovers and leading to an extensive field goal drought. When Braxton Beverly hit a three just before the halftime buzzer, it looked like NC State would take its nine-point lead into the locker room and coast from there.

Only Lipscomb then hit its first four shots of the second half and eventually pulled to within one on Mathews’ sixth three of the game. As Mathews and Dorn continued to go at it, the intensity level slowly ratcheted up. One catalyst: this flat-out stupid three from Michael Buckland, coming at the end of what was a solid defensive possession for the Wolfpack.

That shot put Lipscomb up five, but NC State stormed back with an 8-1 run to go ahead by two. With under 10 minutes to go and momentum firmly on the Wolfpack’s side, Lipscomb needed an answer.

It got that and more from a questionable goaltending call on a Rob Marberry layup attempt with 9:40 to play. That tied the game and sent NC State coach Kevin Keatts into hysterics. The crowd erupted in boos as Keatts’ assistants struggled to hold him back. While this was happening, Mathews stepped to the line and not only sank two free throws, but sarcastically clapped at the crowd in between them, then stared down the student’s section after the second one.

The “Refs you suck!” chants were still echoing through Reynolds Coliseum when Markell Johnson’s go-ahead three went through the net.

That wasn’t the first big shot in this game and it was far from the last. Mathews went over the 40-point mark with just under four minutes to go on a three with two hands in his face and somehow he walked off the court bleeding.

But every big shot, every call, and every, uh, bloody arm, could not prepare us for the final minute...

First it was Markell Johnson’s straightaway three to make it 91-88:

Then, after Mathews split a pair of free throws, Kenny Cooper came up with the biggest steal of his career, followed immediately by the biggest three of his career.

So what happens from there? You might think a sequence that wild would take the air out of the building and destroy NC State’s chances, even with 24 seconds left.

NOPE!

Out of a timeout, Johnson took the ball at the basket and made a layup from straight on to put NC State back up. With 9.6 seconds left, Lipscomb had one last shot.

Game. Lipscomb won 94-93 and advanced to Madison Square Garden for the NIT semifinals.

The Bisons went on to beat Wichita State in the semis before falling to Texas in the title game. What a run for Casey Alexander in his final season at Lipscomb.


Later today: Freshman of the Year