KANSAS CITY – The shot was there, a shot that Ryan Imhoff hit all game. As the buzzer rang across Municipal Auditorium in downtown Kansas City, the ball bounced front rim, back rim and off. Life University would hold on to win 73-71 over Carroll College in the Buffalo Funds-NAIA Championship Quarterfinals. The Saints' historic season would come to a close.
The chance at the buzzer was a culmination of a huge comeback. Life U started the game on an 11-0 run, the Saints cut it to five in the first half, but a 35-footer at the buzzer from Mike Miller gave the Eagles a 46-45 lead at the break.
The Eagles pushed the lead to 52-37 with 17:53 left in the game before the Saints battled back.
Carroll went on a 23-6 run to cut the lead to 60-58 with 9:29 to play. The Eagles then responded shot for shot with the Saints. Carroll failed to capitalize on missed shots as time after time Life U came up with offensive rebounds to extend possessions.
The Saints never tied or took the lead and a 9-2 run gave the Eagles a 73-64 advantage with 3:21 to play. Carroll was not going to let their season slip away without a fight.
Imhoff hit a bucket with 2:08 to play and after a Life miss, Zach Taylor hit a long contested three to cut it to four. On the Saints' next possession, Matt Wyman hit a bucket to cut it to 73-71. A foul gave Jonathan Beausejour, an 85 percent free throw shooter, a 1-and -1 attempt with 20 seconds on the clock. He missed the front end, and the Saints had one more attempt.
The ball was knocked out of bounds with 2.3 left on the clock. After a timeout, the Saints quickly got the ball at the top of the key to Taylor. He drove and drew a defender, leaving Imhoff wide open from 17-feet out on the wing, but his shot was just short, and Life would hold on for the win.
"I think Ryan felt like he had to rush it a little bit because of the time, and that is understandable," head coach Carson Cunningham said. "It was on line but a little short."
The loss caps a tremendous season which saw the Saints capture the Frontier Conference regular-season and tournament championships. Carroll racked up 29-wins, second to only the 2005-06 team that went 30-4. The Saints returned to the NAIA quarterfinals for the second-consecutive season.
Imhoff scored a game-high 27 points on 11-17 shooting, one point off of his career high. He caps the season with 573 points. He led the Saints with 17.36 points per game.
Taylor finishes his career 2,019 career points, just the second Saints to surpass the 2,000 career point mark. He was named the Frontier Conference Player of the Year and scored 44 points over three games in the tournament.
"You can't let it take away from all of the positives, from the competitive spirit that these guys had and the way that they approach being a student-athlete at Carrol College," Cunningham said. "They are very inspiring, and you have just got to keep that in mind, they do it in a very impressive way. In the classroom, how they carry themselves and how they play.
"It is an amazing group. How they bounced back after losing a couple in California and were open to coaching. Right now it is tough; you want to keep playing. We are very capable of taking it all the way; we just didn't quite have enough."
The Saints were 27-53 (50.9 percent) from the field but just 6-19 (31.6 percent) from the three-point line. Steven Helm joined Imhoff as the only other Saint in double figures with 11.
Life U was 30-59 (50.8 percent) from the field and 8-18 (44.4 percent) from the three-point line. Dalarian Williams led the Eagles with 22 points, and Zach Landis had 15 points and 15 rebounds which led to the lopsided rebounding total.
Life U grabbed 14 offensive boards which led to a 34-20 a rebounding advantage for the Eagles. Life tallied 19 second-chance points to just four for Carroll.
The Saints lose just one senior, in Taylor but he is one of the most dynamic players in Carroll history. Still, the future is bright for the reigning Frontier Champions.
"We return a ton of our players. Our players are fun to be around and coach," Cunningham said. "I am excited when I think about the future, but right now it is just tough because you want to keep playing, you want to keep coaching them. We were one possession away, so it stings."