By Dan Jenkins, Staff Reporter
Leading 69-68, the University of Michigan-Dearborn men’s basketball team played 20 seconds of stifling defense resulting in a shot that coach John Mackson was happy to force.
Siena Heights guard Christian Covile hoisted a 24-foot 3-point shot to win the game for the Saints. The shot was off, bouncing wide off the rim toward the baseline where Wolverine junior guard Jamiel Strickland dove to keep the ball in play and run the final four seconds off the clock.
Tossed high above the court, the ball fell back into the hands of Covile as the buzzer sounded, ending the game. Or so everyone in the Fieldhouse thought.
The referees awarded the Saints a timeout, said to be heard from the sideline before time expired, and convened at the scorer’s table to reset the clock, which read double-zero, back to 1.4 seconds.
Having trailed by as many as nine points midway through the second half, the fate of the Wolverines on Senior Night would come down to one play, and they would not waiver.
Huddled on the bench, Mackson began to advise his team “Don’t foul”, but was interrupted.
“Coach,” A.J. Dombrowski, one of four seniors being honored on Saturday night, interjected.
“We got it.”
And they did. The Wolverine defense held, forcing the Saints into a long 3-point attempt from the corner which harmlessly bounced off the back of the iron and sealed the win, 69-68.
“That’s what you want from your leadership,” Mackson said. “We want them to say, ‘You know what, I know what I’m doing. I’ve played over 120 games. There’s 1.4 seconds left. I got it.'”
Dombrowski started the game alongside fellow seniors Dustin Sielski, Jeff Fick and Danny Calcatera. Sielski achieved not just the Senior Night victory, but recorded his 300th career rebound early in the contest.
“It was those guys that I was here with four years ago so it was fitting that we ended all of our careers with each other on the court,” Sielski said. “It was awesome.”
After sustaining an injury during the season, center Jeff Fick had to work his way back into the lineup. He did so by being a main reason the Wolverines won their two games last week, averaging 12 points and shooting 73.3 percent from the field.
“It was very tough coming back at first. The fellas supported me a lot through it and I just kept practicing hard and got back into it,” Fick explained. “This feels great, but I think it’s more important for the young guys though. It helps them see how to win and it’s just a good overall feeling for everyone.”
During their freshman season, the seniors saw moderate success, winning nine games, but would go on to win just 10 games over the next two seasons. This season, the Wolverines have a chance to win 10 games, with two road dates remaining on the schedule.
One recurring narrative expressed by all four seniors was the pride they took in helping the program turn around and leave it better for the future.
“I had a lot of good friends here,” Calcatera said. “Dustin, A.J., Brandon (Kennedy), Jeff, Balazs (Juhasz), who I went to high school with — it was cool to finish up with him. It was nice to help this program move in the right direction.”
The Wolverines notched their second in four days, also winning 70-66 over Madonna on Wednesday, en route to their second winning streak of the season.
“This is huge,” Sielski said. “We’ve got a ton of up-and-coming players and carrying momentum into the next year is huge.”
One of the players Sielski is referring to is freshman Gage Throgmorton. Not to be overshadowed, Throgmorton calmly sank two free throws giving the Wolverines their final lead with 1:19 to play.
“I was struggling from the field and, growing up, my coaches and mentors taught me if you’re struggling from the field to get to the free throw line,” Throgmorton said. “But we feel great, the locker room is just ecstatic. It’s a good feeling, coming from a long season to come out on a winning streak like this feels really good.”
“Coach said this is for the seniors,” Throgmorton said of the final play. “Go down and grab something, play smart, take it from the heart, and finish the game strong.”
Trailing by nine with 12:18 remaining in the game, the Wolverines were forced to dig deep and fight back. Behind a 20-9 run over seven minutes, the Wolverines tied the game, 63-63, when Jamiel Strickland connected on a deep, straightaway 3-pointer.
Strickland finished with a team-high 16 points and five rebounds. Dombrowski added 10 points, Fick contributed eight points, while Sielski tallied three points, five rebounds, and three assists.
Over the next 1:11, the Saints scored five unanswered points to hold a 68-63 with just under three minutes remaining. But the Wolverines would counter again and score the game’s final six points while holding Siena 0-of-4 from the field and out-rebounding the Saints, 7-2, down the stretch.
“We’ve learned to not give in,” Mackson said. “That’s a big step for us. We haven’t done that to this point in this program – learn to not give in. But we battled, battled, battled the whole game to get back into the game and that’s a huge step for us.”
With no lack of praise for his seniors, Mackson gave credit to his leaders for not giving up on the season, even when filled with adversity.
“So many of our seniors had to really struggle to get to this point in the season,” Mackson continued. “They obviously wanted to do better; we had the goal of making the (WHAC) tournament, it didn’t come to fruition, but they didn’t stop with that.”
“That speaks to the kind of character that they have; they’re high-character kids, they wanted to be here from the time they came here. They wanted to do it here and they’ve shown they could do that.”