M. hoops’ season ends in CBI opener

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Damon Huffman ’08 saved his best for what he hoped wouldn’t be the last.

The 6-foot-2 guard and captain from little Petoskey, Mich., rained three-pointers early and slashed to the basket when his team needed him late.

But Huffman’s grit and career-high 39 points still weren’t enough against Ohio University yesterday. The Bobcats’ athletic post players overpowered the men’s basketball team, 80-74, in the first round of the inaugural College Basketball Invitational in Athens, Ohio.

The loss ends the stellar careers of All-Ivy guards Huffman and Mark McAndrew ’08, as well as center Mark MacDonald ’08. It finishes a record-setting season for the Bears (19-10, 11-3 Ivy League), who finished second in the conference and set the school mark for most wins.

Ohio (20-12), of the Mid-American Conference, will advance to the CBI’s second round to play either Bradley or Cincinnati next week.

“We (the coaches) are disappointed, and the guys are just as disappointed,” said Head Coach Craig Robinson. “They would love to still be playing, but it doesn’t take away from the wonderful season we had.”

The Bears were led by Huffman, who shot 13-for-20 from the field and 9-for-15 from three-point range, and McAndrew, who had 15 points and six rebounds. Forward Peter Sullivan ’11 added 10 points.

The Bears led for the game’s first 21 minutes and kept the score close late. With 1:22 to play and the Bears down 69-65, Huffman was fouled as he drove to the basket. He made both free throws to cut the deficit to two.

But on the ensuing possession, Ohio found Tommy Freeman wide open beyond the arc. With 55 seconds left, the freshman guard hit the three-pointer to give the Bobcats a 72-67 lead, one they preserved by hitting free throws down the stretch.

“The whole game, we were really trying to pack it in and not let them get open inside … and they made a nice ball reversal at the top of the key, and (Freeman) was open in the corner,” Huffman said. “They did a good job of countering our game plan.”

But while Freeman, an unheralded freshman, hit the crucial shot for Ohio, it was the Bobcats’ all-conference veteran forwards who clobbered the Bears in the paint.

Jerome Tillman, a 6-foot-6 junior, had 21 points and 11 rebounds, while Leon Williams, a 6-foot-8 senior, had 20 points and 12 rebounds.

“Those two guys caused a lot of matchup problems with us,” Huffman said. “They’re scrappy, they’re very strong, they’re very big and very offensive and they offensive rebound like crazy.”

The Ohio forwards helped to slowly chip away at the lead Brown amassed in the first half, when the Bears never trailed and led by as many as 10. Huffman started the game with a three-pointer – and then another, and another. All came from a foot or two behind the arc.

He scored Brown’s first 14 points and had 22 first-half points. He made another three-pointer as the clock expired in the first half to give the Bears a 37-32 lead at the intermission.

Huffman “was spectacular,” McAndrew said. “He has a lot of pride when he comes out here (to the Midwest), and he deserves to play in the conferences that neglected him in recruiting. He came out here with a mission to prove that he can play. I’m so grateful to be his teammate for the past four years because he carried us when we needed him the most.”

But despite Huffman’s efforts, the Bears still couldn’t find a solution in the second half for Tillman and Williams, whose size and jumping ability helped give Ohio a 33-23 rebounding advantage. They scored nearly every time they got the ball inside, as Tillman shot 7-for-9 from the field and Williams shot 9-for-11.

The Bears held a slim lead for most of the first 10 minutes of the second half, but Bert Whittington hit a three-pointer with 9:53 left to tie the game at 53. The scoring then went back and forth until Tillman hit a layup at the 4:57 mark to give the Bobcats a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

Robinson said he was thrilled with his team’s performance on offense and defense. But he said “a couple of plays here and there” – such as a few turnovers and Ohio offensive rebounds – decided the game.

“You play great (defense), and they shoot an airball and the guy grabs it and puts it back in – that’s the sort of stuff you can’t plan for,” Robinson said.

As the Bears trudged off the court for the last time this season, Huffman and McAndrew said they thought about how the game could’ve gone differently.

“When the final horn sounded, it was like, if a couple of shots dropped or a couple of loose balls had come our way,” the Bears would’ve won, McAndrew said.

But an hour after the game, the seniors weren’t dwelling on the game, and were already happily reminiscing about their Brown careers. When the team returns to campus this afternoon, the three seniors will begin looking into playing professional basketball in Europe after one of the most successful seasons in Brown’s history.

“All the guys on the team are great, and the coaching staff is great,” Huffman said. “I’m going to have a lot of friends for life because of the bonds and the time we’ve spent together.”