In one six-minute span, the University of the District of Columbia lost its opportunity to win a second NCAA Division II national basketball championship.
Wright State outscored UDC, 18-4, in that stretch early in the second half, used near-perfect free throw shooting the rest of the way to stun the defending champion Firebirds, 92-73, tonight before 4,747 at the Civic Center and will take the title home to Dayton, Ohio.
"That period did it. We lost it right there," said disappointed UDC Coach Wil Jones. "We closed to within three, then everything went against us. It seemed every ball bounced away from us, off our feet, our hands. When we stole the ball, we didn't cash in. Then they built their confidence up and . . . "
According to Jones, the crucial period came in the first half when center Earl Jones was hit in the eye attempting to dunk. UDC led, 15-12, in pursuit of its 25th straight victory and Wright State's best player, Gary Monroe, was on the bench with three personal fouls.
"I was fouled on the play," Jones said. "I couldn't see out of the eye."
When Jones departed, walking off after lying on the floor for long minutes, Wright State immediately went inside and outscored the Firebirds, 12-2, to take a 24-17 lead with eight minutes left in the first half.
Jones returned and provided 11 of his 26 points but his team still trailed, 41-34, at intermission.
Johnny Jones and Earl Jones opened the second half with inside baskets and the Firebirds were right there, 41-38, with only 35 seconds elapsed. Then the nightmare.
The Firebirds scored only one field goal and two free throws on their next 13 possessions over that fatal six minutes. Monroe, a second-team all-America who played at Theodore Roosevelt High School in the District, was taking over on his way to a 21-point half after his brief, two-point first half. The 6-foot-7 senior glided in for two three-point plays and another driving basket, Anthony Bias had two field goals and three other Raiders contributed points as Wright State streaked ahead, 57-42, with 13 minutes to play.
"We looked up and they were up 15," said UDC's Michael Britt, who closed out a sensational college career with 17 points and seven rebounds. "We got close, then became impatient. The jump shots didn't fall, we stopped running and a couple of calls hurt us. They got a few breaks and that was it."
The one thing Wil Jones feared was Wright State (28-4) getting ahead. The Raiders used a spread offense to hold off Cal State-Bakersfield, 57-50, in a semifinal Friday night and Jones knew it would come if his team fell behind.
"I wanted to at least wait until the 10-minute mark before going after them," Jones said. "We didn't have any choice but to foul."
Jones used a rotating system of substitutes to chase the Raiders, trying for steals. But the Firebirds had to foul (committing 37 in all).
Wright State missed three first shots of one-and-ones and lost the ball twice on turnovers but UDC got only four points out of the exchanges and trailed by 63-51 with 8:02 left.
The Raiders settled down to dimming the Firebirds' hopes. T.C. Johnson made the first and Mike Grote the last of 14 straight free throws and Wright owned a 79-61 lead at 2:39.
"In the last eight or nine games, we've shot very well from both the field and the free throw line," said Wright State Coach Ralph Underhill. "Tonight, we shot 62 percent from the field (30 of 48) and 78 percent from the line (32 of 41). The guys inside did a wonderful job even though Jones got 26 and Britt 17. They enabled the team to neutralize their outside game."
For UDC (29-3), the last game was one of its poorest: 28 of 65 field goal tries, 17 of 29 free throws, 20 turnovers.
"We weren't making our shots and got a little frustrated," Earl Jones said. "Just got too overanxious."
After making only three of nine in the first half, Wright State made 23 free throws in the final 7:08, and 29 in all in the second half. Monroe made 11 of 11.
"When I was on the bench (with three fouls), all I could think about was getting back in the game," Monroe said. "We played very well defensively in the second half. And made our free throws."
UDC's shooting touch returned in the game's final five minutes but trading a basket for two free throws was not the way to catch up. The Firebirds lost four players on fouls and had three others with four each.
UDC and Wright State had played once before, two years ago. In that game, Wil Jones grew so infuriated over the officiating he pulled his team off the court in the waning minutes with UDC behind, 76-63.
Jones wasn't complaining tonight.
"I don't know if we could have done anything different," he said. "The kids had a great year and did their damnedest to win another championship. They won a lot of games and made a lot of people proud."