IRONWOOD — No matter how good the season, the ending still stings.
The Gogebic Community College Samsons came up six points short of the national tournament, losing 81-75 to Central Community College of Columbus, Neb ., on Sunday.
The Samsons completed a special season at 23-5, winning two thrilling Region 13 games in front of huge crowds in Ironwood while capturing its first Region title since 2011. The biggest crowd of all arrived Sunday to see a back-and-forth nailbiting NJCAA Division II District 7 championship game won by Central (18-13).
“I’m disappointed we lost,” said GCC sophomore John Duke, who led the Samsons with 15 points. “We feel we should be going to nationals, but we did win regionals and we did have a great record. We accomplished a lot.”
Neither team ever led by double digits Sunday.
“Overall we played awful well and competed with this team,” GCC coach Dennis Mackey said. “This is a very talented team as everyone could see. Very quick, they had leapers in there.”
The lead changed 10 times in the second half. Central took a 64-63 lead on a 3 by David Plain. Gogebic took the lead 65-64 on Randy Clark’s drive to the basket. That was lead change No. 9. The 10th and final change came on another 3-pointer by Plain for Central’s 67-65 advantage.
His next attempt rimmed out and Tyron Crisswell made the putback for a 69-65 advantage.
“We were trading baskets with them. We should have gotten a couple stops, but that didn’t go our way,” Duke said.
Gogebic appeared to be in back in business when Jordan LaPlant made a reverse layup while being fouled with 3:31 left. He hit the free throw, pulling GCC within 69-68 and bringing the crowd back into it.
Central, though, scored the next six points, starting with two free throws by Crisswell and a jumper by James Spencer, who led all scorers with 29 points.
Duke, who has been magic in the clutch this year, missed two triples during Central’s 6-0 run.
“We got some stops in the second half,” Central coach Jason Campbell said. “I’m not sure it was really our defense. They left them a little front rimmed. It’s kind of funny because I walk around our gym, ‘No front rim, no front rim,’ especially late in the season, especially late in the game. All the 3s they missed late were just front rimmed.”
Mark Jurakovich hit a layup to pull GCC within 75-70 with 53.4 seconds left. Central made four free throws with a GCC turnover in between for a 79-70 lead, its biggest of the contest.
GCC’s Dillon Windt drove for a bucket and Duke stole the ball on the inbound, delivering it to LaPlant, who tripled from the wing, to pull GCC within 79-75. But Central stayed perfect at the free throw line when it counted, going 8 of 8 down the stretch. Two free throws by LaRell Blackstone made it the final score of 81-75 with 14.6 seconds left.
Gogebic was 9 of 30 (30 percent) from 3. The 3s that fell late in games throughout the season and postseason didn’t fall Sunday.
“Last couple minutes we just didn’t execute offensively as well as we could have, last five minutes,” Mackey said. “We had a couple of possessions where we didn’t get shots off even. Obviously you can’t do that in a game of this magnitude. Some guys passed up shots maybe they should have took. Other guys might have forced a couple things at times.”
GCC sophomores Jurakovich (11 points), Billingslea (11) and Dave Anderson (10) also hit double figures. Jurakovich added a team-high 13 rebounds.
Plain and Blackstone each had 13 points for Central. Spencer was impossible to stop.
“Spencer obviously was a primetime player,” Mackey said. “Their point guard (Plain) was just lightning quick. We had to spend so much time on those two guys, the other guys had free reign. For the most part, that’s what did us in in the end.”
Central had to overcome GCC’s late rallies and even a 61-56 Gogebic lead with less than eight minutes left.
“We’ve got some size and athleticism,” Campbell said. “We don’t want to get in a jump-shooting game with (Gogebic). We want to get to the rim and get out in transition. The guys just toughened it out.”
Mackey said Central beat a good team.
“My team’s a quality team. We played hard. We just came up short,” he said. “Right now it’s hard to even look back. It’s been, obviously a great season. Winning (21) games in the regular season, finishing 23-5 is no slouch. Having this opportunity to play these three games at home was almost magical in many ways. The community got behind us; we had great crowds every game. It seemed like today was the biggest of the three. It was just fun; it was a great experience. The problem is these don’t come around all the time. When you don’t take advantage of it, it’s a little bit disheartening. But at the same time, it was a great run for our team and the record speaks for itself. A good group of guys in there.”
It’s the first time going to nationals for Campbell and the players. The program last went in 2011 when it beat GCC in the play-in game in Nebraska.
“Swing for the fence,” Campbell said. “We’re battle tested. Our schedule has been unbelievable. We’ve been through a lot of adversity. I don’t think we’ll see anybody down there that scares us. I don’t see anybody down there we’ll walk over either.”
Central — Steven Ferrarini 4, David Plain 13, James Spencer 29, Riak Bol 4, LaRell Blackstone 13, Tyron Crisswell 18. FTs: 15-20. Fouls: 15. Fouled out: None. 3-pointers: Spencer 4, Plain 3, Blackstone 1.
Gogebic — David Anderson 10, Randy Clark 9, John Duke 15, Jordan LaPlant 9, Mark Jurakovich 11, Bryce Bilski 5, Jonathan Billingslea 11, Dillon Windt 5. FTs: 10-15. Fouls: 14. Fouled out: Clark. 3-pointers: Billingslea 3, LaPlant 2, Duke 2, Bilski 1, Windt 1.
Half: Central 36-35.