Thursday, March 1, 2018

Monmouth loses 15-point lead in MAAC tourney collapse against Saint Peter's

Nick Griffin's four threes in final three minutes, including game-winner with just over four seconds remaining, helped Saint Peter's erase 15-point deficit to defeat Monmouth in opening round of MAAC Tournament. (Photo by Saint Peter's University Athletics)

ALBANY, NY -- One year ago this weekend, Monmouth held a 17-point lead in the second half against Siena, less than 20 minutes away from a second consecutive appearance in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship game before Nico Clareth's historic barrage pushed the Saints past the Hawks.

A sense of déjà vu awaited Monmouth Thursday in their first tournament game since that collapse, leading Saint Peter's by as many as 15 before the Peacocks, on the strength of senior Nick Griffin's outside shooting, gradually chipped away before taking the lead on Griffin's last triple and fending off the eighth-seeded Hawks by the final of 60-58 in the first of three opening-round tournament contests, winning their third straight to set up a quarterfinal showdown with top seed Rider on Friday.

"This is all my fault," head coach King Rice lamented as Monmouth (11-20) had the game seemingly in hand the entire night while having to play at Saint Peter's pace, holding the Peacocks to just seven field goals in the first half and under 30 percent from the floor at various stages of the game. "It is not the kids' fault. I did not have my team disciplined enough this year, and you could see it. Down the stretch, we let people get their heads up. That's on the coaching. These guys did an unbelievable job, and I didn't do a good enough job as a coach."

Monmouth scored the first nine points of the game, feasting on Saint Peter's struggling to make a shot over the opening stanza, riding the strength of their front line to a 34-16 advantage in the paint. But the Hawks left the door open enough for the No. 9 seed Peacocks (13-17) to take advantage of ill-timed turnovers and keep themselves within earshot, even after opening a 35-20 cushion 46 seconds removed from the intermission. Saint Peter's began to whittle down their deficit over the next several minutes, pulling within eight as 9:54 remained in regulation as Rice uncharacteristically called a timeout to pull his troops together.

"We've struggled keeping leads this year, so I felt like maybe I would stop it today," said Rice of the timeout, a move he is usually not apt to make as a product of the North Carolina tactic of letting players fight through adversity. "We just tried to slow them down, but you could see their energy started looking like our energy, and our energy started looking like theirs was looking earlier in the game. When that happens, that's when you could have problems."

Monmouth played inspired out of the timeout, scoring the next six points to stretch their lead back to 14 points, at 47-33, but the Peacocks stormed back with a 12-4 run to draw within six after Quinn Taylor's two free throws with 4:39 remaining. Just over one minute later, Griffin; who shot 7-of-13 for the game and 6-of-10 from long range, connected on a three with 3:18 to play, paring the Hawks' edge down to five.

"We were just trying to stay locked in throughout the game," said Griffin, whose 20 points led all scorers. "Coach touched upon whether we were down twelve, eight, six, just to stay locked in and stay together as a group. Going through those last three minutes, I tried to take it upon myself being the leader to just make plays, whether it was for me or other people."

A Zac Tillman layup put Monmouth back up seven before a conventional three-point play by Taylor trimmed the lead to four. After Austin Tilghman split a pair at the stripe on the next possession, Griffin provided the precursor to his coup de grace with each of his next two shots, draining back-to-back threes before Tillman gave the Hawks the lead one last time with 14.1 seconds to play, setting the stage for an epic conclusion as Griffin splashed his last trifecta from the right arc with 4.3 ticks remaining. Ray Salnave's desperation heave did not come close at the buzzer, enabling the Peacocks to escape and advance into the quarterfinals for a fifth straight season.

"Growing up, you always dream of hitting the last-second shot," said Griffin. "Confidence comes with preparation, and so when you have opportunities like this, you've got to live in the moment and just have fun with it."

"We were struggling there for a long time, and we were still right there," head coach John Dunne recounted. "We just kept saying if we make some shots and not give them easy looks on the offensive end, we could still make this a game. It epitomized our season, because we just never quit. At the end of the day, we just made some big plays at the end."

Saint Peter's will need to do the same in less than 24 hours, taking on a Rider team that swept the regular season series from the Peacocks this year, but not without its share of close calls, both in Jersey City and Lawrenceville.

"We're going to have our hands full," Dunne said of the matchup with the Broncs. "Against them, you've got to be low-turnover, and they are men on the backboards. They're so talented, they're so deep, and you have to work so hard to get them to miss a shot. The backbreaking part about them is that when they miss, they're so good at getting their own rebounds. We've just got to compete good enough and win our fair share, and hopefully not give them a bunch of paint scores." 

"At the end of the day, there's no mystery. Players have to make plays, players have to make shots. We should have nothing but confidence."

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