Colby holds off rally to beat No. 22 Bowdoin

WATERVILLE — The phrase freshman guard Wallace Tucker used was “learning to win.” And when the Colby men’s basketball team found its 11-point lead over undefeated and nationally-ranked Bowdoin shaved down to a point with less than a minute remaining, the Mules found themselves in the middle of a test to see just how much they had figured out.

“It was just about banding together,” sophomore guard Ethan Schlager said. “Understanding that we feel like we should be in this position. Coach was saying we’ve just got to go take it.”

The Mules did, getting a key steal to deny the 22nd-ranked Polar Bears a chance at a game-winning basket and preserving what became an 89-84 victory at Wadsworth Gymnasium Saturday evening.

“We knew it was going to be a fight, and we feel good to get it done,” coach Damien Strahorn said. “We’ve been excited about our ceiling and what we can become.”

Schlager scored 19 points and Matt Hanna and Tucker had 15 for the resurgent Mules, who built double-digit leads in the first and second half, then fended off memories of a blown lead in an 83-77 loss to Eastern Connecticut State to secure the win.

“It felt like we let one slide against Eastern Connecticut,” Schlager said. “We didn’t want to give this one away.”

They were poised to win going away when a pair of Hanna free throws made it 85-74 with 4:07 left, but the Mules (6-1) didn’t apply the knockout blow and Bowdoin (6-1) quickly found life. The Polar Bears rallied and drew to within one at 85-84 on Hugh O’Neil’s lay-in with 59 seconds left, prompting Strahorn to call timeout and help his players collect themselves.

“We look to our coaches. … We look to the veterans on the team,” said Tucker, one of four freshmen and sophomores in the starting lineup. “We look to them for advice, then just trust in our game.”

“It really was talking to them and getting them to focus and understand the moment,” Strahorn said. “We talked about wanting to embrace the moment and understanding what it’ll take to win a close game.”

Colby missed its shot out of the timeout but stiffened on the next Bowdoin possession, as a pair of Mules converged on the Bowdoin ballhandler and Tyler Williams both took the ball and drew a foul with 25.6 seconds left. He hit both free throws, and Dean Weiner (five rebounds, five blocks) grabbed the rebound of a Bowdoin miss in the closing seconds and hit Tucker with a long pass for the game’s final basket.

“To come out, win and persevere is something special,” Schlager said. “We just wanted to come out and show that we’re a good team. A lot of people don’t believe in us, but we feel as if we can compete with anybody in the country.”

For much of the game, Colby did look like a team ready to take on all comers. The Mules, with Schlager (12 first-half points) leading the way, raced out to a 12-2 lead and then took a 29-19 advantage, only for Bowdoin to answer and cut its deficit down to 41-40 at halftime and even take its first lead at 44-43 with 18:32 to play. The teams went back and forth from there until a nifty Hanna layup through traffic upped the Colby lead to 72-65, urging Bowdoin coach Tom Gilbride to call timeout with 6:38 to kill the Mules’ momentum.

It had the opposite effect. After an O’Neil basket, Tucker buried a 3-pointer from the corner to make it 75-67. Jack Simonds (14 points, seven rebounds) answered with a 3-pointer for the Polar Bears, but Tucker drained another from beyond the arc, and Sam Jefferson (10 points) knocked down a third straight 3-pointer on the next trip down to make it 81-70 and prompt another timeout with 5:16 to play.

“It’s just a rush,” Tucker, who scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half, said of the flurry. “I was just trying to do whatever to benefit the team. … In the second half, I felt like we just needed a push offensively.”

Gilbride praised Colby’s responses to Bowdoin’s numerous attempts to narrow the gap.

“We didn’t play well at the start of the game. … We settled in and it was a good game from then on, with both teams having runs,” he said. “I thought they shot the ball extremely well, I thought they looked for the shooters nicely.”

From Strahorn’s vantage point, it was an example of his team’s balance. Four players reached double figures in scoring while others, including Weiner, Williams and Alex Dorion, filled in the gaps with points and defense to give Colby the upper hand in a game in which it was outrebounded 41-33.

Bowdoin didn’t let Colby take the win easily. But Strahorn saw enough to be optimistic going forward.

“I really believe the strength is the group, and the depth and versatility that we have,” he said. “They’re a fun group to coach. I think we have a chance to be really good.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

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Twitter: @dbonifantMTM