The Trinity men’s basketball team captured its third consecutive Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference Championship with an 82-70 victory Sunday, March 2, but suffered a narrow loss against Whitworth University Friday, March 7 and lost their position in the NCAA playoffs.
“It hurts when your season ends, no matter how well you do. We started this year as a family and we ended it as one. We picked each other up and it only makes these friendships stronger with teammates going through a season together,” said senior guard Robert Kitzinger.
During the SCAC Championship game, the Tigers led 44-33 at halftime, shooting over 53 percent in the opening period. The Centenary College Gents closed to eight points in the second half of play, including a 48-56 mark with 9:36 on the clock. Trinity pulled away late, leading by as much as 16 points (74-58) with 1:49 left in the game.
Kitzinger led the Tigers with 22 points, and was selected as Tournament MVP. Kitzinger shot 7-15 from the field, sank 6-7 free throws, and earned eight rebounds. His record is now tied with Trinity alumnus Rich Skeen’s ‘94 for Trinity’s all-time record in three-point field goals made, scoring two in the game.
Senior forward Zach Lambert added 18 points, while senior forward Jonathan Wilt had a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds. Both players earned All-Tournament Team honors. Senior guard Matt Selling contributed 11 points to round out Trinity’s double-figure scorers. Junior guard William Young led the matchup with seven assists, surpassing 300 in his career.
The SCAC Championship was a successful endeavor for the Trinity Tigers, on both a team and an individual basis. Head basketball coach Pat Cunningham guided Trinity to a seventh conference title, and third in a row. For his efforts, coach Cunningham was honored as SCAC Co-Coach of the Year, a league-best sixth time he received the conference’s top honor.
“I am very proud of this group. We dealt with injuries and one of the toughest schedules in the country this season and it made us better in the end,” said assistant men’s basketball coach Ross Burt.
The Tigers opened up their NCAA gameplay with a matchup against Whitworth University, which resulted in a marginal loss of 75-73 in favor of the Pirates.
Trinity had a chance to tie the game at the end, as Whitworth missed the front end of a 1-and-1 at the foul line with 19 seconds left in the game, but the Tigers missed two shots in the final seconds that would have tied the game.
Lambert shattered a Tiger playoff record with 36 points in the loss, connecting on 11-20 from the field and 11-14 from the free throw line. The previous high for the NCAA Playoffs was a 27-point night from alumnus Jason Morris during the 2004 tournament. Lambert also led the team with five rebounds and dished out a pair of assists. His 36 points are the most in any game by a Trinity player since alumnus Andy Bates scored 39 against Southwestern in 2005.
Kitzinger finished with 16 points and four rebounds, adding a pair of steals, and also breaking Trinity’s career record for three-point field goals. Kitzinger broke his previous record from the SCAC championship game by hitting 2-5 from long range. Kitzinger was elected to the d3hoops.com All-South Region Men’s Second Team following the games, and was also named to the National Association of Basketball Coaches All-South District Second Team.
Selling rounded out Trinity’s double-digit scorers with 10 points on 3-6 shooting, and also hit a pair of three-pointers. Junior guard Craig Saltarelli came off the bench to lead the team with five assists, while Young added three for the Tigers. Young finishes the season with 112 assists, which is the fourth-highest single season total in school history.
“We were optimistic and felt like we could make a long run in the playoffs. We knew we were going to have to play good teams though so we realized it was going to be tough. We definitely felt we could have gone farther, it just didn’t work out that way against Whitworth,” Saltarelli said.
Trinity led 36-35 at halftime, as both teams came out firing on all cylinders. Each team shot better than 50 percent from the field in the opening period, but only Whitworth was able to continue that pace. The Tigers dipped below 40 percent shooting in the second half, which included missing their last four field goal attempts.
Whitworth led most of the first half, pulling ahead by as many as nine points midway through the period. An 11-3 Trinity run made it a one-possession game, though, and eventually, the Tigers pulled ahead by the break.
In the second half, Whitworth quickly pulled out in front, but could never build a lead bigger than five points for the entire period. Trinity rallied and took its last lead with 3:39 to play, pulling ahead 65-64, but Whitworth scored five straight baskets to reclaim control. That led to the final seconds, during which the Tiger rally fell just short.
Trinity wraps up its season with an overall record of 19-10, finishing with a 12-3 record since Jan. 17, 2014. The men’s basketball team’s next season begins Oct. 15.