The season that was supposed to be the perfect dream for the John Carroll University men’s basketball team was cut short by the sound of an early, powerful alarm clock.
JCU’s run in the NCAA tournament ended on March 6 when a three-pointer by senior Rudy Kirbus bounced off the back iron as time expired and the Blue Streaks fell short to Guilford College for the second season in a row, suffering an 85-82 defeat.
However, it is not the destination, but the journey that tells the character of a team.
After clinching their second consecutive regular season championship, the Blue Streaks would once again host the OAC Tournament.
They were defeated by fifth-seeded Heidelberg University in the OAC semifinals and had a long layoff before the NCAA tournament.
The Blue Streaks were awarded an at-large bid into the national tournament and found themselves headed to Guilford College for a first round matchup with Maryville College of Tennessee.
The sophomore class would shine in this contest as Matt Crozier, Corey Shontz and Joey Meyer would combine for 49 points en route to an 88-67 victory, giving John Carroll a chance at revenge from last year’s Sweet 16 loss against the home team Guilford College.
Guilford came into the game as the number three team in the country, and more importantly, still featured swingman Clay Henson and 6-foot-10-inch center Tyler Sanborn, both of whom were matchup problems for Carroll last year.
Those match-ups were a problem yet again as a three by Josh Pittman gave Guilford a 17 point lead with 15 minutes remaining.
With a few inspirational words from head coach Mike Moran, JCU would begin a dramatic comeback as their full court pressure began to give the Quakers problems.
A jumper by junior Maurice Haynes narrowed the deficit to just two with seven minutes remaining.
However, two quick threes by Pittman gave the Quakers an eight point lead and it looked as if the comeback run was done.
John Carroll would prove there was still more in the tank, as consecutive three pointers by Kirbus, Meyer and Shontz off a steal would give the Streaks a 77-74 lead with just over four minutes remaining.
After trading several baskets, Guilford had the ball with a one point lead and one minute on the clock. After running down the shot clock, Rhett Bonner would score on a layup to give Guilford a three point edge with 36 seconds remaining.
A collision on a screen between Shontz and Haynes forced a turnover and Carroll was forced to foul.
Guilford made two of their next four attempts for a five-point lead.
A shooting foul put Rudy Kirbus on the line with six seconds remaining. After making the first, the second attempt would rim out.
However, Haynes was able to grab the ball after jumping across the lane and put it back in, cutting the lead to 84-82. JCU quickly fouled Henson after a timeout, sending him to the line with just three seconds remaining. After missing the first, Henson made the second, giving JCU an opportunity to tie the game with a last second three.
Shontz grabbed the inbounds pass and flew up the court, getting into the lane before kicking back out to a trailing Kirbus whose 30 footer struck back iron as the horn sounded, ending the Blue Streaks’ hopes of a final four appearance.
“I’m just so proud of the way our guys never quit and played through everything,” said coach Moran afterwards, “It’s a tribute to everything they achieved out there this year. It’s nice to win games and go to the Final Four, but our guys played like champions and as coaches that’s all we can ask of them. I’m proud of them.”
There certainly is a lot to be proud of, especially for the senior class. Seniors Brian Dandrea, T.J. DiSanto, Tyler Kirsch, Rudy Kirbus and Chris Zajac ended their careers as three-time regular season OAC champions, with a conference tournament championship, three NCAA tournament appearances, and two trips to the Sweet 16.
“It’s sad that it was the last time we got to play together on the court, but we’re going to be a team for the rest of our lives,” said Zajac, “That’s just how it is at John Carroll basketball.”
As for next year, John Carroll will certainly be one of the favorites to contend for another OAC championship. All five starters from the end of the season return, including a sophomore class that will be looking for their third OAC championship in three years.