Heart stopper: Buffs head to national title game on buzzer beater
West Texas A&M’s Zach Toussaint, middle, is celebrated by teammate Qua Grant, left, and sports information director Tyson Jex after draining a 3-pointer to lift the Buffs past Lincoln Memorial, 87-86, in an NCAA Elite Eight national semifinal at the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind. [Trevor Fleeman/ For Press Pass Sports]
Zach Toussaint looks more choir boy than assassin.
But the 5-foot-10 sophomore guard delivered a cold-blooded 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded Thursday night signing his name with permanent ink in the West Texas A&M men’s basketball history books.
Toussaint’s 3-pointer from out front, his only points of the game, pushed West Texas past stunned Lincoln Memorial 87-86 in the 2021 NCAA Elite Eight national semifinals at the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind.
WT coach Tom Brown, leading his team to its third-straight Elite Eight appearance, said it’s been quite a trying year coaching COVID and praised his players and assistant coaches for the effort.
“What a classic this was tonight with Lincoln Memorial,” Brown said. “I’ve been coaching 30 years now and I don’t know if I’ve been a part of a game with that much emotion. It was two really good tams going at it.”
The win moves the top-seeded Buffs (19-2) into their first-ever national championship men’s basketball game against No. 2 Northwest Missouri State set for 11 a.m. Saturday and aired live on CBS (KFDA News Channel10 in Amarillo).
The Buffs faced an uphill climb all game - partly due to a talented Lincoln Memorial team and partly a self-inflicted wound in the form of a rare cold shooting game from beyond the 3-point arc - and led for one second of the last 36 minutes and 33 seconds of the 40-minute game.
But in true NCAA Tournament fashion this was a survive and advance game for WT, the final miracle touch from the sharp-shooting Toussaint.
Toussaint entered the final seconds of Thursday’s game a rare 0-for-5 from the floor, four of those shots from beyond the arc.
“I knew if I was going to touch the ball on that possession I was going to shoot it,” Toussaint said.
Toussaint, who had a breakout season for WT making a team-high 30 3-pointers entering Thursday, looked as if he would go scoreless on this night as the final play unfolded.
WT had the ball out of bounds with six seconds remaining and trailing 86-84.
WT junior guard JoJo Murray, who poured in 31 points in the Buffs national quarterfinal win Wednesday night, inbounded from the baseline near the Buffs basket to fellow guard Qua Grant.
Grant had been a dynamo all game long doing that thing his does night-in and night-out for the Buffs scoring a team-high 25 points and had one humongous reason why WT erased a 15-point Lincoln first half-lead.
Grant took the inbounds pass from Murray near the sideline in front of the Buffs bench.
“We were going for overtime,” Brown said. “And Qua had a great look.”
Grant dribbled twice to his left, reaching the lane, then elevated in the air getting off his pressured shot. The ball bounced off the rim and was bounced up in the air once, then batted back out front.
There stood Toussaint, just outside the key and about a foot beyond the 3-point arc. Toussaint grabbed the batted ball about waist high, then immediately lofted a shot with what appears to be 0.9 seconds on the clock.
Toussaint’s shot was nothing but net handing WT the one-point win and sending his teammates immediately sprinting to him, tackling him to the floor near the mid-court circle.
“We were trying to get Qua with an isolation,” Toussaint said. “He attacked the hoop. The ball was bouncing and I caught it. I threw it up and closed my eyes. The next thing I know I’m on the ground.”
Toussaint’s clutch shot handed the Buffs their first lead since all the way back to two minutes and 22 seconds into the game.
Lincoln Memorial (19-4) was everything as advertised and its superior length over the shorter Buffs proved to be a hassle all game long for WT.
Lincoln Memorial, shooting at a 70 percent clip much of the first half, looked headed for a rout owning a 39-24 lead with 4:07 to play in the opening 20 minutes after a pair of free throws by Jordan Guest.
It was Guest who was a thorn in WT’s side all game as he led a contingent of five Lincoln players scoring in double figures with 20. Guest also grabbed 10 rebounds and dished out five assists.
Also scoring in double figures for Lincoln was Julius Brown (16 points), Alex Dahling (14), Devin Whitfield (12) and Xavier Bledson (11).
WT at least had whittled Lincoln’s lead to single digits by halftime at 44-35 despite going 1-of-11 from 3-point range.
“I thought that was huge for us to get the score under 10 before half,” Brown said. “Some teams get down by 15 and they throw in the towel. I was proud the way we kept grinding and kept grinding.”
No doubt, WT’s dynamic duo out front of Grant and Murray fueled the Buffs ability to stay in the game with their drives to the basket, quick hands combining for four steals and free throw shooting skills (a combined 15-of-17).
Qua scored those game-high 25 points, while Murray added 24.
However, add Hayden Blakely to the WT list on this night of keeping things close. The 6-6 sophomore from Sydney, Australia was 5-of-6 from 3-point range, tied Grant and Kavon Booker with a team-high six rebounds and finished with 15 points.
Despite first-half foul trouble, WT junior guard Jon’il Fugett played his usual stellar game joining Grant, Murray and Blakely in double figures scoring with 14. Fugett added four rebounds and three assists.
Despite a 9-of-26 effort from 3-point land on the night, the Buffs were a strong 18-of-23 (78.3 percent) from the line and that effort helped keep things close.
However, despite the hustle and effort from the Buffs to erase Lincoln’s big first half lead, WT could not snatch the lead, the best being a 79-79 tie on a Murray bucket with 3:43 to play.
But Fugett hit a key 3-pointer with 47 seconds remaining cutting Lincoln’s five-point lead to three, then Murray added a late free throw, and Quest missed a free throw with 15 seconds remaining setting up Toussiant’s epic 3-pointer that sent WT to a place no Buff team has ever gone.
“That’s just how we drew it up,” joked WT coach Brown of the ball finding Toussaint out top.
“I mean, Zach, that’s my guy,” Grant said. “He’s a great person and even better teammate. He hit it when it mattered. All those shots don’t even matter. All glory to God, he made it.”