By Zack Tobita
City College had their first undefeated regular season in school history end in heartbreak.
The Rams (31-1, 12-0 Coast-North) historic 2012-2013 campaign ended after being eliminated by Chaffey College (27-6, 12-2 Foothill) on March 15 in a thrilling 87-85 semifinal game.
The winner moved on to face Mt. San Antonio College (who defeated Merritt College) in the CCCAA championship game.
The atmosphere was intense before the opening tip with Chaffey supporters greatly outnumbering those of City College.
The Rams, who have cruised thus far, got caught up in a battle from the start.
Chaffey Panthers sophomore guard Ryan Nitz, who averaged eight points per game during the regular season, had the hot hand early with 15 first-half points.
All season long the Rams managed to move the ball up the court at will, but Chaffey head coach Jeff Klein had something up his sleeve.
“Nobody’s pressed them, or at least pressed them the way we could press them,” Klein said.
The Panthers’ pressure irritated City College to the tune of 37 points off of 30 turnovers for the game.
“We felt we could rattle them a little bit,” Klein said.
With 5:58 left in the first half, City College trailed by double digits for the first time all season.
City College’s freshman guard Quincy Smith carried the load offensively and led a charge into halftime cutting Chaffey’s lead to 43-40.
Facing adversity for the first time, the Rams appeared sharper in the second half.
City took a three-point lead when sophomore guard Delon Wright fed freshman guard/forward Chuks Iroegbu on an alley-oop.
City College looked like they were taking control when Dulani Robinson hit two free throws to give them their biggest lead of the game at 58-52 with 13:23 remaining in the game.
The well-coached Panthers would come back and tie the game at 60 with 10:19 left in the game.
City head coach Justin Labagh made a critical decision when he took one of his best players out of the game for a short rest.
“I’m not tired, please don’t take me out. I’m not tired,” Smith said.
With time running out, City College would answer on a floater from Wright that had the Rams trailing by two points, 84-82, with 1:43 left in the game.
The Rams struggles continued when sophomore forward Shawn Smith fouled out with 51 seconds left.
But the game was far from over.
The Rams’ hustle and relentlessness would even up the game at 85 with 38 seconds left.
City College needed a stop.
Chaffey would have an opportunity to take a shot for the win with just seconds remaining, thanks to the 35-second college shot clock.
“It was one of those things, it was whoever had the ball last won,” Klein said. “That’s the way it should be when you’re playing the number one team in the state.”
Chaffey sophomore guard Sango Niang dribbled down the clock waiting to take a shot for the win.
The ruckus atmosphere was as quiet as it had been all night.
Dribbling at the top of the key with approximately seven seconds left, Niang moved to his left and shot it.
“I decided when I got the ball, I’m going to get the last shot and take us to the championship,” Niang said.
The high-arching ball shot by Niang dropped straight through the basket, “swish.”
City College called a timeout with 3.2 seconds left, and down 87-85.
An undefeated season hung in the balance.
City College’s championship hopes laid in the hands of their highly regarded guard.
Wright caught the ball and pushed it down the court.
The 6’5 guard got a look from three and took the final shot for the win.
The gym was held in a second of silence, as the ball spun in the air for what seemed like an eternity.
The shot was off and the ball bounced away.
Rams players fell to the floor in heartbreak as Chaffey raced down the court in euphoria.
City College jerseys found their way over the faces of players as the Rams wasted no time heading to the locker room.
The teams did not line up to shake each other’s hands after the game.
The heroics of Niang would prove to be the difference.
“The play was to hold the ball and get a smart shot,” Niang said. “I got to my spot and made an open jumper.”
Chaffey’s 17 offensive rebounds that lead to 22 second-chance points was a backbreaker for the Rams.
“It was a great season. We gave up too many offensive rebounds, Labagh said.
(Quincy) Smith and Robinson were City College’s top scorers with 16. Wright chipped in 11 points, 12 rebounds and five assists.
Chaffey was led by the 20 points of Nitz and 17 points from Niang.
Follow Zack on Twitter: @zackaaa