The Hopkins men’s basketball team entered the Centennial Conference Championship game with one thing on their mind: revenge. The Jays were set to square off against the undefeated, No. 1-ranked Swarthmore College Garnet, who defeated the Jays twice already this season.
Junior guard Conner Delaney shared the team’s mentality as they headed into the Conference final.
“I believed we were all much calmer going into the game. We had already played them twice, and we knew what we had to do to win this time around,” he said. “Everyone was locked, in but no one was too over-hyped or afraid of the moment.”
The game started off going in the right direction, as senior forward Harry O’Neil drilled a three-pointer following a steal from Delaney. After a quick layup came in response by Swarthmore, junior guard Joey Kern received a swing pass from sophomore guard Ethan Bartlett, and splashed another three-pointer to increase the Hopkins lead.
Not to be outdone, the Garnet responded and tied the game at six with just three and a half minutes having passed in the first half. This immediate response by the hosts was a precursor for the rest of the game. There was a grand total of 12 lead changes and 12 times that the score was tied when all was said and done. The entire matchup was tightly contested, as the largest lead either team managed to squeeze out over the other during the game was a mere five points.
After Swarthmore tied the game at six, Kern sank a two-point jumper. He followed up the made bucket with a steal, leading to a fastbreak opportunity for himself. Kern missed the layup, but sophomore forward Chid Nnake was there to clean up the glass. Nnake controlled the rebound and was fouled on the shot attempt. He hit both of his free throws to increase the lead to four.
The tight, back-and-forth action carried throughout the half, as neither team was able to completely pull away and gain a distinct advantage. To end the first half, O’Neil finished a tough layup to break a 36-36 tie with two and a half minutes left. The Garnet did not take this lying down, as they hit three- and two-point jumpers on back-to-back possessions to end the half, taking their 41-38 lead over the Jays into the locker room.
With just three points separating the two teams, both squads needed to kick their efforts into gear on both sides of the ball. The Jays turned to their safety valve Delaney, who has led the team in scoring throughout the entire season. The captain, who only had eight points in the first half, realized that he needed to flip the switch. He explained his plan of attack for the pivotal second half.
“I just tried to continue to find good shots,” he said. “My teammates did an unbelievable job throughout the entire game of playing hard and taking great shots. Once I saw one three go in, it allowed me to find some confidence.”
After seven minutes of back-and-forth play, Delaney ignited a 6-0 run with two three-pointers to increase the Blue Jay lead to 57-53. The Garnet swiftly responded with a 9-2 run that lasted until the 4:20 mark. Then, in clutch fashion, sophomore forward Braeden Johnson drilled a deep three-pointer to knot the game at 65 with just under three and a half minutes left.
Following a pair of made free throws from Swarthmore, Delaney took his defender off the dribble and sank another deep ball in his face, giving the Jays the lead by one. The hosts drew another foul and hit both halves of the one-and-one opportunity to take the lead back with 2:16 left on the clock.
Delaney remained determined and broke down his defender on the very next possession. He created enough space to hit another clutch three pointer, giving the Jays a 71-69 lead with less than two minutes remaining.
Swarthmore immediately responded with a mid-range jumper and tied the game with 1:36 left on the clock. After a missed three-pointer by Delaney, the Garnet sullied two opportunities to take the lead, missing an open mid-range jumpshot and a three-pointer in the same trip down the court. Johnson came down off the glass with the essential rebound and dished it to Delaney to bring the ball up the court.
Head coach Josh Loeffler refused to call a timeout and allowed the junior to hold the fate of the conference championship in his hands. The capacity crowd at Tarble Pavilion watched with bated breath as Delaney allowed the clock to run down to five seconds. He then drifted to his right and pulled up at the right elbow, right in the defender’s face and sank the 17-foot jumper for the game winner as time expired.
Delaney shared his immediate reaction as he saw the buzzer beater hit the bottom of the net.
“The first thought I had was thank God the ball got over the front rim,” he said. “But when I saw it go in with no time left, I was just so excited. I knew our team was good enough to win and to have it happen like that was pretty fun.”
The win gave the Blue Jays their second Centennial Conference title in the last three years and handed Swarthmore their first loss of the season. Delaney, who finished with a dazzling 32 points, was named the tournament MVP. The Jays now move onto the National Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament, where they will host Pennsylvania State Harrisburg this Friday at 6 p.m.