SALISBURY — The 2012-13 Livingstone men’s basketball team belongs to history now.
Never before had a Blue Bears’ squad navigated through the CIAA schedule with such grit, such determination and unyielding perserverance. Never had it met a series of challenges, overcome adversity and stumbled along — only to land on its feet.
Never, that is, before Saturday night’s 60-55 win against defending league champion Winston-Salem State..
“It’s an honor and a blessing to come here and make history,” senior forward Eladio Espinosa said at bursting-at-the-seams Trent Gym, where LC pocketed its first Southern Division title. “Everyone here has left their mark.”
Both Livingstone (20-5, 12-4, 8-2) and WSSU (20-5, 13-3, 7-3) began the game with 7-2 division records. And though the Blue Bears shot a pedestrian 38 percent from the floor, committed 18 turnovers and failed to make a basket in the final 2:11, they ultimately stopped barking and took a bite.
“I’m happy for them and the community,” longtime coach James Stinson said after Livingstone capped its regular season with its sixth straight victory. “They worked hard and stayed with us for a long time. We finally were able to turn the corner and reward them.”
The reward wasn’t secured until the closing seconds, when Livingstone completed a 12-5 finishing kick. “I didn’t know it would be like this,” junior guard Mark Thomas said after being smothered by well-wishers who stormed the court. “This is the first anything for this school. It’s been a while since we had something to celebrate.”
Thomas had 13 points and 10 rebounds, but that’s not what stole the headlines. Livingstone had a — sit-down-for-this — 53-33 rebounding edge and blocked a season-high 11 shots.
“And we’re not a shot-blocking team,” Stinson said. “But I think the motivation and excitement of the game enabled us to get a hand on a few more shots than usual. Eladio did a tremendous job blocking and rebounding. Tonight was just our night. We really stuck our nose in it.”
They did — and emerged smelling like a tray of cinnamon buns. Tyler Johnson led LC with 12 rebounds and Espinosa had 11.
“Rebounding is what we normally do,” said losing coach Bobby Collins. “But we got out of character tonight — didn’t crash the boards, took some bad shots at the end. Yeah, we were hungry. But they were hungrier.”
The teams spent the first half fighting for every scrap. WSSU jumped to a 6-0 lead in the first 1:20 before LC’s Omar Ford-Bey knocked down a midrange jumper and hit a putback. The Blue Bears pulled even when Espinosa drained a 3-pointer from the left side, then hit a followup that made it 14-14.
“We knew this wasn’t going to be easy,” he said. “Just worth it. We had to keep doing what we were supposed to do.”
There was still 12:01 remaining in the first half when junior Anthony Welch completed a three-point play that gave Livingstone a 19-16 advantage. The Blue Bears held the lead — and extended it to as much as 10 points — until late in the game. They trailed 51-50 with 3:32 to play when Stinson called a set play, instructing Johnson to dribble the ball down the right side and feed the trailing Thomas for a home run ball.
“I knew what (Stinson) wanted out of it,” Thomas said after shooting 5-for-12 from the field. “Tyler gave me a great pass and I knocked it down.”
Thomas spoke calmly, like he’d just gone to the dentist for a routine cleaning. But Stinson wasn’t certain the play would succeed.
“Usually we’d panic and throw the ball away in that situation,” he said. “I told Mark he was gonna end up shooting that ball off a curl. But he was a little hesitant about shooting that shot because he hadn’t been making any.”
The shot caught nothing but net and turned the bleachers into a human trampoline. Livingstone sealed the deal by converting five of six free throws in the final minute.
“They made the right plays at the right time,” Collins said. “That’s how you win a championship.”
NOTES: LC will enjoy a first-round bye in this week’s CIAA tournament at Time Warner Cable Arena and play a quarterfinal game on Thursday.
WSSU (55) — Glover 19, Bazemore 13, Thompson 9, Ellison 6, Desmore 3, Hunt 3, Holloway 2.
LIVINGSTONE (60) — Thomas 13, Ford-Bey 9, Espinosa 9, Welch 7, Johnson 6, Hill 6, Anderson 4, Bailey 4, Turner 2, Flint, King.
WSSU 24 31 — 55
Livingstone 32 28 — 60