CHARLOTTE — The CIAA math is done and a tourney championship wasn’t part of the equation for Livingstone’s men’s basketball team.
The stardust disappeared for the Blue Bears and their cast of over-achievers in Saturday night’s 85-74 championship-game loss to Bowie State.
“I know that we’re hurting,” coach James Stinson said at Time Warner Cable Arena, where LC was outscored by the league’s fourth-seeded team from the Northern Division. “Bowie came out and scored points. That was our biggest fear. We knew they would. We knew (Byron) Westmorland was a tough person to stop. But we left some points out there on the board ourselves by not making free throws, by missing a few layups here and there. I think we were a little anxious.”
Livingstone (22-6) fell in the title game for the second time in three years. It played tissue-soft defense, shot 38 percent from the field and was outrebounded 40-33.
“Tonight was kind of what we expected — a war,” winning coach Darrell Brooks said after Bowie State (16-13) swept to its seventh straight win and fourth in the tournament. “We really felt all year long there was no one super team in the league. We felt if we came out and played our best — which we hadn’t done all year — we’d have a good chance.”
The Bulldogs shot 56.4 percent from the floor (31-for-55) and won their second championship. Livingstone has yet to cut down the nets in the 68-year history of the tournament.
“It doesn’t feel good to lose, period,” senior Eladio Espinosa said. “Especially in the championship game. But you’ve got to hand it to them and we’ve got to learn from this.”
BSU was led by Westmorland, the senior forward who was named tournament MVP. A 6-foot-4 crystal baller, he made 13 of 19 field goal attempts and scored a career-high 38 points.
“The stats speak for themselves,” said LC big man Ethan Anderson. “He was good at getting to the rim and doing everything he was supposed to. You can’t take anything away from him.”
Livingstone, which still might receive a bid to the NCAA Division II tournament, was led by guard Mark Thomas. The junior was more of a performance than a performer, sinking 11 of 21 shots and netting a season-best 34 points.
“Mark did a pretty good job,” Stinson told a roomful of post-game media members. “On several possessions he just felt as if he had to create a shot because we weren’t clicking at the time. With them putting a lot of ball pressure and running at him with traps, he may have overplayed a couple of our situations. I’ll live and die with that because he’s made big shots and helped the get where it is.”
LC dropped behind 6-0 in the opening two minutes and trailed until Thomas made a circle-the-drain layup with 6:41 remaining in the first half. Bowie State regained the lead when Najee White — part of the Bulldogs’ 6-8, 6-7, 6-7 frontcourt — converted an offensive rebound into an authoritative jam with 2:10 to go.
Livingstone climbed back in front a couple of times in the second half, the last when Thomas drained a tape-measure 3-pointer, providing a 53-51 lead with 14:33 remaining. But the Blue Bears spent the final 13 minutes playing catch-up — and never did.
“The first time we played them (a 13-point victory on Jan. 3) it was actually a close game,” said Thomas, who tried to stretch a smile across his broken heart. “We got away with a lot of things. This was tougher but I’m trying to cherish the moment, every moment I get.”
BSU extended its lead to as much as 75-62 when Dameatric Scott scored on on a tip-in with 3:17 remaining. Seconds later the big crowd began thinning out as Livingstone’s opportunity became a longshot.
“Nothing that happened this season was a surprise,” Anderson concluded. “Nothing except tonight.”
Thomas, Anderson and guard Jody Hill were named to the all-tournament team.
BOWIE STATE (85) — Westmorland 38, Smith 11, White 10, Wilson 8, Gatling 6, Scott 6, Doughty 6.
LIVINGSTONE (74) — Thomas 34, Turner 11, A.Welch 9, Espinosa 6, Anderson 5, Ford-Bey 4, T.Johnson 3, Hill 2, D.Welch, Godlock, Flint, Bailey, King..
Bowie State 43 42 — 85
Livingstone 41 33 — 74