AUBURN — The play went from disaster to dagger in about three seconds.
Trailing by two Thursday night, the Central Maine Community College men's basketball team didn't get what it wanted in the final seconds against NHTI, but the Mustangs got what they needed.
A Justin Cocroft desperation shot at the buzzer banked off the glass and went in to lift CMCC to a stunning 78-77 win over the Lynx in a battle of unbeatens.
"I thought, 'That's going to go in," said Cocroft of his last-second heave. "I was running backwards. I was thinking it was going in. I just watched it all of a sudden bank in. I was so excited. It's the first time anything like that has happened to me."
CMCC rallied from as many as 17 points in the second half and got within two with 25 seconds left. The Mustangs called back-to-back timeouts to plot a strategy.
"We were going for it," said CMCC coach Dave Gonyea. "We weren't trying to tie it. We were going for the win."
The plan was to set up an open look for Cocroft on the perimeter, but the opportunity didn't materialize. As the clock wound down, the ball glanced off Cocroft's foot.
"When I got the pass, it was a little off and I fumbled it," said Cocroft. "I thought it was going to go out of bounds, and I was a little mad at myself."
Cocroft recovered and got the ball down on the right wing to Brandon Giguere. With the Lynx defense swarming, he didn't have an open look. With about three seconds left, he sent the ball back to Cocroft, who was well beyond the 3-point arc.
"I passed it to Brandon," said Cocroft. "He was looking to pass the ball, and I'm like, 'No, shoot it.' He passed the ball back. So I was thinking that as soon as I caught it, I was trying to toss it up."
He got the shot off just in time and watched it glance off the backboard. NHTI was ranked second in the latest USCAA D2 poll while CMCC was ranked 10th.
"It's a very emotional win," said Gonyea. "I don't think they've beaten us here in five or six years. They're a very good basketball team. They're a very athletic team."
Cocroft finished with 14 for CMCC. Jason Hughes led the Mustangs with 18 while Ismail Rios added 12. Samson Oleyami finished with nine.
Besfort Syla led NHTI with 20 while Jackson Riel added 16 and Ahntawn Harris added 11.
The Lynx built a lead late in the half when Oleyami was on the bench. He had been held to just three points in the first half. NHTI was up 44-32 at the half.
"We started off slow and made some mistakes," said Cocroft, a junior guard. "Down 12 at half, we were like, 'We don't quit working.' We're a second-half team. We just needed to keep fighting away at it."
The Lynx's hot shooting helped build a 62-45 lead with 11:35 left, but the Mustangs battled back. CMCC tightened up the defense and got some consistent offense going.
"It was a big game for Jason Hughes inside," said Gonyea.
Hughes had 13 points in the second half, all came in the final 11 minutes. He had a basket in the paint and added a three-point play that quickly turned a nine-point lead into a 67-61 game. NHTI got a pair of huge 3's from Riel, but the Mustangs kept charging.
Hughes cut it to four with 5:44 left. A Cocroft 3 made it 75-70 with 2:15 remaining. Then Hughes scored to make it 77-72 and Giguere hit a 3 with 59 seconds left to make it 77-75. NHTI had a chance to add to the lead at the free-throw line but missed. Darrell Wilson got the rebound and gave CMCC the last shot.
"We climbed back," said Gonyea. "We shot poorly in the first half. We told the team: 'Maintain your composure. We'll get back in. We'll knock down some shots and outwork them.'"