The stands in the Amsler Campus Center were filled on Saturday as the Trailblazers vied for the MASCAC championship.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts was a winner before the tipoff of Saturday's Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference men's basketball championship game.
And even though the the Trailblazers lost, 80-72, what they gained might last far beyond the 2012-13 season.
Playing for their first NCAA tournament bid in a generation, the 'Blazers drew a packed house in the Amsler Campus Center, and the large crowd was treated to an thrilling, back-and-forth contest that had a little of everything — except a victory for the home team.
"For the athletic program in general, we've got incredible support for our teams," MCLA Athletic Director Scott Nichols said after fifth-seeded Fitchburg upended the 'Blazers in the conference final. "But this event today — I've never seen a crowd like this since I've been here, 17 years. We've been in conference tournaments before, and we've had great support. But this was amazing to me."
MCLA senior forward Vernon Cross was as torn up as anyone about coming up on the short end of the score, but he marveled at the masses of blue-and-gold-clad fans who turned out for the Saturday matinee.
"It meant the world to us," Cross said. "We've got classmates, teachers, the president of the school in the stands. That means everything to us. It helps us out on the court when we have more than just our housemates in the stands. You have everyone in the school there. It helps you play harder."
And while the student section was packed and raucous all afternoon, the support went beyond those classmates Cross recognized.
"We had a lot of community support," Nichols said. "There were a lot of faces I saw in the gym today that I haven't seen in my 17 years here, which is a great thing for the program.
"Because I think they'll be back. There was a great atmosphere, and I think people will come back.
"I'm really excited for everybody."
The 'Blazers fell 80-72 to Framingham after a star season. See more photos here.
Cross and three other MCLA seniors will not be back — in uniform — next season, but most of the roster will return from a squad that opened the year 3-9 but won 11 of its next 14 to earn a berth in the title game.
Fitchburg (16-10) won its eighth game in 10 starts, including three straight road MASCAC tournament games to earn its first ever conference title.
The Falcons fell behind by eight at the break on Saturday afternoon thanks to stifling defense and strong rebounding by MCLA (14-13).
The 'Blazers outrebounded their visitors, 21-14, in the first 20 minutes on the way to a 35-27 lead. MCLA also held Fitchburg to 36 percent shooting from the floor and neutralized first-team all-conference center Zach Zalliere, who had six points and just three rebounds at intermission.
Zalliere scored nine points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked five shots in the second half while Fitchburg forward Tom Henneberry and guard Mike Ingram-Rubin combined for 28 second half points.
The Falcons earned a 29-20 edge on the glass after half-time, and MCLA coach Jamie Morrison knew his team was in trouble when Fitchburg grabbed three offensive rebounds on its first five possessions of the second half.
"In the second half in the first four minutes, they got a lot of second and third opportunities that kept them in the game," Morrison said. "We were getting first stops defensively, but we weren't getting the rebound. That kept them in the game at that point because I really felt like we had an opportunity to go up 10, 12, 14 points, but the second chances kept them in that six, seven range."
MCLA took its last eight-point lead when John Jones scored two of his game-high 16 in transition to make it 41-33.
Fitchburg responded with an 11-3 run that tied the game for the first time since it was 21-21 with about six minutes left in the first half. Henneberry cappee the run with a drive on the right wing to make it 44-44.
Moments later, Henneberry picked off a careless pass on the perimeter and went the other way to make it 48-46 and spark a 13-5 run that gave the Falcons a 59-51 lead with 8 minutes, 39 seconds left to play.
MCLA made one more run of its own, using its full-court press to help trim an 11-point bulge down to two when Ramon Viches sank a pair of foul shots to make it 72-70 with 1:53 on the clock.
But Fitchburg then broke the press for a Valliere dunk to make it a four-point game, and MCLA's next posssession sealed its fate.
First, Jones tied up Hanneberry on a rebound, and the 'Blazers got the ball on the alternating possesion. Then MCLA got the ball on a team rebound. Then MASCAC Rookie of the Year Paul Maurice grabbed an offensive rebound to give his team another chance to make it a two-point game, but Valliere blocked MCLA's next shot into the hands of Ingram-Rubin, who was fouled and hit both his free throws to make it 76-70 with 1:09 left.
Jones got to the line one more time and made it a four-point game with 39 ticks left, but Fitchburg made four more from the line down the stretch to secure the school's first MASCAC men's basketball title.
The Falcons will find out Monday where they will play their opener in the NCAAs. MCLA last went to the NCAA men's basketball tournament at the end of the 1989-90 season.
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