In the end, only a bad bounce could keep the Buffs from recording a remarkable comeback win against Bluefield College in the Appalachian Athletic Conference opener for both teams. Going on a 17-2 run to erase most of the big deficit, Milligan lost 69-68 when Tyler Nichols’ last-second runner in the lane bounced off the rim at the buzzer.
Nichols had spearheaded Milligan’s comeback, scoring 10 straight points for the Buffs during one stretch in the second half. The senior forward from Elizabethton ended with a game-high 23 points.
“The way we started out, that’s not the team we are,” Nichols said. “Coach gave us a good talk at halftime. It started with us seniors. We know what this program is about. We made plays for each other in the second half.
“The last shot, I had a good look at the basket, but sometimes they don’t go. If I would have hit my free throws, we wouldn’t have been in that position.”
He wasn’t alone. Milligan (1-1, 0-1 AAC) was far more aggressive in the second half and had a 32-12 advantage in free-throw attempts. The Buffs didn’t capitalize, making 11 free throws and also finishing 5-of-20 from 3-point range.
Niquan Cousins led the Rams (2-3, 1-0) with 22 points and 13 rebounds. D’monte Evans had 19 points, including the game-winning shot with four seconds left.
Tied at 26-all in the first half before Bluefield went on its big run, it was 47-26 before Milligan finally scored on a pair of free throws by Jacob Cawood. There was no more scoring the remainder of the half with the Rams taking a 47-28 lead into the intermission.
Milligan coach Bill Robinson gave an impassioned halftime speech and the Buffs responded in a big way. They tied the game at 51-apiece on Matt Cole’s short bank shot with 11:21 left. They kept battling, taking a 57-55 lead on Nichols’ drive and lay-up with 6:36 left.
It was hard-fought to the end. Jacob Cawood hit a 3-pointer above the top of the key with 11 seconds left for a 68-67 Milligan lead, only to see Evans respond by getting his shot over the outstretched arm of a Milligan defender with four seconds left.
“The guys played hard in the second half,” Robinson said. “We just have to play harder for 40 minutes. We can’t play for 20, 30. We have to play for 40. We’re not talented enough to just walk on the floor and beat anybody. I’m proud of the kids, their integrity and character with the way we came back.”
Desean Green finished with 15 points and five assists for the Buffs. Bo Pless had 10 points and seven rebounds and Cawood finished with nine points and nine rebounds.
Bluefield 64, Milligan 59
Cierra Cook scored 22 points and Kianna Campbell added 15 as the Lady Rams rallied (1-4, 1-0) from a 15-point, second-half deficit to defeat the Lady Buffs (0-3, 0-1).
Bluefield forced turnovers on 4 of 5 Milligan possessions coming down the stretch. The Lady Buffs had 19 turnovers overall.
Milligan raced out to an early 11-4 lead and led 14-8 at the end of one quarter. They built on it in the second quarter, taking a 31-19 lead into the half. The lead stretched to 36-21 in the third quarter before Bluefield fought back to close within two (48-46) with 5:30 to left in the fourth.
Kendal Cloninger sank a 3-pointer with four seconds left for a 53-53 tie. Erin Kiser missed a potential game-winner at the end of regulation. Bluefield outscored Milligan 11-6 in overtime.
“We had a couple of breakdowns in key situations in regulation and in the overtime,” Milligan coach Rich Aubrey said. “It’s heartbreaking. I feel like if we have a lead in the last minute, it’s my job to get them across the finish line and I didn’t get them across the finish line.”
Kaely Gose recorded a double-double of 11 points and 11 rebounds. Lily Griffith finished with 10 points.
The Milligan women will look for the first win Saturday at 2 p.m. when they host Piedmont International.