ROCHESTER - Empire 8 Conference Player of the Year Tyler Stenglein fielded a pass, slashed to the basket and laid in the game-winning bucket with 3.1 seconds left on the clock Saturday to lift host and top-seeded Nazareth to a 66-64 men's basketball victory over third-seeded Utica in the Empire 8 Conference Championship at the Kidera Gymnasium.
A last-second desperation heave from half court by Utica's Carl Taylor was off the mark, sending Nazareth to the E8 Championship for the first time since 2010 and the third time overall. At 20-7 overall, the Golden Flyers also gained an automatic berth to the NCAA Division III Tournament for the eighth time in their history. First-round pairings will be revealed Monday afternoon. Utica, seeking its first-ever conference title, saw its season end with a 17-10 overall record.
Stenglein had 12 points, three assists and four steals to gain tournament MVP honors. Junior Jake Burgio led all scorers with 21 points with three three-pointers. Junior guard Brendan Wind added 11 points.
To win the title (with two weekend wins by a combined total of three points), the Golden Flyers withstood a pair of 11-point Pioneer comebacks. The Golden Flyers led 22-11 in the first half before Utica came back to tie the score late in the half. Then in the second half, Nazareth led 58-47 with 6:24 to go before Utica rallied again, this time tying the score at 64-64 on a basket by Bennito Ayarza with :22 left. After a Nazareth timeout, Wind got into the paint, where he picked up his dribble and bounced pass to Stenglein for the championship-winning hoop.
Both teams played anxiously at the outset. Nazareth went 13-for-35 (37.1 percent) from the floor in the first half, while Utica shot 14-for-31 (45.2 percent). Mitch Keniston sank two free throws with 7:25 left to give Nazareth its largest lead at 22-11. The Pioneers then embarked on a 21-10 scoring spree, capped by a basket from Avery Coston, to tie the score at 32-32 with 1:42 left. Freshman Kevin Underwood then converted a three-point play with 1:06 left in the half that enabled Nazareth to take a 35-32 lead at the break. Burgio scored 10 of his points in the first 20 minutes with Ayarza and Coston each scoring nine for Utica.
In the second half, Nazareth again showed signs of breaking the game open as a 10-0 run broke a 40-40 tie for a 50-40 lead with 11:30 left. Cody Green started the run with a three-point basket and Stenglein ended it with a layup. Then, after Hunter Remley scored for Utica, Burgio sank his third three-pointer of the game to push the lead back to 11 at 53-42. Nazareth would keep the lead at 11 until 6:14 remained and Utica's Tyler Jollie hit a three-pointer to trigger the Pioneers' comeback.
Nazareth still led 64-60 following a pair of free throws by Stenglein with 1:11 left. Remley knocked down two free throws for Utica on the ensuing possession, then Nazareth missed two shots in the closing minute to set up Ayarza's game-tying basket.
The thrilling victory capped what probably should be considered the most exciting Empire 8 Tournament ever with the three games decided by a total of four points. Nazareth's championship win came less than 24 hours after the Golden Flyers escaped with a 73-72 win over Alfred in a game in which Burgio and Stengl;ein combined for 47 points. Utica had advanced to the title game in equally thrilling fashion with Coston sinking a three-pointer as time expired for a 63-62 win over Stevens.
Against Nazareth, Utica had four players who finished in double figures in scoring, led by Ayarza's 15. Coston added 14 and Ivan Iton combined 13 points with a game-high 13 rebounds. Carl Taylor scored 12. Chris Jones finished with 11 rebounds for Nazareth, but was forced to leave the game late in the second half with a possible broken nose after being bowled over by Iton.
Nazareth will be making its second NCAA Tournament appearance under the direction of head coach Kevin Broderick, now in his ninth season.