BOSTON -- Stony Brook got within seconds of an NCAA Tournament bid and, for virtually every minute of Saturday's America East Conference Tournament championship game, acted as though it belonged.
In the end, though -- the very end -- Boston University had the conference's player of the year on the free-throw line with the score tied for the first time since the game's opening minute. And John Holland, the 6-5 senior from the Bronx, made two foul shots with 2.4 seconds left to give BU the 56-54 victory and fulfill the plea on the T-shirts of the BU band members: March into Madness.
Those 2.4 seconds marked the only time Stony Brook trailed the entire game, played out with your standard primal-scream, for-all-the-marbles late-winter college basketball insanity.
But it was enough to blow a hole in the spirits of Stony Brook (15-17), which had led by 15 points early in the second half and was on the verge of turning its raggy season into the riches of NCAA Tournament participation for the first time.
After Holland's free throws, Bryan Dougher's desperation heave from 52 feet could only clip the left side of the back rim as the buzzer sounded.
"One of our keys was to keep them off the free-throw line,'' Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell said. "We knew we could defend them, but you can't defend the free-throw line. And they got to the free-throw line a lot. I hate the fact that they won from the free-throw line.''
BU (21-13) -- held to 15-for-48 shooting from the field -- made 24 of 29 foul shots to Stony Brook's 14 of 15. But it wasn't just from where BU took its final shots; it was who took them.
Holland, practically vaporized by Stony Brook's scrappy defense in the first half, when he scored four points, finished with game-high numbers in points (27), field goals (8-for-19), free throws (10-for-11), rebounds (11) and steals (three).
It was Holland who personally stopped the bleeding for BU just when Stony Brook appeared ready to administer the knockout punch. Ten consecutive Stony Brook points by Dougher dating to the final seconds of the first half and two slashing layups by Chris Martin had just given Stony Brook its biggest lead at 41-26 with 16:41 to play. Then Holland, flying to the ball repeatedly, morphed into a superhero.
A driving layup, a steal and fast-break layup, a long three-pointer, another motoring burst to the hoop, yet a second steal capped by a fast-break dunk, and a three-point play -- all by Holland -- produced 14 straight points to pull BU within 41-40 with 10:32 left. That actually gave Holland the last 16 BU points in a seven-minute span.
Up until then, Holland said, "I was just trying to stay in the moment. Not think of the score or look up at the scoreboard. It's just focusing in on every possession, boxing out, pursuing the ball. Don't think about the whole thing.''
The whole thing was starting to come apart for Stony Brook, except that the visitors were as resilient through the next 10 minutes as they had been through the final weeks of a demanding 15-17 season.
When Danny Carter dunked a loose ball on an inbounds play that apparently had gone awry, Stony Brook led 48-43. After BU crawled back within two, Martin made two free throws and Preye Preboye scored his only points of the game on a put-back to make it 52-46.
Martin's two free throws made it 54-48 with 3:31 left. But the final eight points went to BU.
Two free throws by D.J. Irving, Dom Morris' layup on Holland's perfect feed, Holland's two free throws with 1:03 left. And after Stony Brook lost possession on a held ball with 31.4 seconds left, Holland's back-door cut drew a foul from Dallis Joyner with 2.4 seconds to go. "If you foul him,'' Pikiell said, "you know he'll make 'em.'' So he did.