The finest season in program history came to an untimely conclusion for the Central Arizona College men's basketball team on Thursday night.
Central Florida capitalized on its inside strength to pull away for an 81-68 victory over the Vaqueros in the NJCAA tournament quarterfinals at the Sports Arena. The third-seeded Patriots (32-3) outscored No. 6 CAC 49-31 in the second half after trailing 37-32 at halftime. They had 46 points in the paint, with 24 coming on second-chance opportunities, and outrebounded the Vaqueros 40-28.
The loss was a disappointing end to a season that saw the Vaqueros (30-5) set a program record for victories along with winning conference, region and district titles.
A 13-4 run by Central Florida proved to be the turning point, with the Patriots turning a 50-47 deficit into a 60-54 lead with about seven minutes to play. The Vaqueros hung tough, cutting the margin to three points five times after that, but were outscored 12-2 in the final 21⁄2 minutes.
Eugene McCrory was an especially effective weapon for Central Florida. The 6-foot-8, 260-pounder scored 21 of his 29 points in the second half. He went 12 for 13 from the field and grabbed 12 rebounds, including nine on the offensive end.
CAC took its first lead late in the opening half on a three-point play by DesJuan Newton that made it 28-26. Following a three-pointer by Vincentas Aleksandravicius that snapped a 28-28 tie, the Vaqueros stayed in front until McCrory's basket midway through the second half put the Patriots ahead to stay at 56-54.
Newton scored a team-leading 18 points for CAC. The other starters also reached double figures, with DeAndre Mathieu and Herve Aholode finishing with 13 apiece, Aleksandravicius getting 11 and Austin Cooke scoring 10. LeBrent Walker had three points.
The Vaqueros made seven three-pointers on 19 tries, but just 14 of 36 two-point attempts for an overall shooting percentage of .382. Central Florida shot 53.3 percent, going 25 for 39 on two-pointers and 7 for 21 on threes.
Jeremiah Eason (6-6, 230) scored 13 points and Rasham Suarez (6-6, 230) had 12 for the Patriots, who also got 10 points from 6-6 Jordan Parks. Of the eight players who saw action for Central Florida, seven were 6-6 or taller. The exception was 5-10, 230-pound point guard Jordan Davis, who had seven assists.
The Vaqueros fell behind 9-2 in the early going. After a three-pointer by Will Saunders put the Patriots ahead 17-11, CAC scored six straight points to forge the game's first tie.
Cooke's three-pointer put the Vaqueros up 34-30, and Newton's basket gave CAC a five-point halftime advantage.
The Vaqueros took their largest lead at 43-36 on Aholode's basket early in the second half.