CANTON - There are times when things are so bad that the only fitting reaction is a shake of the head. The final three-and-a-half minutes of the Division II regional final was such a time for the Poland Bulldogs.
Against Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary - a more talented, more athletic and bigger team - Poland executed its game plan to near perfection. The Bulldogs had cut a double-digit deficit to six after Danny Black's 3-pointer and had the ball back.
But that's when Murphy's Law reared its ugly head on Poland, and the Fighting Irish took full advantage en route to a 54-42 victory in a Division II regional final in front of 1,642 at the Canton Civic Center.
SV-SM (19-9) is making its 11th trip to the state tournament and will seek its seventh title. The Irish play Columbus Bishop Watterson (24-2) in a state semifinal Thursday at the Jerome Schottenstein Center in Columbus. The Bulldogs' 20-game winning streak came to an end as they closed their season at 24-3.
Poland's woes began shortly after Black's trey. During the next 90 seconds, and with the score remaining at 43-37, the 'Dogs missed five seemingly open 3-pointers, which could have changed the complexion of the game.
Black's second 3-pointer made it 44-40 with 1:34 remaining, but Poland scored just two more points the rest of the way and watched the Irish ice it at the free-throw line by making 8 of 10 down the stretch.
"We fought to the end; shots didn't fall," Poland senior guard George Chammas said. "It doesn't always go your way. We gave it our all."
The missed 3-pointers were only the beginning of what would turn out to be a barrage of bizarre plays (all of which went against the Bulldogs) down the stretch.
There was the seemingly intentional elbow thrown by Irish guard Josh Williams during a dead ball. It connected with the chin of Poland's Kyle Dixon and knocked him down.
To say that Poland coach Ken Grisdale was displeased with the no-call (or the ensuing comments from the officials) is a vast understatement.
"The guy said, 'I didn't see it,' " Grisdale said. "Well that's (his) job. And they do it to me. They say, 'You proud of the way you coached your team?' It's wrong."
Moments later a foul was called against Poland away from the ball. After the whistle, SV-SM 6-foot-7 sophomore V.J. King took two dribbles and dunked the ball. Grisdale begged for a technical foul to no avail.
Immediately after, the Irish appeared to throw the ball away, but Johnnie Robinson leaped to save it and asked for time in midair, allowing his team to keep possession.
The breaks certainly went the Irish way in those critical moments.
"My definition of luck is ... when preparation meets opportunity," Irish coach Dru Joyce said. "If that's what you're calling luck, I'll take that.
"The defensive pressure we put on them as a team all game long, that contributed to some of those missed shots at the end of the game. They were worn down and that's what we hope to do with every team."
Joyce told the truth. Numerous Bulldog shots were altered due to the presence of King and 6-5 Jibri Blount. Poland made just 15 of 48 field goals and 9 of 29 3-pointers. The Bulldogs connected on just 3 of 12 treys in the final quarter.
King led the way for the winners with 14 points and Williams added 11. Blount had an outstanding all-around game, finishing with eight points while leading his team with six rebounds, six steals and four assists. Jacob Wolfe - who along with Chammas are Poland's lone senior starters - led his team with 12 points and 10 boards. Sophomore Jared Burkert came off the bench to finish with 10 points, also in a losing effort. Burkert scored seven of his points in an opening quarter that ended in a 15-15 tie.
"He's made big shots all year for us," Grisdale said. "He comes off the bench, but he could start. He does great things for us."
Poland's other bad stretch began in the second quarter. Ninety seconds into it Wolfe hit a 3-pointer which put the Bulldogs in front 18-17. Poland would go nearly nine minutes without scoring a point. Wolfe's 3-pointer in the third quarter stopped that skid.
Despite its inability to produce points (1 of 14 shooting in the second frame), Poland's zone defense and boxing out kept it in the game. The Irish only led 24-18 at halftime thanks to the fact Poland had an 8-0 edge on the offensive glass in the first half.
"He coached a great game," Joyce said of Grisdale. "I thought he tried some different things. Their 1-3-1 gave my guys a little bit of trouble in that, we've played against it, but they were a lot more aggressive out top."
The Irish kept Poland at bay in the third quarter and led 35-28 heading to the final 8 minutes.
Poland has become a fixture in the regional tournament but had failed to get out of district the past three years. This senior class did not one to be the first in many years not to get here.
"It was special," Wolfe said. "I didn't want it to end, especially this way. I'm so proud of everyone. We hustle harder than any team in the state of Ohio."
Added Chammas: "All four years here were great, how we got to go the (regional) level after watching all the guys before us. Tradition is strong here at Poland. We just came up short."