Kent-to-Smith buzzer beater sets Friedrich Arena ablaze in instant classic

By Jacob Knabel on Feb. 17, 2022 in Men's Basketball

SEWARD, Neb. – Shock, disbelief and pure joy were felt all at once as Tristan Smith’s game-winning layup beat the buzzer and sent Friedrich Arena into pandemonium. Smith finished the perfectly executed length-of-the-court heave from Carter Kent to lift Concordia University Men’s Basketball to a 74-73 win over 22nd-ranked Briar Cliff on Wednesday (Feb. 16). A wave of Bulldog students and fans engulfed Smith and his teammates in one of the wildest scenes in the arena’s history.

Afterwards, Head Coach Ben Limback and company were still struggling to process what had happened. With one second left, the Chargers’ Jaden Kleinhesselink nailed a go-ahead trey that had seemingly torn Concordia’s heart out.

But this was a night that featured the ultimate dejection-to-jubilation finish. Said Limback, “You can’t put that one into words. It was a great, great game all the way throughout. We got a little stagnant at the end offensively and they made some tough shots. Man, what a shot by Kleinhesselink to take the lead. Coming to the bench, the guys were defeated. They poured their hearts out.

“Carter made an unbelievable pass, Tristan made an unbelievable catch and now all the sudden you win. You go from losing a heartbreaker to winning.”

The final 15 seconds were great theater. The tough-minded Chargers made it more dramatic than mid-day television with an 11-0 run that knotted the score, 70-70. Finally, Kent pealed the lid off the basket by draining an elbow jumper with 10 seconds left. The 72-70 Bulldog lead was short-lived thanks to Kleinhesselink’s are-you-kidding-me, double-clutch deep trey with a defender draped all over him.

All that did was set the stage for an even more improbable, absolutely nutty finish. A former star high school baseball player, Kent shuffled the baseline to his left and whirled a 90-foot in-bounds toss so precise it would be nearly impossible to duplicate. The athletically gifted Smith did the rest.

Limback joked that the first thing he saw was AJ Watson wrapping him up in a bear hug. Kent tried to make some sense of the moment after the heartrate came back down. Said Kent, “Coach said when he drew it up, ‘You gotta throw it to Tristan.’ He’s like, ‘You gotta throw it all the way.’ I knew they were going to put a big man on the ball. I just threw it up there and hoped it was going to get there, and thankfully it did. It was pretty crazy. Tristan’s so athletic that he went up and got it.”

There was already a little more juice in the atmosphere with Briar Cliff (19-9, 15-4 GPAC) and Concordia (21-6, 14-5 GPAC) residing at the top of the GPAC standings. The only hope the Bulldogs had to still earn a share of the GPAC regular season title was to win on Wednesday. Concordia also wanted to keep its unblemished home record intact.

By night’s end, it was easy to forget that the Bulldogs had owned a 14-point lead with fewer than eight-and-a-half minutes to go. One of the six fourth-year seniors honored prior to tipoff, Gage Smith (Tristan’s older brother) had himself a night. Gage went off for 23 points and 17 rebounds (game highs in both categories). The efficiency of the Elizabeth, Colo., native was a major reason why Concordia shot 50 percent (28-for-56) from the floor. Kent also added 18 points (moved to No. 8 on the program’s all-time scoring list) while Justin Wiersema tallied 11 points and Watson chipped in 10.

It's just not easy to put the Chargers away. Kent and his fellow classmates remembered when Briar Cliff’s Nick Hoyt made a buzzer beating game-winner at Friedrich Arena two years ago. The Chargers nearly pulled off a similar outcome while getting 16 points from Quinten Vasa and 15 apiece from Conner Groves and Quinn Vesey. That group showed its own toughness by holding the Bulldogs without a point for nearly six whole minutes during the 11-0 run that tied the game down the stretch.

Somehow, Concordia found a way. Said Kent, “That’s this group in a nutshell. We always keep working. We’ve faced adversity throughout our entire careers. I think it showed tonight where we get hit in the mouth and we get up and keep going. It’s pretty awesome to see on senior night for this to happen. Throughout our careers, we’ve been through a lot.”

Added Limback, “It was a special moment for our team and to be able to share that with Concordia fans and everybody here – it was truly amazing.”

The senior group that was recognized on Wednesday includes Nick Cito, Kent, Gage Smith, Klay Uher, Wiersema and Tanner Wubbels. The program also gave a shoutout to fifth-year members of the program in Ryan Holt and Sam Scarpelli. The latter contributed seven points off the bench.

The regular season will conclude on Saturday when the Bulldogs will be at the Corn Palace for a 5:45 p.m. CT matchup with Dakota Wesleyan (12-14, 9-10 GPAC). Concordia has clinched at least the No. 2 seed in the GPAC tournament and could still pull even with Briar Cliff for first place in the final standings. For that to happen, the Bulldogs need a win on Saturday and a Charger loss at Doane on Friday.