LANGLEY - The Miracle in Midland Valley slipped out of Aiken Tech's hands.
After erasing a large second-half deficit Saturday with a huge performance from Tavaris Little, the Knights fumbled away an 80-74 loss to Monroe College in the District 3 championship game.
The Bronx, N.Y.-based Spartans (31-3) won their second district tournament in four seasons at Gregg-Graniteville Student Activities Center. Monroe advanced to the NJCAA's 16-team Division I men's basketball tournament, March 21-25 in Hutchinson, Kan.
"I like the South," Monroe coach Jeffrey Brustad said.
Aiken Tech, which lost at home for the first time in 16 games this season, would love to take back the final minutes of both halves. The Knights committed six turnovers the final four minutes of the first half and three in the final minute of the game.
"We just turned the ball over a couple of times and lost our cool (at the end of the first half)," said Aiken Tech coach Bruce Capers, whose team committed 19 turnovers. "Then when we fought back and got in it, a couple of turnovers did us in again."
Aiken Tech led by six late in the first half, but Monroe closed with an 18-4 run to take an eight-point halftime lead.
Then the Mustangs opened the half with an 8-2 run, capped by Trevor Franklin's 3-pointer from the right corner gave them a 49-35 lead.
Just when it seemed Aiken Tech was left for dead, Little came alive. The sophomore forward hit a free throw, then completed a four-point play and knocked down a 3 from the wing.
Little pulled up for a 3-pointer from the right wing to cap a 22-6 run to give the Knights the lead, 59-57.
"They never quit on me," Capers said. "I love 'em for that."
Little scored 18 of his game-high 29 in the second half. He shot 7-for-12 from 3-point range.
Fellow sophomore Corey Johnson scored nine of his 15 points in the second half as the Knights and Mustangs went toe-to-toe for the final 11 minutes.
Little's 3-pointer pulled Aiken Tech within 76-74 with 1:52 remaining. Terrance Asmond had an opportunity to tie the game with a pair of free throws 40 seconds later. He missed both, and Aiken Tech never recovered.
After going 15-16 last season, the Knights rebounded for a 25-7 record and a Region 10 regular-season championship. Capers said his team accomplished most of its goals.
"We won 20 games, we won the regular season and now we have one we can still go get. We can still graduate," he said.
Still, the Knights had their sights set much higher.
"It was good, but it wasn't that good," Little said. "We had a good season, but we ain't got that trophy, though."
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or email@example.com.