TROY -- Mason Memmelaar bolted down the lane to chase down his own miss, put it in and flexed his biceps on his way back on defense as RPI went ahead 57-48.
And with that, a tightly coiled game started to unravel for the Union men's basketball team.
Riding an advantage on the offensive glass and clamping down on defense in the second half, RPI pulled away for a 78-58 victory in the Liberty League semifinals before the biggest crowd ever (815) at the 10-year-old ECAV Arena on Saturday.
The top-seeded Engineers (23-3), who enjoyed a program record-tying 18-game winning streak during the regular season, will face Ithaca, an 80-72 winner over Hobart, in the tournament championship at 2 p.m. Sunday at the ECAV. RPI split the season series with the Bombers, who stopped the streak with a 62-60 win on Feb. 9.
Patrick Mahoney scored 19 points for the Engineers, and senior Kevin Jefferson led the Dutchmen (16-10) with 15 on 5-for-10 from 3-point range.
Jefferson's fifth 3 gave Union a 44-43 with 15:11 left in the second half, then RPI outscored Union 19-4 over the next 6:43, taking a 62-48 lead on a 3 by Mitchel Wayand off a loose ball, and typical play during a stretch in which RPI scored on second chances.
That run included a 3 by Jonny Angbazo (12 points) after Memmelaar had saved the ball from going out of bounds, Memmelaar's flexing putback and a 3 by Dom Black (13 points) at the shot clock buzzer after RPI had recovered from a near-turnover.
"They're [offensive rebounds] big-time hustle plays, they energize teams," RPI head coach Mark Gilbride said. "They're also just huge plays. You run a possession, the other team plays good defense, you take a shot, miss it and then get a chance at a second shot, usually a good one."
"He's always telling us to stay down there and don't leak out," Memmelaar said. "It's huge, because we're a pretty good 3-point shooting team, but you're not going to make every single one. But if you give a shooter two, three opportunities, he's going to make one."
"It was kind of back-and-forth, and then all of a sudden they were able to get some extension," Union head coach Chris Murphy said. "We talk a lot about winning plays. Those are the one-bounce rebounds ... you could be in great position boxing out, but it takes a little bit extra to get that. And today they get a few more of those, which allowed them to get some extension."
Memmelaar finished with 13 points and nine rebounds, six of which were on the offensive glass. RPI outrebounded Union 47-20, including 16-9 on offensive rebounds.
The Dutchmen outshot the Engineers 44.8%-39.5% in the first half, when RPI led 33-32, but those numbers went in the other direction in the second half.
Union made just 28.6% from the field after halftime, and RPI found its groove, making 17 of 30 (56.7%).
After a drive by Mike Manley brought the Dutchmen within 50-48 with 15:11 left in the game, RPI held Union without a field goal for the next nine minutes.
"Now all of a sudden you're kind of frustrated, they get an offensive rebound and a kickout 3, and you can hear the crowd get going, instead of us getting that rebound and getting out in transition and clawing back," Murphy said. "The first 30 minutes or so, it was such a good game. If I wasn't coaching it, I probably would've enjoyed it."
"They have a good, packed-in defense, but we definitely missed some shots that we feel comfortable that we can make," Jefferson said.
"They take care of the basketball, they have a lot of good 3-point shooters, so a lot of it was making sure we got out on those shooters and force them to do some other things," Gilbride said. "And we were able to post up our guards a little bit on offense. We have a little bit of a size advantage at the guard spot, which was effective for us, and some guys started knocking down some outside shots. But it all started with our defense, as it has all year."
Union has just two seniors, Jefferson and Martynas Simanavicius, and Murphy believes that this experience will have lingering value for the young players who will be back next season.
"Watching those final 10 seconds go off the clock and hugging my teammates, that's when it started to hit me a little bit," Jefferson said. "But I wouldn't say it's completely hit me. When their season starts again and I'm not part of that, that's when it's going to hit me for real."
"In the first half, he kept us in it," Murphy said. "He had that look where he wasn't going to be denied, like you're going to have to drag him off. In one sense, it stings, because we're going to lose Kevin and Marty. In the other sense, I think there's a really bright future, and those young guys learned a little bit today about what it takes to win these kinds of games."
The Engineers are still building their experience.
The 18-game winning streak put them in the spotlight, and Gilbride expects that that will help RPI as it shoots for the Liberty League title.
"Every game started to feel big [during the streak]," he said. "Now, in a playoff situation, you have a big crowd and you have the pressure of being the No. 1 seed ... that's some stuff that we've already had to handle because of the win streak.
"It's definitely different. We haven't been at this level in the past, with the press and the fans here, but we just play. We don't worry about what's out there, we just have a basketball and five guys and two hoops."
Halftime: RPI 33, Union 32.
Union scoring: Mannix 2-0-5, Eseyade 1-0-2, Concannon 4-3-12, Jefferson 5-0-15, Noone 2-2-6, Manley 5-1-13, George 1-0-2, Lovisolo 1-0-3. RPI scoring: Memmelaer 6-1-13, Mahoney 7-3-19, Davis 3-0-7, Black 6-0-13, Wayand 1-1-4, Rubin 3-2-8, Angbazo 5-0-12, Bleibtrey 1-0-2. Scoring totals: Union 21-6-58, RPI 32-7-78.