If crunch time is reserved for those basketball artists whose best work is performed in the most critical moments, you can make a reservation for Chuck Lightening.
Better yet, make that a reservation for Lightening and 15 or so of his fellow Towson State Tigers in the grand spectacle known as TC March Madness.
Towson State scrawled its name on the NCAA's postseason register last evening with a pulsating 69-63 victory over Rider College to claim its second straight East Coast Conference championship and the automatic tournament bid that goes with it.
The Tigers did it in typical style before a frothing crowd of 3,425 at the Towson Center and a national TV audience on ESPN. That is to say, it was another in a ragged line of frenetic finishes that have been the trademark of Towson's 19-10 season.
And it was Lightening who showed the way. For the second straight game, the 6-foot-5 junior forward from Silver Spring seized control in the crucial moments and didn't let go.
In Sunday's semifinal round, he scored eight of the Tigers' last 10 points to ensure a 78-76 win over UMBC.
Last night, with Towson locked in a white-knuckle duel against Rider, Lightening struck again. This time he pumped in eight of the Tigers' final 18 points, delivered the pass that put them ahead to stay, and then made the steal and slam dunk that made it emphatic.
The only thing missing was the tournament's MVP hardware. Rider's quicksilver guard Darrick Suber got that, but not without doubt.
"Chuck was my MVP," Towson State coach Terry Truax said. "He elevates his level of play. [But] if he made those plays all game that he made at the end, we wouldn't have been in the position we were in."
Therein lies catch-22. Lightening is one of the ECC's most electric players, yet the juice isn't always turned on. That was the point Truax was making when he attached a qualifier to every Lightening compliment he dished out in post-game dialogue.
"I'm Chuck's biggest critic and his biggest fan," Truax said. "Chuck is capable of making those plays in the first three minutes and for 40 minutes a game. The only thing keeping him from being a great player is that he lacks concentration.
"I haven't told him how great he could be. He knows I put a lot of confidence in him, that I really believe in him."
Seeing was believing last night. The Tigers led by as much as eight in the first half, thanks to a marvelous man-to-man defense by Terrance Jacobs on Suber and the intimidating presence of freshman John James inside. Jacobs held Suber to four first-half points, while James collected three of his five blocked shots.
But when Jacobs got in second-half foul trouble, the Broncs (14-16) went on a 20-5 tear that produced a 48-43 Rider lead with 10 minutes left.
Lightening remembers the moment this way: "I said I can't live with myself if we lose . . . We came too far to lose."
With six minutes left, Lightening's personal highlight reel started with a pair of free throws. A minute later, he hit a short jump shot in the lane. A minute after that, he banked in a fadeaway jumper.
But it wasn't until the final minute, after Truax had gone to a three-guard offense to negate Rider's triangle-and-two defense, that Lightening did his most damaging work.
With 1:06 left and Rider leading 61-59, he hit Devin Boyd, posting up low, with a pass. Boyd twisted inside for a bucket, was fouled and converted the three-point play. Towson, 62-61.
Seconds later, Lightening stripped William Kinsel of the ball at midcourt, dodged a would-be tackle and went in for a slam-dunk. Towson, 64-61. Free throws by James and Jacobs, and a buzzer-beater by Lewis Waller finished it off.
As much grief as Truax gives Lightening over his concentration lapses, player and coach have come to an understanding.
"Yeah, he gets on me pretty good for my defense," Lightening said. "He still loves me, though."