With the game tied at 59-59 with under 2:30 left, the Pointers (27-1) came out of a timeout and scored six straight points to seize control with under two minutes to go. The Sabres (22-7) called timeout and came out and answered with five straight points as Sam Koslowski buried a jumper followed by a Jeff Harris three-pointer to cut the deficit to one with 1:05 remaining.
With 2.5 seconds remaining, UWSP's Tyler Tillema split a pair of free throws to make it a two-point game to set up the final sequence. Having to go the full-length of the floor, Cody Veleke inbounded to Josh Creed, who found Harris in the corner for a clean look, but his three-attempt went long as time expired.
"This was a tremendous environment here and these guys rose up to the challenge," Head Coach Mark Boyle said. "You either rise up to the competition or you fall under it and they rose up to it. That says a lot about these young men.
"We went up against the No. 1 team in the country and showed incredible heart, tenacity and grit," Boyle added. "I can't be prouder of these guys than I am right now."
The Sabres (22-7) led by as many as 11 points in the contest, taking a 19-8 lead early in the first half before entering halftime with a 35-30 advantage against the top-ranked Pointers.
"We just wanted to go out there and give our best effort," Harris said. "We knew we were underdogs, but we also knew that we could compete with any team in the nation and we did that against the best team in the country."
Veleke finished with 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting to lead Marian, while Harris added 13 points and Alex Stecker chipped in 11 points and five assists.
UWSP was led by an impressive shooting display from Trevor Hass, who went 9-for-13 from the field, including 7-for-10 from downtown for a game-high 25 points. Tillema, who was named Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year, finished with 12 points, five rebounds and five assists. The Pointers advance to play Central (Iowa) in the second round Saturday, March 8, at 7 p.m.
The Sabres got off to a fast start when Stecker drained the first basket of the game, a three-pointer made possible by two Drew Binversie offensive rebounds.
Leading 7-6, Marian embarked on a 12-2 run ignited by a Veleke three. In the midst of the run, Josh Creed connected on a circus-lay-in as he was fouled to make it 12-6, followed by a Harris three-pointer and a pair of buckets by Mike Keller and Creed.
"We came out with a ton of energy," Veleke said. "I couldn't ask for a better group of guys. We had a ton of fight. We had a game plan set and we came out and executed exactly how we wanted to for most of the game, especially the first half."
Trailing 21-15 after a pair of Koslowski free throws with 7:12 remaining in the first half, Hass brought the Pointers back by scoring nine of his team's next 11 points – all from behind the three-point stripe – and gave the Pointers their first lead of the game at 26-24.
The Sabres tied it back up and then Veleke and Stecker combined for nine points down the stretch to give the visitors a 35-30 lead at the break. Both teams shot 50 percent from the field, with the Sabres scoring two more field goals, and each side connected on five three's.
In the second half, neither team led by more than four points until the six-point run by the Pointers with under three minutes left in the game.
Two Harris free throws with 13:11 to go put the Sabres in front 49-48 and that would be their final lead of the contest. UWSP would stretch the lead to four on a couple occasions before the Sabres tied the game again at 56-all on Veleke jumper with 5:26 to go.
After Hass hit from downtown again to give the Pointers a three-point edge, Stecker answered back to make it 59-59 at the 3:41 mark.
Clayton Heuer, Tillema and Joe Ritchay combined for six straight points to spot the Pointers a lead they thought was safe with just 1:41 left.
However, Head Coach Mark Boyle and company – making their second NCAA appearance and first since 2001 – regained their composure and answered back with five straight points thanks to a Koslowski jumper and Harris three-pointer.
Leading by one, Tillema went to the free throw line with just 2.5 seconds remaining and missed the first-of-two. He then tried to miss the second on purpose to cause a chaotic last-second chance for the Sabres, but it hit the front of the rim and went in.
The final play resulted in an upset-bid that fell just short.
"All I was thinking was, 'please go in'," Harris said. "Unfortunately it rolled in and out. We couldn't have asked for a better look on a scramble play like that."
This group of Marian seniors put together an 18-win turnaround since a four-win campaign as freshmen. The bar has been set.
"We came in and our goal was to put Marian on the map," Veleke said. "I think with the success we've had this season, we made some noise. We played the No. 1 team in the nation pretty tough here and I think we've accomplished that goal."