Wahpeton, North Dakota -- For the fourth year in a row, and the fifth time in the past six years, the Indian Hills Warriors will be part of the field at the NJCAA Division I National Tournament. The latest trip to Hutchinson, Kans. was clinched on Wednesday night, but not until a last-second 3-point field goal try by North Dakota State College of Science rimmed out, allowing the Warriors to hold off the Wildcats and escape with a 71-68 win.
IHCC's Chris McNeal picked off an NDSCS pass and was fouled with 7.7 seconds remaining. McNeal calmly dropped in both foul shots to make it a three-point game. The Warriors forced a Wildcat turnover and they inbounded the ball with 1.4 seconds on the clock. NDSCS stole the inbounds pass and Thomas Nelson had an open look at a potential game-tying attempt, a shot that failed to drop for the home team and made a winner of the Warriors -- their 13th consecutive victory and one that puts them in the 24-team national tournament bracket. The tourney starts March 20.
The Wildcats battled back from a 57-46 deficit, holding IHCC to six made field goals in 27 second-half shots, and finally evened the score at 64-all on a 3-point play by Gach Gach with 2:56 remaining. McNeal, who made a series of clutch plays down the stretch, broke the tie with a 3-pointer from right in front of the Warrior bench 49 seconds later to make it 67-64. After a defensive stop, Kenny Wormley was fouled and hit two from the line for a five-point advantage. Indian Hills cemented the region postseason championship last Saturday by making 14 free throws in a row and Wormley's two makes were part of an 8-for-8 performance at the end of the district contest.
James Batemon, NDSCS's leading scorer with 21 points, matched Wormley with two free throws of his own at the 1:28 mark to cut the Indian Hills lead to 69-66. The Warriors missed a shot and Damario Armstrong drained two from the line with 54.4 seconds to play to bring the Wildcats to within a single point. After another empty possession for the Warriors, and with the Wildcats having a chance to take the lead, McNeal stepped in front a bounce pass, picked it off and then nailed the foul shots. That set the stage for a wild final 7.7 seconds, and when it finally ended, IHCC grabbed the District 11 Championship plaque, the same one that NDSCS won on the Warriors' home floor last year with a one-point overtime win.
After it was over, IHCC coach Hank Plona said, "I couldn't be any more excited and proud of a team as I am of this Warrior group. This team has come together in ways that a coach dreams of and hopes for, and I'm thrilled they get to experience going to the national tournament."
McNeal topped IHCC by scoring 19 points on five threes and 4-4 free throw shooting. He now has 81 3-pointers for the season, 7th on the single-season list. Ivan Aurrecoechea posted his 9th double-double in the last 11 games with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Richardson Maitre also reached double-digits with 12 points and he had four assists. Wormley had six assists.
The Warriors used a 12-0 run in the first half to expand a one-point margin to 40-27. Jamel Allen got the spurt started with a 3-pointer. The Indian Hills coach described the run at the end of the opening half as "huge," and said it gave his squad a cushion that they wound up needing every bit of.
Playing one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the country, Indian Hills outshot NDCSC from behind the arc, 6-3 in the first half and 9-7 for the game.
A three and two free throws by McNeal, around a Wildcat triple at the end of the first half allowed IHCC to take a 45-32 lead at intermission. The 3-pointer gave the Warriors a brief 43-29 lead, their biggest of the night.
The Warriors were able to overcome an offense that sputtered at times in the second half with clutch defensive plays and the eight foul shots in a row to pull out their 29th win of the season, the same number they earned last year in coach Plona's first year at the helm.
Despite their 22 percent second-half shooting stat, Indian Hills topped NDSCS in that category for the game, 41 percent to 35 percent. The Warriors' defensive effort held the Wildcats 28 points under their season scoring average. NDSCS lost for only the second time all season and the first time in the last 24 games. "This was a complete team effort," Plona emphasized, "because NDSCS plays a very unique style of basketball, and our guys focused for three days getting ready and then executed our game plan about as well as possible."
Indian Hills will await the seedings and pairings announcement from the NJCAA on Monday to find out their next opponent in what will be the program's 13th national tourney trip. "It seems this team has a special 'it' factor," Plona stated, "and we want this season to keep going!"
INDIAN HILLS 71, NORTH DAKOTA STATE COLLEGE OF SCIENCE 68
Chris McNeal 5 4-4 19, Kenny Wormley 1 2-2 4, Antonio Williams 1 2-2 4, Richardson Maitre 4 2-2 12, Ivan Aurrecoechea 7 2-7 16, Jamel Allen 2 0-0 6, Brady Ernst 0 0-0 0, Tre Hansbrough 0 2-2 2, Jermaine Ukaegbu 1 1-3 3, Karl Harris 2 1-1 5 Team 23 16-23 71
James Batemon 8 5-10 21, Gach Gach 3 3-3 11, Jake Johnson 6 2-4 15, Melvin Newbern 1 0-0 2, Elliott Kane 1 0-0 3, Thomas Nelson 3 1-2 9, Brian Givens 1 0-0 3, Johnnie Turner 0 0-0 0, Damario Armstrong 1 2-2 4 Team 24 13-21 68
Halftime score: Indian Hills 45, NDSCS 32; Three-point field goals: IHCC 9 (McNeal 5, Maitre 2, Allen 2), NDSCS 7 (Nelson 2, Gach 2, Kane 1, Givens 1)
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|First Round 2017 NJCAA D1 Tournament|
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|North Dakota State College of Science||68|
|District 11 championship game|
|Iowa Western CC at||69|
|Region 11 Tournament Championship Game|
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|Region 11 Tournament Semifinals|
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|Moberly Area CC||48|
|Marshalltown CC at||60|
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|State Fair CC||73|
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|Ellsworth CC at||50|
|Moberly Area CC at||67|