2016 NCAA Div. III tournament qualifier
DUBUQUE — They wouldn’t go away.
Trailing most of the way and down as many as 10 points in the second half, Central College knocked off the No. 23-rated University of Dubuque on its home floor, 80-74 Saturday. And suddenly the team that was picked for last place in the preseason finds itself alone in first in the Iowa Conference with two league games remaining. Second-year coach Craig Douma’s surprising squad is 10-2 in league play and 17-6 overall after winning its eighth straight game following a 2-2 conference start. Defending champion Dubuque, 20-3 overall, slips a game back at 9-3 after absorbing just its second home-court defeat of the season. Central avenged a 74-67 Spartans’ victory at Pella Jan. 11.
Forward Matt Greenfield (senior, Huxley, Ballard HS), a three-time league player of the week, made a spirited bid for another citation with 30 points, five shy of his career-high set at Buena Vista Jan. 25. He also grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds for his 10th double-double of the season and 14th of his career.
“I can’t say enough about what Matt did tonight,” Douma said. “He made some huge plays down the stretch and got some big rebounds.”
Dubuque scored the final six points of the first half to go up 34-28, then stretched the advantage to 38-28 with 18:43 left. But after a timeout, Central answered with a 12-1 burst to grab a 40-39 edge. The Spartans quickly regained their footing and were up 54-46 with 9:18 left following an Andre Norris dunk. It was a 57-50 margin with 7:40 left but again Central came back.
“We did a great job of just hanging around and kept the game in reach,” Douma said.
A pair of Dubuque free throws made it 63-62 with 3:20 remaining.
Then point guard Kevin Kaerwer (senior, El Paso, Texas, John L. Chapin HS) and the Dutch made their move. They burst to a 74-65 bulge with a 12-2 flurry that included seven points and two assists by Kaerwer, who finished with 17 points and five assists for the game.
The Dutch scored on nine of their last 10 possessions. And following the one they failed to convert was perhaps the game’s pivotal play. With the score knotted 65-65 with 2:25 left, Kaerwer scooped up a Colby Taylor (freshman, Creston) deflection and burst past two defenders on the left side of the lane for a go-ahead layup and a lead Central never relinquished.
“I don’t know how he split those two guys,” Douma said. “That was a really tough finish.”
Central was able to overcome 29.6-percent first-half shooting.
“The first half was not pretty,” Douma said. “Dubuque’s a good defensive team and they didn’t make things easy for us. But we told the guys we just have to keep shooting. We worked hard to get some transition baskets in the second half. We kept believing and we kept attacking. It was a heck of an effort.”
Central shot 47.2 percent after the break and 39.7 percent overall. But Douma also pointed to Central’s 45-34 rebounding advantage, which included 11 Dutch offensive rebounds. Dubuque shot 42.1 percent from the field.
“Our defense down the stretch was phenomenal,” Douma said. “We made them shoot tough, tough shots.”
Taylor added 11 points and seven rebounds for the Dutch. Meanwhile, Greenfield upped his scoring average to 18.9 and is just two points out of the conference scoring lead. He’s first in the league in rebounding with 9.6 a game. Greenfield, who scored a combined 496 points in his first three collegiate seasons, has 435 this year, leaving him 69 away from the school’s 1,000-point club.
But the accolades can wait, Douma said. His squad’s newly gained hold on the conference top spot is a precarious one, with a stiff challenge at Luther College looming Wednesday at Decorah. The men tip at 8 p.m. in the women’s-men’s doubleheader. Central escaped the Norse at Pella 84-82 in the conference opener Jan. 8. Luther is 14-8 overall and 6-5 in the league after a 79-66 victory at rival Wartburg Saturday.
Central plays its regular-season finale at home next Saturday against Wartburg, leaving the Dutch with a difficult closing week.
“We reminded the guys of that after the game,” Douma said. “We’ll enjoy today’s win this weekend, but then we’ve got two more games to win yet. We don’t want to ask for help. We want to win it ourselves.”