2016 NCAA Div. III tournament qualifier
PELLA—The Central College men’s basketball team led for more than 37 minutes of Thursday’s Iowa Conference semifinal and held on for an 86-84 win over Buena Vista inside a rowdy P.H. Kuyper Gymnasium, advancing to Saturday’s league championship game.
The No. 1-seeded Dutch (19-7 overall) will play host to No. 6-seeded Luther College (17-10 overall) at 7 p.m. with an automatic berth into the 61-team NCAA Division III tournament field on the line. The Norse continued their Cinderella run through the league tournament with an 87-83 upset of No. 2-seeded Dubuque on its home floor. Luther outscored the Spartans 46-36 in the second half to advance to the title game.
It’s Central’s second trip to the league championship game since 1999, the tournament’s inaugural season. Central’s only other appearance came in 2010, its most recent championship season, in a 99-79 win over Buena Vista.
Battling inside Kuyper Gym for the second time in two weeks, the Dutch and the No. 4-seeded Beavers (14-13 overall) exchanged timely 3-pointers and clutch plays, but Central held on for the two-point victory.
“I’m proud of our team,” coach Craig Douma said. “We showed a lot of resiliency tonight. We made a run, they made a run, but in the end we came up with some big offensive plays down the stretch. We beat a really good team a third time.
“It was a great effort.”
Led by senior forward Matt Greenfield’s (Huxley, Ballard HS) game-high 28 points and 12 rebounds, the Dutch built a 10-point lead on four occasions, but Buena Vista stormed back and cut the lead to two points with seconds remaining. Central’s final inbound play created separation for senior guard Kevin Kaerwer (El Paso, Texas, John L. Chapin HS), who ran out the clock.
“Matt did it the entire game,” said Douma. “He was very active and did a good job on the inside. He scored really well around the basket. His teammates did a great job setting him up and he took his time and finished.”
Kaerwer posted a less conventional double-double with 11 points and 10 assists. It’s the second such stat line of his career, as the 10 dimes tied his career mark recorded Jan. 31, 2012. And on a night when the shots were not falling as easily, facilitating was all the more important.
“Kevin hit some good pull-up jumpers and he did a great job finding his teammates,” Douma said. “He’s been a great senior leader all year and he led us again tonight. We wanted the ball in his hands and he responded.”
Guard Nile Eckermann (junior, Cosgrove, Clear Creek Amana HS) and forward Colby Taylor (freshman, Creston) joined the senior duo in double figures with 18 and 13 points, respectively. Eckermann connected on 7-of-12 from the field, including 4-of-6 from 3-point range, and chipped in five rebounds. Taylor shot 5-of-6 from the floor, including an emphatic breakaway dunk, and 3-of-4 from long distance.
“Nile and Colby were spectacular,” said Douma. “Nile was confident tonight. He set his feet, pulled the trigger and made timely shots. He was patient with his shot selection and let the game come to him. He also had a great game defensively. Nile is very basketball savvy and it’s fun to have him around.”
Central’s bench came up big once again. Forward Kyle Newendorp (junior, Pella) and guard Fred Pratt (senior, Rosenberg, Texas, Lamar Consolidated HS) logged 20 and 17 minutes, respectively. Pratt tallied four points, three assists and one rebound, while Newendorp posted three rebounds and one assist. Guard Sam Markham (freshman, Atlantic) played six minutes in the first half and scored five points on 2-of-2 shooting with one rebound and one assist.
It was a total team effort.
“It was a great job being ready,” Douma said. “Kyle is a great defender and we needed him in there because of Buena Vista’s size. His post play was tremendous. Sam hit two key shots and gave us big minutes. He played a great game.”
Buena Vista was without the league’s leading scorer for most of the game, as guard Cole Darrow exited with an apparent ankle injury midway through the first half. His absence altered Central’s defensive strategy.
“In a way, it made guarding Buena Vista’s post players more difficult,” said Douma. “They had three true 3-point shooters on the floor at all times and they spread the floor, which opened up the paint. We adjusted down the stretch, got some stops and built a lead. But we had to adjust and it was a challenge.”
Both teams were in rhythm offensively, as the Dutch shot 50.0 percent (29-of-58) from the floor and 47.6 percent (10-of-21) from 3-point range and the Beavers shot 42.3 percent (30-of-71) overall and 48.3 percent (14-of-29) from distance. But Central separated itself on the glass and from the charity stripe with a 42-to-35 rebounding advantage and 18 made free throws to Buena Vista’s 10.
The Beavers’ Nick Clark played 27 minutes off the bench and led the team with 27 points. Kennedy Drey was the only other Buena Vista player in double figures with 10 points and five rebounds.
Central’s win sets up a similar situation Saturday, as the Dutch swept the two-game regular season series with Luther. The second, an 81-78 come-from-behind overtime win at Decorah, secured Central’s 17th league title outright. The top and bottom seeds of the tournament will play for a trip to the 61-team NCAA tournament.
“Seeds don’t mean anything at this point,” Douma said. “Luther had a tough start, but they played us tough both times. They’re one of the top offensive teams in the league. All five guys can shoot, which makes them tough to guard. It’s going to be an interesting battle and will likely be high scoring.
“It’ll be a fun game to watch.”
And Douma, who credited the fans for making Kuyper Gym a difficult environment for Thursday’s visitors, hopes for a similar showing Saturday.
“The crowd was awesome tonight,” Douma said. “It really gave our team a lift. It should be another great college basketball atmosphere Saturday.
“Let’s shut down the town, have some fun and enjoy some championship basketball.”