2016 NCAA Div. III tournament qualifier
PELLA—Following Thursday’s two-point victory in the Iowa Conference semifinals, the Central College men’s basketball team is seeking to punch its ticket to the NCAA Division III tournament on its home floor.
The regular season champions and top-seeded Dutch (19-7 overall) play host to No. 6-seeded Luther College (17-10 overall) Saturday at 7 p.m. inside P.H. Kuyper Gymnasium. It's the second time Central has hosted the league title game.
It’s the second championship game appearance for both teams, with each team winning its respective showing. The Dutch defeated Buena Vista 99-79 for the 2010 tourney crown, while the Norse were 57-48 winners over Dubuque in 2011. The tourney champion earns an automatic berth into the 62-team NCAA tournament field which will be announced Monday morning.
Central, which was picked to finish last in the conference preseason poll, is the first team in league history to improve from last place to first place in consecutive years. The Dutch received a bye in the first round of the six-team league tournament before Thursday’s semifinal win advanced them to the final.
Luther, last season’s conference co-champion, made the two-hour trek to Dubuque twice in three days and returned victorious in both instances. The Norse upset No. 3-seeded Loras 86-77 Tuesday before coming back from 18 points down with less than 9 minutes remaining to stun the No. 2-seeded Spartans 87-83.
“It’s hard to know what to say about this game,” coach Craig Douma said. “Luther is very talented. It’ll be difficult to get stops because they’re a great offensive team, they’re well coached and they defend well. That was evident in Thursday’s game.”
And once again Central is tasked with beating a team for the third time this season. The Dutch swept the regular season two-game series with Luther by a combined five points with the second win, an 81-78 come-from-behind overtime win at Decorah, securing the program’s 17th league title outright. It was Central’s first series sweep since 2009-10, its most recent championship season.
In the teams’ Jan. 8 conference opener at Pella, guard Kevin Kaerwer (senior, El Paso, Texas, John L. Chapin HS) scored 18 of his then-career-high 26 points in an 84-82 win. It was the first of four straight losses for the Norse to open league play.
In the Feb. 19 return trip to Decorah, guard Nile Eckermann (junior, Cosgrove, Clear Creek Amana HS) made a game-tying 3-pointer in the closing seconds of regulation to force overtime. The Dutch trailed for the first 3:01 in the extra frame, but fueled by forward Colby Taylor’s (freshman, Creston) 3-pointer, rallied for an 81-78 win. It was Central’s ninth consecutive win spanning Jan. 22-Feb. 19.
Douma hopes Saturday’s game can do without late-game heroics.
“I hope it doesn’t come down to something like that,” said Douma. “It’s going to come down to which team executes and finishes offensively. We’re going to study the film and figure out what puts us in the best position to succeed. That’s all we can do.”
Following Thursday’s semifinal, forward Matt Greenfield (senior, Huxley, Ballard HS) leads the league in scoring and rebounding with 19.1 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. Directly behind Greenfield on the glass are Luther forwards Jake Martin and John Androus with 8.8 and 7.7 rebounds per game, respectively. Androus is also averaging 17.3 points per contest as the league’s fourth-leading scorer.
“Androus is a great player and fills his role really well,” Douma said. “He plays a great game and we respect what he does on the court. He’s not a guy you shut down; he’s a guy you contain. Martin has been a great addition to their team this year. His ability to shoot the ball well opens up their offense and spreads out the defense.
“Those two make defending Luther a tough task.”
But similar to Central, Douma noted that the Norse offense is about more than one player. Four Luther players reached double figures in Thursday’s win, a stat Douma said the Dutch need to keep in mind.
“Luther has great movement on offense,” said Douma. “They run a lot of sets and their personnel fit their system well. It’s difficult to take away all of their weapons. We need to play to our strengths defensively and take away as much as we can.”
And the difference is in the execution, according to Douma.
“We need to execute and finish our chances,” Douma said. “And we need to take care of the ball. In games like this both teams are going to play hard. It’s going to come down to who makes the plays and hopefully we make a few more plays than they do.”
Thursday’s crowd was the largest of the season inside Kuyper Gym and the Dutch played off of its energy. That energy will come in handy Saturday.
“Thursday’s crowd was awesome,” said Douma. “It made it difficult for the visiting team to get over the hump. We hope that we can create a similar atmosphere Saturday. It’s going to be an exciting game.
“Fans will definitely get their money’s worth.”