2016 NCAA Div. III tournament qualifier
PELLA — Who honestly saw this coming?
A season that started with a forecast for a last-place Iowa Conference finish will end in the NCAA Division III national tournament for the Central College men’s basketball team.
In what has become a familiar scenario, the conference champion Dutch (20-7) overcame a double-digit deficit, then held off Luther College, 74-70, before a raucous P.H. Kuyper Gymnasium crowd to capture the league tournament title and gain an automatic berth in the 62-team tournament, which begins next Thursday. It will be Central’s 10th NCAA appearance and the school’s first since 2010. Pairings and sites will be announced Monday at 11:30 a.m. via a selection show on www.ncaa.com.
The Dutch overcame a difficult shooting night with a balanced attack that saw senior forward Matt Greenfield (Huxley, Ballard HS) become the 27th member of Central’s 1,000-point club. He posted his 12th double-double of the season with 17 points and 12 rebounds, along with three assists and two blocks. Greenfield has 1,009 points in his career, with more than half—513—coming during a brilliant senior season. He’s the league’s scoring leader with 19.1 points a game and the top rebounder with 9.8.
Guards Kevin Kaerwer (senior, El Paso, Texas, John L. Chapin HS) and Nile Eckermann (junior, Cosgrove, Clear Creek-Amana HS) each had 19 points, including some clutch free throws in the final minute, as well as three assists each. Freshman forward Colby Taylor (Creston) notched his third double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds, as well as two blocks.
However, Luther (17-11) was poised to complete a surprising tourney script of its own. The bottom seed in the six-team conference tournament, the Norse went on the road to upset Loras Tuesday, 86-77, and second-seeded Dubuque Thursday, 87-83. And they came out firing Saturday night, opening with three straight 3-point buckets and hitting five of their first seven shots to sprint to a 14-4 lead less than four minutes into the game.
“Credit to them,” coach Craig Douma said. “They’re a well-coached team and they’re a tough match-up for us, especially the way they were shooting threes at the start.”
Luther expanded the lead to 27-13 at the 11:03 mark before Central could regain its footing.
“We told the players they’ve just got to keep guarding,” coach Craig Douma said. “It was Luther’s third trip of the week so it was going to be tough for them to keep up that pace the entire game. We wanted to really push our transition offense and adjust to their penetration.”
Luther’s shooting touch cooled as Central outscored the Norse the rest of the half, 24-9. After the initial scoring burst, Luther shot 31 percent from the field the rest of the way. The Dutch took their first lead, 38-36, amid a frantic finish to the half. With Luther playing for a final shot, Central forced a turnover with just over four seconds remaining, enough time for forward Matt Greenfield (senior, Huxley, Ballard HS) to launch a 25-footer that banked in at the buzzer and pushed him past the 1,000-point mark.
“What a great way to get his 1,000th point and what a great honor,” Douma said. “It’s well-deserved. Another double-double and another great game. Matt’s the best player in the league and we really feed off him.”
That fueled the already hyped-up crowd that was a difference-maker for the Dutch, Douma said.
“The crowd really helped a lot,” he said. “They gave the guys a lot of energy.”
Central carried that momentum into the second half, extending its lead to 53-42 with 14:05 left, but then the game tightened, as it so often has for the Dutch this season. Nine of Central’s conference and league tourney victories have been by four points or less. Luther went on a 14-5 run to make it 58-56 Central with 8:19 remaining. A layup by Luther’s John Androus with 1:09 left pulled the Norse within 68-67 and they had a chance to take the lead on a fast break when Kaerwer helped force a turnover.
Eckermann hit a pair of free throws with 28 seconds remaining for a 70-67 advantage but Luther’s Androus countered with two free throws with 12 seconds left. Eckerman knocked down two more with 10 seconds left for a 72-69 edge before a pivotal play four seconds later. Luther’s Austin Cale was bumped before attempting a 3-point shot. After the officials huddled it was ruled that Cale was not yet in the act of shooting, awarding two free throws instead of three. He made the first and tried to miss the second, but stepped over the free throw line. Kaerwer was intentionally fouled before Central could even throw the ball inbounds and he hit a pair of free throws with five seconds remaining to nail down the win.
“That’s the way championship games are supposed to be played,” Douma said. “It was a great atmosphere tonight.”
Central shot just 39.4 percent from the field and was 7-of-24 from 3-point range.
“We made enough plays down the stretch,” Douma said. “We weren’t hitting the 3-ball but we found other ways to score. And Nile (Eckermann) and Kevin (Kaerwer) hit some clutch shots.”
The Dutch were outrebounded 51-39.
“That’s the first time we’ve been outrebounded that much since the first half of the season,” Douma said. “But we made only five turnovers. That’s a big stat. We really took care of the ball.”
It’s Central’s second league tourney title after first winning in 2010.
Now the Dutch take a big exhale and turn their focus on the NCAA tourney.
“We’ll find out who we play, try to put together a good offensive plan and defensive plan,” Douma said. “We’ll get some rest and then get ready to restart.
“This is an exciting time for the guys. We’ll enjoy it tonight and get ready on Monday.”