2016 NCAA Div. III tournament qualifier
STEVENS POINT, WIS.—What a ride it’s been.
Remarkable comebacks, dramatic finishes, upset win after upset win. It finally took the No. 1-ranked team in Division III playing on its home floor to end a memorable worst-to-first championship season for the Central College men’s basketball team as Wis.-Stevens Point escaped to the NCAA’s sweet 16 with a 76-71 decision Saturday night.
It did not come without a fight. The Dutch (21-8) displayed their trademark resilience, coming from eight points down to tie the game late in the first half, then clawing their way back from a 15-point second-half deficit to pull within two points in the closing moments before the tank finally went dry.
It ended a season that Central coach Craig Douma described as incredible.
“This season was unexpected,” said Douma. “It proves to everybody out there that a little hard work, dedication, positive leadership and teamwork can make great things happen. We had ordinary men doing extraordinary things because they believed in each other.
“What a season.”
Senior forward Matt Greenfield (Huxley, Ballard HS), the Iowa Conference MVP, closed his career in typical fashion, a double-double, with 18 points and a game-high 13 boards. Senior guard Kevin Kaerwer (El Paso, Texas, John L. Chapin HS) had 13 points and nine assists. Freshman forward Colby Taylor (Creston) filled the stat sheet once again, joining the senior duo in double figures with 17 points to go along with eight rebounds and four assists.
The Dutch went toe-to-toe with the nation’s best, piecing together another highly efficient effort, finishing 28-of-59 (47.5 percent) from the field and 9-of-23 (39.1 percent) from 3-point range. The Pointers finished 24-of-67 from the field (35.8 percent) and 10-of-30 (33.3 percent) from distance. Wis.-Stevens Point narrowly won the battle of the boards 43-40, but separated itself with 19 offensive rebounds and 22 second chance points, despite being outscored 36-26 in the paint. The Pointers also converted on 18-of-28 free throw attempts while committing a mere five turnovers, including one in the second half. The Dutch made 6-of-8 from the charity stripe and turned it over 11 times.
All five Wis.-Stevens Point starters reached double figures. Center Clayton Heuer led all players with 24 points and 12 rebounds. Forward Trevor Hass chipped in 15 points, followed by guard Joe Ritchay with 11 points and six rebounds. Guard Tyler Tillema, the 2014 Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year, and backcourt mate Austin Ryf each tallied 10 points.
Five storied careers in the White and Red conclude with the season. Greenfield, Kaerwer, guard Fred Pratt (Rosenberg, Texas, Lamar Consolidated HS), forward Yaw Sapon-Amoah (Ghana, Africa, Des Moines Christian HS) and center Spencer Bakerink (Creston) each played their final game in a Dutch uniform.
And while all were spectacular on the court, Douma was more impressed with who they were off of it.
“These seniors are great men and great leaders,” Douma said. “I’m blessed to be part of their lives.”
Greenfield joined Central’s 1,000-point club as its 27th member with a 30-foot 3-pointer in the 2014 Iowa Conference tournament championship and was named 2014 league MVP, the seventh such honor for a Dutch player. He posted 19 career double-doubles, including 15 this season capped by the two this weekend.
“Matt has done so much for this program,” said Douma. “He’s a great young man on and off the court. It’s been a blast coaching him. He’s set the bar high for our future post players. There were some doubters, but he stepped up and showed what kind of player he is. What a year he had. He was definitely the player of the year.”
Kaerwer finishes as a top-15 point guard in program history in assists and 3-pointers made. His 118 assists this season rank fourth all-time, with his 210 career dimes ranking just outside the top 10. His team-high 59 3-pointers this season rank fifth.
“I told Kevin in the locker room that I want my kids to be like him,” Douma said. “He’s a great young man on and off the court. People didn’t see all of the work he did in the mornings and after practices. He became the player he is because of how hard he has worked and he’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached.”
Bakerink started all 29 games this season, finishing third on the team in rebounding and blocked shots. He saved the best for last, with a career night in Central’s NCAA first-round game and following it up with another gutsy performance in Saturday’s second round.
“What can I say about Spencer,” said Douma. “He’s another great young man. He’s one of the toughest defenders in the league. I’m proud of what he did this year. He’s a positive, selfless leader who put the team in front of himself.”
Pratt backed up all-league point guard Kaerwer, but created one of the most dangerous backcourts in the league when the two were on the floor at the same time. He averaged 7.0 points per game and was second on the team with 86 assists.
“Fred wasn’t even sure he was going to come out this year,” Douma said. “I’m really proud of the young man he’s turned out to be. He’s a great story; where he came from and the kind of person he is. He’s grown up so much and he had a great year. We played fast and we were exciting when he was on the court.”
Yaw was a centerpiece off of the bench, which Douma often cited for this season’s success. He was fourth on the team in rebounding and second in blocked shots. Yaw missed the NCAA tournament due to injury, but his impact goes beyond the game.
“It wasn’t the ending Yaw wanted, but I’m glad he came Central’s way,” said Douma. “He made Central College better. He exemplifies what being a Division III athlete is all about. He’s one of the most-loved students at Central and we love him as a coaching staff. He made some exciting, jaw-dropping plays this season.”
It was a memorable season for both the players and the coaching staff. Douma praised the efforts of his assistant coach Joe Steinkamp.
“Having Joe back means a lot to this program,” Douma said. “I’m blessed to coach with him. It’s been a thrill. He’s a great young coach and we work really well together. I’m having so much fun coaching with him. We have a bright future together.
“We’re building something special at Central.”
And when asked if there was anything else he would like to add, Douma replied with his usual, “No, we’re good.”
But this year, this team was better than good.
It was great.