BY AARON PATTERSON
As the No. 2 seed in the NJCAA Division II National Tournament, the Monroe Community College Tribunes felt worthy of playing in Saturday’s championship game.
Aside from seeds, entering the tournament with only three losses proved they were capable of competing with the nation’s best.
But when the Tribunes gave up a 12-point lead in Thursday’s quarterfinal and ultimately fell to the Moraine Valley Cyclones, they left Mary Miller Gymnasium with questions. Not questions of toughness or ability, but how they would respond in Friday’s consolation semifinal.
Those questions were answered, as Monroe lived to fight another day and pulled out an 84-69 win over the Metropolitan Community College — Penn Valley Scouts.
“A lot of us came into the game with a chip on our shoulder that we left a lot of stuff undone last game,” Monroe sophomore forward Arnold Fripp said. “We needed to come out more aggressive and make sure we finished the game. Even if it was won by one point or 20 points, as long as we came out with the victory and finished strong.”
The win had the makings of a repeat of Thursday’s contest.
Trailing only briefly in the opening moments, the Tribunes used a 18-5 run to end the first half and led by 15 at the break. Less than two minutes into the second half, Monroe had extended its lead to 20, and they were determined to not let history repeat itself.
Penn Valley, on the other hand, didn’t want to end its season without a fight. The Scouts slowly fought their way back into contention and finally reduced the deficit to single digits with seven minutes remaining.
Penn Valley’s Erin Jones scored 19 of his team-high 23 points in the second half during the comeback, and the Scouts pulled to within seven on a three-pointer and free throw by Jones.
The Tribunes, however, went on a 12-5 run and eventually found themselves up again by 14.
“That was one of the main points that me and one of my teammates were talking about during the free throws was that we didn’t want it to happen again,” Fripp said. “We all as a unit picked it up, and thankfully we came out with a victory.”
Monroe’s Dallas Gary came off the bench to score 17 points with 10 coming in the first half during the Tribune’s initial run. Five of his six baskets were made immediately following Penn Valley turnovers. His play proved crucial, as did Fripp’s, when 6-foot-7 forward Reuben Berry fouled out of the game with 8:30 to go.
Gary was originally a starter at the beginning of the season until he was sidelined with a thumb injury.
While the Scouts end the season with a loss, coach Marcus Harvey wasn’t totally disappointed because he saw his team put up a fight in what could have otherwise been a blowout.
“I told our guys that this is the year that you can be down by 20 and still come back and win,” Harvey said. “It’s been all over college basketball. I was telling them about the Texas and Oklahoma game. We’re glad we fought back and at least made it respectable.”
Monroe will play in Saturday’s 2 p.m. contest to attempt to salvage a fifth-place finish and finish the season with a win.
“Any time you get a win out here, I think it’s important,” Burns said. “I think it’s important for your team, I think it’s important for your program. We’ve had such a good year. Last night for about a minute and a half, not taking anything away from our opponent, it was just uncharacteristic of how we’ve played. But that’s what this tournament does to you. It exposes your weaknesses immediately with the pressure. I just think getting a win, no matter if it’s in the winner’s bracket or the loser’s bracket, they’re all as important as you can get.”