BY CHAD DARE
Bronson Verhines decided his basketball career was over three years ago when he left Kaskaskia College.
This year, the 6-foot-7 forward from Woodlawn got back into the game at Rend Lake College.
On Saturday night, Verhines was named the Most Valuable Player at the NJCAA Division II National Tournament as the Warriors claimed their first-ever National Title with an 87-69 victory over the Moraine Valley Cyclones at the Mary Miller Complex on the campus of Danville Area Community College.
“All I can say is that I couldn’t write a better script if I tried,” said Verhines, who finished with 13 points, and game-high 14 rebounds in Rend Lake’s victory. “It’s a great honor and I appreciate it. But, it’s so much greater being a National Champion.”
And while his contributions on the glass and on the offensive end were important, Verhines’ biggest task on Saturday night came on defense.
Moraine Valley’s Karrington Ward came in the title game averaging 21.3 points per game for the Cyclones and he managed just 11 — six of those coming in the final six minutes as the Warriors (30-3) were already celebrating the championship.
“I knew if we shut down Ward we had a great chance of winning this game,” said Verhines, who averaged 15.3 points and 12.7 rebounds a game during the National Tournament. “Ward is a great player. He is athletic, he’s tall, he can shoot and he can penetrate. I knew if we denied him the ball and didn’t let him get going, it would increase our chances of winning this game.
“Moraine Valley is a great team all-around, but he’s the one that makes them go, he’s the center piece to their team. When he is going, their team is going and when he’s not, they’re not.”
Ward had just three points in the first half – all on free throws, as he was 0-for-5 from the field.
“He was a scrappy defender,” said Ward, who had 11 rebounds to go along with 11 points. “I give him credit for playing great defense like that.”
Rend Lake coach Randy House said that Verhines willing accepted the challenge of guarding Ward in the National Championship game.
“Bronson Verhines is a ball player,” House said. “There are a lot of Division I schools out there that are crazy for not recruiting him for one year, because Bronson Verhines can play basketball.
“Karrington Ward is honestly the best player in field. He is the most athletic. He can jump the highest. He’s good on offense and defense. And he’s probably an all-American. But, Bronson said not tonight. It wasn’t going to happen tonight.”
And while Verhines was containing Ward, the rest of the Rend Lake team was doing just as good on both the offensive and defensive ends.
Cortez Macklin handled the scoring early for the Warriors as he had 12 points in the first nine minutes of the contest.
“We were just feeling it,” said Macklin, who finished with a game-high 19 points. “It seemed like I could hit everything and my teammates were also hitting everything. We were also rebounding, and playing hard.”
And Macklin’s 12 points came during Rend Lake’s 27-5 run to start the game.
“They came out on fire,” Ward said. “They came out and played as the better team tonight. That’s all you ask for from another team is to make them play their hearts out. We played our hearts out, but it wasn’t enough.”
Moraine Valley coach Dedrick Shannon thought his guys might have been feeling the effects of playing four games in four days.
“I think my guys were a little gassed,” he said. “But, Rend Lake is a great basketball team. I just would have liked to see us get one night off and Karrington get those legs back.”
Even with a 22-point lead (48-26) at halftime, Rend Lake’s Jeril Taylor knew there was still work to do for his Warriors, because he remembered all too well how his team overcame a big deficit in the quarterfinal win over South Suburban.
“We started off great, we kept the pressure on and we never looked back,” said Taylor, who came off the bench to score 15 points. “It takes a lot of heart and hustle to get a lead like that. We did what we had to do.
“But, in the back of all of our minds, we knew it wasn’t over. We talked about it at halftime, that we couldn’t take it for granted. We didn’t feel like it was over.”
And the Cyclones (31-6), who had overcame 12-point, second-half deficits in both their quarterfinal win against Monroe College and their semifinal win over Brown Mackie, had confidence they could make a run at the Warriors.
“It wasn’t a big deal trailing at halftime, but I was a little worried about the size of the deficit,” Shannon said. “I knew they were tired and I just didn’t know if we had the energy it was going to take to get back into that game.”
Moraine Valley didn’t have a comeback in its game on Saturday night as the Cyclones only got as close at 14 points (81-67) in the final minute when both teams had emptied their benches.
“For my last game ever as a coach to be in the National Championship – it’s a winner for me,” Shannon said. “We might be the runner-up, but we’re still champions to me.”
Rend Lake won 22 of its final 23 games en route to winning the school’s first National Champions. The Warriors only loss came at the Mary Miller Complex as the Danville Area Community College Jaguars defeated them 66-62 on Feb. 6.
And while the title is the first for Rend Lake, it’s the third title in the past four years for Region 24 as Lincoln won back-to-back titles in 2010 and 2011.