BY AARON PATTERSON
After a day a day of scouting teams at the NJCAA Division II men’s national basketball tournament and preparing his own for its first game, Monroe Community College coach Jerry Burns went back to his hotel room to relax.
He found the NCAA NIT tournament game on ESPN between top-seeded and perennial power Kentucky and Robert Morris. Surely after missing the NCAA tournament, Kentucky would pull off a first-round NIT win. Instead, he watched as John Calipari’s team was humbled, losing a game that, by some standards, should have never been in question.
Earlier in the day at the NJCAA tournament, he watched the defending national champions and top-seeded Mott Community College Bears fall in the first round, and later saw No. 1-ranked Louisburg College suffer its second defeat of the season.
As the No. 3 team in the nation and second seed in the tournament, Burns began considering his own chances.
“I’m just saying to myself, ‘The kiss of death is upon us. We were the higher seed, and I have seen every higher seed fall,’” Burns said. “But I’m glad we didn’t.”
The Tribunes made a late surge in the final seven minutes of Wednesday’s contest to pull out a 62-56 win over Howard Community College, and avoid being the latest tournament upset victim.
Monroe Community College experienced its lowest scoring output of the season, and the win didn’t come without a fight from the Dragons (16-13).
A runner by Howard Community College freshman James Bartnik just as the first-half buzzer sounded gave the Dragons a 29-27 lead and marked the 13th lead change of the half.
There were seven more lead changes in the second before the Tribunes took their final lead of the contest at 47-44 with seven minutes, 10 seconds remaining. To that point, Monroe Community College (29-3) couldn’t slow the Dragons long enough to build a lasting lead. That is, however, until the Tribunes found timely defensive stops, and a few key baskets by sophomore guard Ta-Quan Zimmerman.
Zimmerman was held scoreless on four attempts in the first half, but scored his first points of the game on a three-pointer five minutes into the second half. He then went on his own 5-0 run hitting a three to give the Tribunes a 47-44 lead, and then a layup immediately after to go up by five. Both baskets were scored off of turnovers and helped pave the way to the win.
“I came out kind of flat,” said Zimmerman, who averages just over 10 points per game. “I couldn’t get nothing to fall, but I just kept my head and just kept shooting and getting confidence in my shot.
“The last couple of games, I’ve gone away from my shot because if I miss a couple, I’ll get down and not shoot. I just feel like this is all or nothing. This is championship basketball, so I just have to keep going until I find it.”
Zimmerman scored 16 points on February 6 in a win against Erie Community College, but since has failed to reach double digits. His eight points is the most he has scored since then, and the timeliness of the buckets might give him the confidence he needs to help push Monroe Community College toward its ultimate goal.
The Tribunes did get double figures in scoring from Arnold Fripp (15 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks), Dallas Gary (14 points, two blocks), and Tashawn Desir (12 points). Zimmerman also added four assists and two steals to his total in a game where Burns gladly accepted every possible positive from his team after it made only 17 of 36 free throw attempts.
Howard Community College saw scoring from Alie Kondeh (12 points, 10 rebounds) and Brandon Spain (10 points, six rebounds), and also got 10 boards from Kayode Ajenifuja.
The Dragons had multiple opportunities for a late comeback, but the Tribunes’ defense won out in an effort to keep their national title hopes alive.
“I think they really turned the pressure up on us, and we coughed it up a couple of times during that stretch which allowed them to get a little bit of a lead,” Howard Community College coach Mike Smelkinson said. “We just couldn’t get over the hump and get back after that happened.”
Monroe Community College will take on Moraine Valley Community College at 8:30 p.m. while Howard Community College faces Grand Rapids Community College at 1 p.m.
After the scare and threat of watching other top-ranked teams fall early, the Tribunes aren’t taking anything for granted as they move forward in the tournament.
“When it comes down to tournament play, this is just like the NCAA,” Zimmerman said. “Anybody can beat anybody any given day. I throw the seeding out because we are all just here as 16 teams and it’s anybody’s ballgame.”