BY JOHN DUBOIS
Led by 19 points from Kevin Williams and 18 points from Terance Christian, the Louisburg Hurricanes claimed a hard fought 69-66 win over the Howard Dragons to advance to the NJCAA Men’s Division II National Basketball Tournament consolation championship game.
Coming off a 100-point performance in a win against Essex, the Hurricanes — the top scoring team in the tournament after two games — could never pull away from a Dragons team that they had defeated by 30 points in the regular season.
“When we played them earlier in the year we were at home and everything was going in for us,” Williams said. “Today we knew it would be defense that would be the key to the win and were able to play good defense. We kept a level head, battled some fatigue, and got ourselves into a trophy game by pulling out the win.”
Louisburg was ranked No. 1 in the final Division II regular season poll and seeded third coming into the tournament.
“We knew this was going to be a tough game because consolation bracket games are all about heart and we knew that Howard has a lot of heart,” said Louisburg coach Mark Vanderslice. “After we beat them by 30 points, we knew — as our guys would say — that they wouldn’t come into the national tournament and get punk’d. We had some chances to get some separation, but Howard wasn’t going to be denied late and kept it close to the final possession.”
Making their first appearance at the national tournament, Howard was led by a game-high 20 points from Alie Kondeh and ends it season with a record of 17-14.
“Coming into this game, I told our guys that this was our championship game,” said Howard coach Mike Smelkinson. “Especially after the way we lost to them in the regular season, I couldn’t be more proud of the way our guys played today. We still had a chance on the last shot and everyone on our team expected that shot to go in. It was from half-court, but it was still a great shot and Brandon Spain has made that shot before.”
The Hurricanes got out to an early lead, but the Dragons rallied to tie for the first time at 9-9 and the score was tied 20-20 with two minutes to go in the first half.
Louisburg would close the half on a 9-2 run to take a 29-22 lead into halftime. Williams would score the final points of the half on a buzzer beating layup.
“That basket gave us some momentum, “Williams said. “It helped us have something to take into half time we could use to get some more momentum going in the second half.”
The Hurricanes opened their largest lead of the game at 31-22 on the first basket of the second half, but the Dragons continued to battle back over the next 15 minutes and cut the deficit to 56-53 with five minutes to go. The lead was 62-60 with 1:30 to go. The Hurricanes would struggle late at the foul line, but Christian hit 1-of-2 with 3.9 seconds remaining to seal the win.
“Fatigue carries a lot of weight in a tournament like this and I think that affected us at the line as a lot of our shots were short,” Vanderslice said. “We had guys coming up short who have hit clutch free throws all season. The Williams basket was also big because it gave us a teachable moment going into halftime. It was a broken play but the ball ended up with exactly who we wanted to get the ball and sometimes it works out that way for you.
“I can’t honestly say it’s been a fantasy of mine to play for the consolation championship, but Mott has won those titles for a reason and they are certainly a team that could be contending for a national title. It’s a nice match-up and we will need to be ready to go.”
Louisburg will face the Mott Bears for the consolation championship at Noon today.