BY AARON PATTERSON
It’s been 17 years since the Owens Community College Express last made an appearance in the NJCAA national tournament semifinals. While the 1995-96 version of the Express were competing for a national title, most members of this year’s team were looking for new ways to stay up past their bedtime.
Now, they will be looking for a way to get past the Rend Lake Warriors — who erased a 23-point second-half deficit to defeat South Suburban in overtime — in Friday’s 6 p.m. semifinal, after knocking off the Central Community College — Columbus (Neb.) Raiders in impressive fashion, 88-72, in Wednesday’s quarterfinal.
“Owens hasn’t been here for a while,” Owens freshman point guard Joe Retic said. “We wanted to make a statement. I believe we are.”
After battling their way back for a win in the opening round against Iowa Lakes, the Express wasted no time in making that statement clear when they opened Wednesday’s contest with an 11-2 run, leaving the Raiders with little hope of earning back-to-back tournament wins.
Central CC was coming off one of its biggest wins of the season, knocking off top-seeded and defending national champion Mott. But coach Marty Levinson said that claiming a letdown the day after such an emotional win would be making excuses for the loss.
“We have team meetings all the time and in the junior college, you hear every excuse in the country from your kids,” Levinson said. “We made a pact that there would be no excuses from anybody, and this was with like 10 games left. That sounds like an excuse. I told the radio the same thing. That sounds like an excuse, ‘Yeah, we had a big win over Mott, so we’re going to play a little flat today.’ No. Maybe we started feeling good about ourselves. But I tell these guys that you’ve got to reprove your work ethic and you’ve got to reprove your toughness every day. We didn’t bring our hard hats.
“I really hope the guys weren’t feeling good about themselves. I really do, especially with what we still had laying in front of us.”
By halftime, Owens had built a 41-27 lead, but the Raiders put up a fight, perhaps attempting to reprove their work ethic and toughness to their fiery and passionate coach.
The Express’ 13-point halftime lead quickly dwindled to six, six minutes into the second half. But Owens refused to give Central CC any chance of a comeback and once again increased its lead to 21 with 4:42 to go in the game.
“We were in that same position in the last game,” Owens coach Dave Clarke said. “We came back. They can get hot. They are a streaky team. They are a very good one-on-one team. As long as we kept rebounding and got a hot hand, I thought (we could win).
“Our whole team played very unselfish. Joe Retic really led them, but we found everybody, and it was a great team win.”
Retic finished with 19 points and six assists, and was aided by Tony Boykins (13 points, seven rebounds), James Kelly (10 points, 11 rebounds), Franklin Lindsey (10 points, eight rebounds), and Jay Marquette (nine points).
Retic scored 15 of his points in the second half to help the Express maintain their lead while Central CC’s Tyron Criswell put up 22 of his game-high 25 points in the final 20 minutes, including a perfect nine-for-nine performance from the free throw line. David Plain (15 points, five assists), and James Spencer (14 points, 17 rebounds) helped Criswell in the effort to maintain their title hopes.
Eventually, the Raiders began to run out of steam and the Express recognized an opportunity to put the game out of reach.
“As a team, we saw it on their faces on the court,” Retic said. “We talked to each other in the huddle and we could tell that their two guards were getting tired. We just needed to step on their throats and keep going.
“We knew they were going to fight today,” he added. “We watched their game yesterday, we saw that they fought hard and didn’t give up. They showed that with heart, anybody could win. We knew that we (had to) play with heart against them and we needed to be the tougher team.”
Central CC will have another short turnaround and will be back in action today at 3 p.m. taking on South Suburban for the opportunity to salvage at least a sixth-place finish.