BY CHAD DARE
Whether it’s a recipe for success can be debated, but there is no doubt that the Moraine Valley Cyclones are going to be playing for the NJCAA Division II National Championship.
For the second game in as many nights, Moraine Valley overcame a 12-point second-half deficit.
This time around, it came in the NJCAA Division II national semifinals as the Cyclones rallied to beat the Brown Mackie Lions 81-75 to advance into tonight’s championship game against the Rend Lake Warriors.
“I don’t know why, but every time we get down, we find a way to fight back and win,” said Moraine Valley sophomore Karrington Ward, who finished with a game-high 25 points to go along with his 13 rebounds and five blocked shots. “We just find a way.”
And did Moraine Valley (31-5) do the same thing during the season?
“It didn’t happen much, but when it did, we found a way,” said Ward, as the Cyclones have won 10 straight and 19 of its last 20 entering tonight’s championship game.
But, how can they explain doing it in back-to-back nights?
“We just had to keep fighting,” said freshman Jhonte Shannon, who hit a pair of 3-pointers to turn the 12-point deficit into a 58-52 game with 10 minutes, 35 seconds left. “The game doesn’t end until the clock runs out. Anything can happen before that.”
For Shannon, those two long-ranged shots were part of his 14-point performance that included four made 3-pointers. In his two previous games of the tournament, Shannon was 2-for-10 from the field and 1-of-7 behind the arc.
“I’ve been having a bad tournament,” he said. “I just had to keep my head up and stay strong.
“I’m a shooter and shooters go through slumps. I just had to keep taking my shots, I knew I had my teammates and my coaches behind me.”
In the final 10 minutes, the game had four ties and three lead changes with Moraine Valley finally taking the lead for good on a layup by Marquell Pierce with 2 minutes, 36 seconds left.
Brown Mackie, which falls to 28-6, made just 35 percent of their shots (12-of-34) in the second half, but it was the missed layups that cost the Lions the most as they missed six in the final eight minutes.
“In a game like this — where it is pressurized on both ends of the court — you have to finish goals at the rim,” said Brown Mackie coach Francis Flax, who has captured National Titles in 1999 and 2005 with the Lions. “It wasn’t that we didn’t have opportunities at the rim, because we got there, but we couldn’t finish in the last six or seven minutes.”
Three of those missed layups were blocks by the Cyclones with Ward getting two of his five rejections in the final five minutes.
Not bad for someone, who also made nine of his team’s final 12 points and he was 7-of-8 at the charity stripe in the final 2:15.
“What doesn’t he bring?” Moraine Valley coach Dedrick Shannon said. “He does everything.”
Dedrick Shannon admitted falling behind by 12 points was not by design.
“Brown Mackie is a powerhouse, and they have been a powerhouse for years,” he said. “I didn’t expect them to roll over for us, the little guys. They got after us, they punched us in our mouth and we did a good job of responding in the second half.”
With the victory, Moraine Valley will be playing Rend Lake for the National Championship. Neither the Cyclones nor the Warriors have won a NJCAA Division II title.
“They are fighters just like us,” Ward said of Rend Lake. “They might get down, but they find a way to fight back and get the win.
“This is our first time playing them.”
And what does it say that two Illinois teams will be playing for this title, giving the Land of Lincoln a guaranteed three championships in the past four years?
“It shows we’re representing the game well,” Ward said.
But, coach Shannon noted, Rend Lake had the larger contingent of fans during Friday’s semifinals.
“We are going to have to reload with the crowd, because Rend Lake had a heck of a crowd out there tonight,” he said.
Tonight’s championship game is scheduled to tip off at 7:30 p.m. The evening session will begin with Brown Mackie playing Owens Community College of Ohio in the third-place game at 5:30.