BY CHAD DARE
More times than not, great effort is rewarded in athletics.
That was the case on Saturday afternoon in the NJCAA Division II Region 24 Tournament at the Student Activity Center on the campus of John Wood Community College.
The third-seeded and host Trail Blazers seemingly beat the Danville Area Community College Jaguars to every loose ball and their effort was rewarded with a 66-58 semifinal victory and a spot in today’s Region 24 championship game against the Rend Lake Warriors.
“As long as we showed up, we would have been alright, but we just didn’t show up,” said Danville Area Community College center Ronnie White, who played just 18 minutes because of foul troubles. “There wasn’t one person that could have changed anything – it needed to be the whole team.
“Give them credit, they showed up. We can say we wanted to win, but they showed they wanted to win. We showed that we were just playing game, but they were playing to win.”
Chris Whitehead, the Region 24 Player of the Year for DACC, nearly recorded a triple-double on Saturday as he had 10 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, quickly pointed out that the Jaguars, who had their 17-game win streak snapped on Saturday, got the outcome they deserved.
“We came out like the game was going to be given to us,” he said. “We came out flat, thinking that we were going to win the game like we’ve done all season.
“That’s what we get for playing like that. This is the worst feeling in the world.”
And Whitehead was just as critical of his own game as the Jaguars, who trailed for the final 26 minutes of the semifinal contest, closed within 58-56 on a three-point play by Derek Shouse, who had a game-high 18 points for DACC (28-4).
On the ensuing possession, Whitehead got fouled and went to the free-throw line with an opportunity to tie the game at 58-all but the sophomore guard from New Albany, Ind., missed both shots and John Wood (22-9) scored eight of the final 10 points to secure its first berth in a Region championship game since 1996.
“The backbreaker was me – I missed those two free throws that could have tied the game up. It was all, my fault,” he said. “We had big expectations to make Nationals. So, it’s hurts that we didn’t accomplish our goal. No one saw this coming. If we had seen this coming, we would have made some changes.”
And it wasn’t any type of change in offense or defense for the Trail Blazers.
John Wood won Saturday’s game by making more big plays, including outrebounding DACC 45-31, enjoying a 14-7 advantage in second-chance points and the Trail Blazers were 21-of-26 at the free-throw line compared to the Jaguars making just 8-of-13.
“They were aggressive all night. They had a good game plan and they were aggressive on offense,” DACC coach Mike Carpenter said. “We had trouble guarding them and they capitalized on their free throws. Give them credit, they outworked us and they outfought us. We couldn’t keep them off the glass in the first half. When it comes down to a lack of effort or a team having more effort – that’s disheartening as a coach, because we pride ourselves on playing hard.
“John Wood simply played harder than us, especially in the first half. We got down, got into a hole. They outplayed us in about every aspect except for about a five-minute stretch in the second half when we made a little run.”
And according to John Wood first-year coach Brad Hoyt, that’s what the Trail Blazers had to do.
“We have to when we play a team like Danville – that is more talented than us – our effort has to be really good,” he said. “That effort turns into aggressiveness for us.
“Our offensive rebounding has kept us in games this year and it led us tonight.”
And the Jaguars run came after they fell behind by 17 points (39-22) early in the second half as the Trail Blazers scored 12 straight points.
John Wood’s run started with the final shot of the first half when Jon White banked in a half-court 3-pointer giving his team a 30-22 halftime lead.
“That gave them a lot of momentum,” Whitehead admitted. “I don’t think it crushed us, but it gave them an extra boost.”
Hoyt joked that it was a perfectly executed play by White and the Trail Blazers started the second-half with a 9-0 run capped by a 3-pointer by Brad Hamilton, who finished with 12 points.
“We were playing from behind all night and we didn’t do that all season,” Carpenter said. “But, when we don’t shoot the ball well, we struggle a little bit.
“I told the guys this morning that watching John Wood (on Friday) that they really guarded and made Parkland make tough shots.”
Unfortunately for Carpenter, his Jaguars were never able to find an offensive rhythm. DACC shot just 39 percent (22-of-56) from the field, including making just 6-of-24 behind the 3-point arc. And those offensive struggles were compounded by the fact that White, who averages 3.8 blocks per game and 8.8 rebounds spent most of the game on the bench in foul trouble.
“That was huge, because Ronnie is our basket protector,” Carpenter said. “He had a couple of calls not go his way and we were severely outmatched inside when he was out of the game.
“He is the guy that allows us to play harder on the wings and do more things on defense because he protects the rim. When he is not out there, we have to adjust out there.”
White took all of the blame for his foul troubles.
“We are a team. I got into foul trouble early, and I can’t blame it on anyone but myself,” he said. “The coaches have told me all year just to keep my hands up on certain plays and situations.
“We just needed to play our game and we would have been fine.”
With the loss, the Jaguars conclude the best season in school history as far as overall wins (28), consecutive victories (17) and they were the first team in Mid-West Athletic Conference history to finish with an undefeated record.
“These kids should keep their heads up high and be very proud of what they accomplished,” Carpenter said.
John Wood will play top-seeded Rend Lake for the Region 24 championship at 2 p.m. today. The winner advances to the NJCAA Division II National Tournament to be held on March 19-23 at the Mary Miller Gymnasium in Danville.
Rend Lake advanced to the title game with a 76-65 win over Lincoln College on Saturday. The Warriors had four players in double figures with Corey Ayala, Noel Allen and Corez Macklin sharing team-high honors with 13 each.