BY CHAD DARE
The Moraine Valley Cyclones have come into the NJCAA Division II National Tournament ready to do battle.
Moraine Valley, wearing camouflage jerseys, advanced into the quarterfinals with 75-70 victory over the Grand Rapids Community College Raiders at the Mary Miller Gymnasium on Wednesday morning.
“We wanted to go out and honor our troops this year,’’ Moraine Valley coach Dedrick Shannon said. “Also, this team had to take on a soldier’s mentality because we are small. We have to outwork everyone we play, and that’s a tribute to our troops, they fight our country — The Greatest Country in the world. And, we just wanted to honor them in that way.’’
Shannon said the camouflage jerseys were originally meant to be used an alternate uniform, but the players have convinced the coach to wear them a little more often.
“They want to wear them every day,’’ Shannon said. “This is my last year of coaching, and I’m going to fight them over it.’’
And not only does Moraine Valley try to take on a soldier’s attitude when it comes to playing, the Cyclones (29-5) believe in a defense-first mentality.
“Because we are undersized, it’s all about getting stops and getting the rebounds,’’ said Moraine Valley sophomore Karrington Ward, who had a team-high 17 points and a game-high five blocked shots. “Basically, once we get a stop on the defensive end, we have to get it and go because we’re small. We want to use our speed to our advantage.’’
In the first half, Moraine Valley used its speed to force Grand Rapids into 20 turnovers and the Raiders committed 29 in the contest, which led directly to 21 points for the Cyclones.
“Our goal is to force at least 25 turnovers per game,’’ Shannon said. “We were ahead of schedule, forcing 20 in the first half.’’
And even though Grand Rapids (21-9) committed those 20 first-half turnovers, the Raiders found themselves trailing by just one (31-30).
“We were really sloppy with the ball in the first half,’’ Grand Rapids coach T.J. Carnegie said. “I think it was a combination of a lot of things. One, the guys were excited, maybe even a little nervous. We haven’t played in almost two weeks, so we’re not used to the speed that we saw. And Moraine Valley does a great job of getting you play at their pace. I thought in the first half, we were going 100 mph when we should have been going about 85.’’
And it wasn’t the start of either half that was a problem for Grand Rapids, as the Raiders led 13-4 to start the game and they scored the first six points of the second half to take a 36-31 lead.
“When you play a team that as scrappy and plays as hard as Moraine Valley, and their guards are physical and aggressive, they force you to play at their tempo and we struggled with that,’’ Carnegie said. “The way that we started the second half, I thought this is the team that I’ve watched the last couple months. Then we had a couple of lapses, mentally, and they got back into it.’’
Moraine Valley overcame the 5-point deficit, taking the lead for good with a 6-0 run midway through the second half, and in spite of making just 9-of-16 free throws in the final minutes, the Cyclones were able to advance to today’s quarterfinal contest against Monroe Community College.
“It was big to get the win and to get the first-game jitters out of the way,’’ said Ward, who scored 28 points while leading the Lockport Porters past the Danville High Vikings in the 2010 Pontiac Holiday Tournament. “Now, it’s one game at a time and we have three left.
“Basically, you have to come with it. It’s win or go home.’’
Joining Ward in double figures for Moraine Valley was Marquell Pierce with 11, Gerald Dorsey had 11, Brett Kaiser scored 10 and Dave Williams contributed 10.
Kevin Badger was the leading scorer for Grand Rapids, who will play Howard Community College in a consolation bracket contest today, with a game-high 20 points even as he dealt with a cramping issue.
“Early in the game, he asked to come out, so I knew something weird was going on,’’ said Carnegie. “He probably spent six minutes in the second half with the trainer because of the cramping situation. He toughed it out and had a really nice game.’’
Deontae Hudson had 16 and Alex Musert chipped in with 15 for the Raiders.