BY AARON PATTERSON
Before Friday’s NJCAA Division II National Tournament semifinal even began, the Rend Lake Warriors made clear they were on a mission. Distinct chants of “I Believe” could be heard echoing down the hall from their locker room as they prepared to make history.
Trailing by as many as nine in the game, the Warriors held true to the mantra and pulled out an 80-75 come-from-behind win over the Owens Community College Express to advance to the program’s first national championship.
“It feels great,” Rend Lake freshman guard Jeril Taylor said. “Making history as a freshman on a great team with great coaches and great players, it feels good. We’re one step away. We’ve just got to keep pushing.”
“We’ve got the talent,” he added. “I knew we had the talent to do it. The freshmen and sophomores have come together, and they’re stepping up, telling us what to do and what it takes to get there. It paid off.”
After coming back from a 23-point deficit in Wednesday’s quarterfinal win over South Suburban College, trailing by nine against the Express might have seemed like a small hurdle to overcome.
That was Owens CC’s largest lead of the game and came on a three-pointer by Andy Bachman with 13:10 to go in the first half. Rend Lake refused to let the Express ruin its title hopes, and slowly chipped away until finally taking a 60-58 lead with six minutes left. It was the Warriors’ final lead of the game. Prior to Taylor’s basket, Rend Lake had led for only 1:30 of the contest.
The Express played the final seven minutes without 6-8 forward James Kelly who leads the team in points (18.9) and rebounds (10.2).
“He wasn’t there all day, and then he gave me some bad body language, and I just don’t deal with that,” Owens CC coach Dave Clarke said. “He was going to sit down. There wasn’t going to be a situation where he wasn’t playing well and he wasn’t rebounding, so I wanted to get somebody in there that could do it.
“One thing I was very proud of our guys up until this game, our sophomores played extremely well, and today they didn’t step up and play like sophomores. We were led by freshmen, and you can’t win a national title being led by freshmen. It just doesn’t happen.”
Kelly, who has been recruiting by the likes of Michigan State, Kansas State, and Miami (Fla.), finished the game with 15 points and nine rebounds in limited action. Joe Retic led all scorers with 25 points, and Javon Rice scored 14 for the Express.
Taylor scored 13 of his team-high 19 points in the second half including a three that gave Rend Lake a 73-63 lead with 1:52 remaining.
Bronson Verhines finished with 17 for the Warriors (12 in the second half) and had nine rebounds and two blocks. Trice Whaley finished with 12 points for the Warriors, seven of which came at the free throw line. As a team, Rend Lake made 11 of 12 free throws in the final 3:26 of the contest.
“We stayed aggressive,” Rend Lake coach Randy House said. “We crashed the boards a little harder. We got a little better as the game went along. We just got a little better and a little better, and a little stronger and a little stronger. We just kept inflicting our will on those guys. They’re a great team, they are well-coached. They’ve had a great season also, but this is something the kids are starting to smell.”
Picking up the program’s first-ever win in the national tournament on Tuesday, the Warriors are now in position to complete their trip to Danville with, at minimum, a second-place finish. But at this point, they refuse to settle.
“I feel good about it,” Taylor said. “I know the team feels great. They’re back there yelling and everything. We’ve just got to stay calm and stay focused. It’s not over yet. We’ve got one more game to play.”
Tonight’s championship is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m.