For the second time in as many years the Southwestern Community College Spartans will be heading to the NJCAA Div. II National Tournament after winning the Region XI title on their home floor Saturday.
SWCC pulled away from Iowa Central late in the first half, establishing a 13-point halftime lead.
The Tritons cut the gap to eight early in the second half before the Spartans reeled off a 21-6 run to take a commanding 23-point lead and cut down the nets by a final of 97-79.
“Still a little surreal. It feels real good though,” said Khallid Edwards.
“This is the farthest I’ve been in any season in my life in basketball so this is what we played for. So it just feels great,” said Gatdoar Kueth.
For much of the year an argument could have been made that SWCC wasn’t a solid second half team as its opponents continued to wiggle their way back into contests, constantly making games interesting when the Spartans had been on the verge of putting them away.
But since a late regular season game against DMACC the Spartans and head coach Todd Lorensen feel like they’ve turned a corner and fittingly enough, feel like they’re playing their best basketball at the most important time of year.
“I thought we played at a high level and I think we continued to get better and better and that’s a great feeling as a coach,” said Lorensen.
The stats from the regional final back that up as the Spartans hit 18 of the 26 3-pointers they attempted for a 69 percent clip.
Terence Shelby Jr. hit five of those and scored 17 points along with pulling down eight rebounds.
“They told me don’t pass up any open ones tonight and that’s what I did,” said Shelby Jr.
A team that has battled fouling issues and turnover troubles at times this season went without either being a problem as the Spartans only put Iowa Central on the free throw line eight times and commited just six turnovers.
SWCC locked down on defense, holding the NJCAA Div. II leading scorer Tray Croft to just three points over the first ten minutes of the second half.
“He’s a tremendous player,” said Lorensen. “Probably the player of the year in our league and he’s the National Player of the Year, in my opinion. So we knew we were going to have our hands full with him.”
“Coach Lo put in a nice little gameplan for us and we just got many different people who can go there and guard him,” said Alijah Thomas. “He’s a good player, but one player can’t beat us.”
Croft finished with 28, Royshawn Webb scored 24 points, but nobody else for the Tritons was able to muster more than 11.
Gameplanning for Croft was the focus of SWCC and trying to get the ball out of the playmaker’s hands, forcing someone else to beat them or to get Croft working twice as hard to get the ball back.
The Spartans assisted on 18 of their 30 made baskets and leading the way in the assists column was redshirt sophomore guard Khallid Edwards who had six dishes along with 14 points.
Thomas is the perfect individual example of a team putting the pieces together at the right time as he scored a team-high 18 points, distributed five assists, secured seven rebounds and hustled his way to two steals, one of which gave the Spartans an 85-62 lead after he pickpocketed Croft.
Thomas battled an ankle injury in the latter half of the regular season and after having a string of games where he sat or didn’t contribute as much, the sophomore has played his best basketball as of late.
Saturday, Thomas was named co-MVP of the regional tournament alongside Croft.
“They’ve been winners at every level they’ve played,” said Lorensen of his sophomore guard duo, Edwards and Thomas, that have been playing together since third grade. “They’re just tough dudes. They’re competitive.”
Gatdoar Kueth and Ryan Warren continue to string together impressive games as they scored 17 and 12 points, respectively.
Chad Moran added 12 points for the Spartans as well and D’Marqueyon Whittington came off the bench to add seven more.
The Spartans who are defending national champs, had former players travel from all over the country to come back and catch the regional final.
Jamil Maddred drove from Monticell, Arkansas, a 10.5-hour one-way trip to see his former school compete and win another regional title.
The defending national champions will get their shot to win another at the NJCAA National Tournament in Danville, Illinois starting on March 20.
Spartan players are confident and have good reason to be about their chances in the national tournament.
“To win it all and that’s what’s going to happen,” said Kueth. “I feel it coming.”
“One goal, one team. That’s what we going to do,” said Whittington.
“You already know. I ain’t got nothing to say,” smirked Edwards.
For the head coach, the feelings were mutual.
“I think its pretty simple,” said Lorensen. “But like I told the guys before tonight’s game, to do that all we have to do is continue to play the simple basketball that we are.”
The tournament, which features 16 teams, will seed the top eight teams and is expected to be released sometime this week. There is a consolation bracket, but the best finish a team can get is eighth if they suffer a loss.
Running score by half
SWCC – 53 97
ICCC – 40 79
SWCC (FG FT PTS) – Totals – 30 19-23 97. Alijah Thomas 5 6-7 18, Terence Shelby Jr. 6 0-0 17, Gatdoar Kueth 5 5-5 17, Khallid Edwards 6 0-1 14, Chad Moran 2 6-6 12, Ryan Warren 4 1-2 12, D’Marqueyon Whittington 2 1-2 7. 3-point goals – 18 (Shelby Jr. 5, Warren 3, Thomas 2, Edwards 2, Moran 2, Kueth 2, Whittington 2). Rebounds – 30 (Shelby Jr. 8, Thomas 7, Moran 6, Edwards 4). Assists – 18 (Edwards 6, Thomas 5, Kueth 5, Moran 2). Blocks – 1. Team fouls – 14. Fouled out – None.
ICCC (FG FT PTS) – Totals – 31 6-8 79. Tray Croft 11 3-4 28, Royshawn Webb 11 0-1 24, Thomas Akamarmoi 3 2-2 11, Dallas Bailey 3 0-0 7, Collin Shannon 2 0-0 6, Kemryn Jenkins 1 1-1 3. 3-point goals – 11 (Akamarmoi 3, Croft 3, Webb 2, Shannon 2, Bailey 1). Team fouls – 19. Fouled out – None.