“Everything is reachable.”
And by everything, Southwestern forward James Kelley means the national tournament in Danville, Illinois. The Spartans haven’t been back since a repeat trip in 2018 after winning the 2017 national championship under coach Todd Lorensen.
Now, led by second-year coach and former Spartan player Devin Kastrup, this year’s edition of the Spartan men’s basketball team is on the doorstep again.
Kelley, a 6-5 sophomore from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, led the Spartans with 26 points in Thursday’s 91-67 regional semifinal victory over eighth-seeded Ellsworth (2-21), which had upset regular season champion Des Moines Area Community College on Tuesday.
Southwestern (13-11) came into the tournament seeded fifth and knocked off fourth seed Iowa Western in Tuesday’s quarterfinals, 81-76. The Spartans travel to Estherville Saturday for a 3 p.m. regional championship matchup with No. 2 seeded Iowa Lakes, which defeated third seed Kirkwood Thursday, 79-56.
The winner advances to the NJCAA Division II tournament April 20-24 in Danville. DMACC, as the regular season champion, has already qualified as one of two teams advancing from Region XI this year. Saturday’s winner will be the region’s other qualifier.
Both Southwestern basketball teams are in regional championship games Saturday, as the women play at second-ranked Kirkwood at 1 p.m. for a national tourney berth.
This Southwestern team has shown glimpses of greatness throughout a season of ups and downs, unable to achieve national ranking status in hovering around the .500 mark in finishing fifth in the conference. Yet, coach Kastrup, a Colorado native and former Spartan player under coach Mike Holmes, saw the potential for this tournament run.
“Our group has had the potential to be there from the beginning,” Kastrup said. “I know our record doesn’t show that and we had some ups and downs. We have five top 20 wins on the year, including a win over No. 4 Indian Hills. But, we also succumbed to some lesser teams. We lost to this (Ellsworth) team once.”
Kelley scored 26 points Thursday, including a 19-point second half that included a thundering two-handed dunk on an authoritative drive to the basket that ignited a limited, but boisterous home crowd. Many of them were student athletes who weren’t in competition Thursday and able to attend. Kelley said the players noticed their support.
“At the start of the year we didn’t have any fans, but then about Valentine’s Day they started letting us have some (limited number) and it was really good tonight,” Kelley said. “This feels good. We all trusted each other and coach Dev. Everything is reachable.”
Ellsworth seemed to carry the momentum from Tuesday’s upset win at DMACC with a hot shooting first half that included seven 3-pointers in trailing the Spartans 36-27. Ellsworth led 6-2 early and was still within three at 30-27 late in the half.
Ellsworth’s top player, guard Adam Jackson of Des Moines, scored 23 of his 31 points in the second half, but much of the rest of the lineup was slowed after intermission and the Panthers made only three more 3-pointers.
“In the first half 21 of their 27 points were threes and they shot 43 percent on threes,” Kastrup said. “We knew Jackson would get his points, but some of their role players were really hot and we didn’t feel that would continue in the second half. They shot 26 percent on threes in the second half. Adam got 31, but he did it on 31 shots so he was going into our help and we were making it tough for him. We weren’t great on the boards tonight, though. It says they had eight offensive rebounds but it seemed more like 15.”
Ellsworth had three technical fouls in the game — two on players and one on head coach Troy Mullenberg — but the Spartans made only 3 of 6 free throws from those opportunities and turned it over twice on the following possessions leading to Ellsworth layups. Finally, the Spartans began to take control for good in stretching a 46-40 lead to a double-digit margin for good by the 13:00 mark.
Five Spartans scored in double figures. After Kelley’s 26 were Justin Graham with 17, Joe Kearney with 14, Nate Duckworth with 13 and Qushawn Wells with 10.
“What has made us pretty good this year is that we have to be an ultimate team on offense,” Kastrup said. “Teams can’t pack it in and stop James when we have guys who can shoot it. Nate (Duckworth) runs the offense like a coach out on the floor, always in control.”
Southwestern and Iowa Lakes have split two previous matchups this season.
“We beat them by four at their place and lost by three here,” Kastrup said, “so they were two very close games The door is open. The biggest key for us Saturday will be rebounding. I think we’re good enough offensively and we can take them out of their actions on the defensive end. We’ll have to rebound the ball.”
SWCC 91, Ellsworth 67
SOUTHWESTERN (FG FT PTS) — Totals — 32 18-23 91. James Kelley 10 6-7 26, Justin Graham 6 4-6 17, Joe Kearney 5 0-0 14, Nate Duckworth 4 5-6 13, Oushawn Wells 3 1-2 10, Demarious Carey 2 2-2 6, Donzell Johnson 2 0-0 5. FG shooting — 32-52 (61.5 percent). 3-point goals — 9-20 (Kearney 4, Wells 3, Graham 1, Johnson 1). Rebounds — 27 (Kelley 7, Graham 5, Carey 4, Kearney 4, Duckworth 3, Wells 3). Assists — 14 (Duckworth 4, Kearney 4, Kelley 3, Wells 2). Steals — 6 (Johnson 2, Kelley 2). Blocked shots — 1 (Kearney 1). Turnovers — 14. Team fouls — 14. Fouled out — None.
ELLSWORTH (FG FT PTS) — Totals —26 5-9 67. Adam Jackson 12 2-2 31, Rich Ashu 6 1-4 13, Josh Kamara 4 2-2 12, Chase Smith 2 0-0 6, Chay Guen 1 0-0 3, Srdjan Kopunovic 1 0-0 2. FG shooting — 26-65 (40 percent). 3-point goals — 10-29 (Jackson 5, Kamara 2, Smith 2, Guen 1). Rebounds — 24 (Ashu 7). Assists — 9 (Jackson 3). Steals — 9 (Jackson 3). Blocked shots — 1 (Ashu 1). Turnovers — 14. Team fouls — 14. Fouled out — None. Technical fouls — Bench 1, Jackson 1, Ashu 1).