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IU East, Indiana Wesleyan to collide at Division II national tournament

Contributed

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The top-ranked Indiana University East men’s basketball team moved back into the Fab Four at the NAIA Division II Men’s Basketball National Championship following a 76-68 quarterfinal win against Briar Cliff University on Saturday at the Sanford Pentagon.

Joining them in Monday night’s national semifinal was Indiana Wesleyan, who led wire-to-wire in its quarterfinal game, defeating Morningside (Iowa) 86-68.

NAIA Division II No. 1 IU East (34-2) won its 28th consecutive game to reach the national semifinals for the second time in three years. The Red Wolves were champions of the Naismith bracket, while IWU earned the title from the Cramer Bracket.

In IU East’s victory, the Wolves struggled to contain Briar Cliff’s high-octane offense in the early stages, falling behind 24-15. IU East then ran off 13 straight points to go ahead for the first time at 28-24. Nate Niehoff was dominant inside with seven points during the spurt.

Briar Cliff missed its last 12 3-pointers, including six misses in the last minute. The Chargers had not been held below 70 points all year.

“It was like a home game for Briar Cliff (just 80 miles from Sioux Falls),” IU East sophomore Jaylen McKay said. “Their fans did a great job, and it was very loud, but we have a great way of turning the other team’s energy into our energy. We are the type of team where if they get going, we’re going to get going, so it was more fun than anything.”

Both of IU East’s Round of 8 wins at the national tournament have come against Briar Cliff. The Red Wolves also eliminated the Chargers in the quarterfinals at the 2016 national tournament.

McKay led IU East with 19 points, followed by Bishop Smith with 18 and Nate Niehoff, who registered a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds. Former Connersville Spartan Charles Peterson played 17 minutes and finished with four rebounds and a pair of assists. Peterson is ranked 41st in the nation with a .437 3-point field goal percentage.

Smith scored 12 of his 18 points in the final 14 minutes of the game to help keep the Chargers at arm’s length down the stretch. McKay scored eight of his points in the final 10 minutes of play.

The Red Wolves held the Chargers (26-8) to season-lows in 3-point field goals made (four) and 3-point field goal percentage (.138). Briar Cliff entered the game ranked third in the nation in 3-pointers per game.

IU East  finished with a 10-point advantage in points in the paint (42-32), a 12-point margin in points off of turnovers (25-13) and a 38-7 advantage in bench scoring.

Indiana Wesleyan earned a berth in the national semifinal for a third straight year, and will make its fourth Final Four appearance in the last five years.

The Wildcats played a stellar first half to take a 43-26 lead into halftime. IWU bookended the opening half with two key runs. Indiana Wesleyan scored the game’s first eight points and then ended the half with a 23-8 run.

“We came out with a punch and fire,” IWU coach Greg Tonagel said. “The guys were together and looked like they were having so much fun.” 

Indiana Wesleyan (29-7) continued to build the lead early in the second half. Jacob Johnson grabbed an offensive board and put it back in for a 57-32 bulge. The 25-point advantage was the largest of the night.

But Morningside (28-7) would make one final push.

The Mustangs scored 25 of the next 35 points to close the deficit to 67-57.

Following that run, after trading buckets, Indiana Wesleyan produced the key sequence late with a Canaan Coffey 3-pointer followed by a Johnson dunk to extend the lead to 74-59 with four minutes left to play.

The Wildcats dominated down low as they outscored the Mustangs 46-18 in the paint. IWU also won the rebound battle 48-26.

Morningside’s 68 points is its second lowest output of the season. The IWU defense also held an opponent to a season-low 20 field goals made.

“I thought Morningside was the best offensive team in the tournament but I knew they had some defensive weaknesses,” Tonagel said. “Our guys went at those today and we were successful because of it.”

Evan Maxwell led the way for Wesleyan, pouring in 22 points. The Kansas transfer was followed by Kyle Mangas (19), Johnson (13) and Coffee (12). Former Connersville Spartan Grant Smith chipped in eight points and dished out five assists.  

Wesleyan lost the regular-season match-up at IU East on Nov. 14 by an 80-79 score. Tonagel knew that Monday night’s national semifinal would be just as thrilling.

“We are so different now and so are they,” Tonagel said. “They are No. 1 team in the country and haven’t lost since November. They are really quick and they have great guard play.

“It will be a great battle.”