HUTCHINSON, Kan. – The comment “let’s finish this” could be heard repeatedly from those sitting on the Vincennes University team bench during the closing minutes of the Trailblazers’ second-round game against Moberly Area in the NJCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship on Wednesday.
The third-seeded Trailblazers got the job done. Their solid finish produced an 81-74 victory over the No. 14 seed Moberly Area at the Hutchinson Sports Arena.
With the win, VU advances to the quarterfinal round on Thursday against the No. 6 seed Odessa (28-6). Tip-off is at 9 p.m. EDT. If the Trailblazers win, they’ll reach the Final Four for the second consecutive season.
To keep their chances alive, VU had to dig deep in the second half against Moberly Area.
“Once we got back in to our flow and started working as a team, we were able to pull this one out,” VU freshman Chuka Mekkam said.
The first half belonged to the Trailblazers, who now have a 31-2 overall record. They were not only ahead 41-29 at halftime, but they also held Division I’s leading scorer Alonzo Verge to just nine first-half points. The Arizona State-bound Verge entered the contest averaging nearly 31 points.
Verge and the Greyhounds started closing in on the Trailblazers as the second half progressed. Verge would finish with 34 points.
With 15 minutes remaining, VU sophomore George Dixon put the Blazers ahead 49-39 with a free throw. VU took a 55-45 lead when freshman Kevin Osawe tossed in a layup at the 12:17 mark.
The Greyhounds scored the next eight points to get within 55-53 of the Trailblazers.
“There are going to be runs and we allowed the run to go on too long in the second half,” VU Men’s Basketball Coach Todd Franklin said.
“The first 13 minutes of the second half, we let them try to win the game.”
Sophomore Kevin Kangu’s layup with 9:13 to go extended VU’s lead to 57-53.
Verge hit a jump shot and Markelo Sullivan knocked down a 3-pointer, and Moberly Area went ahead 58-57.
It was an exciting fight to the finish.
Moberly Area maintained a 68-67 edge with 4:10 remaining. Lony Francis Jr. tied it at 68-all with a free throw.
Verge made a layup that put Moberly Area in front 70-68 with 3:24 left.
Francis hit a layup and tied the score at 70-all at the 2:43 mark.
Then the Trailblazers took charge of the scoreboard. Osawe’s shot made it 72-70 with 2:26 on the clock.
Kangu buried a 3-pointer and VU was up 75-70 with 1 ½ minutes remaining.
Freshman Colton Sandage sank two free throws and VU led 77-70 with 34.5 seconds to go.
Osawe made back-to-back free throws for a 79-72 lead with 27.8 seconds.
In the final 11 seconds, Kangu converted two of four foul shots.
Franlin praised Kangu and Mekkam for their performances.
“Chuka (Mekkam) and (Kevin) Kangu were in the position that they had to step up, which was huge,” Franklin said. “Keith (Clemons) was struggling a little bit and struggling a little bit with Verge. Verge is hard to guard out there. Chuk came in there and stabilized that from a defensive standpoint.
“Then we weren’t being aggressive enough. We got tentative and Kangu made three or four strong takes to the basket. He made a big 3 late which was huge. He may have missed that and we still would have probably won. We wouldn’t have won had he not been aggressive earlier. He made those big takes to the basket that we had been needing someone to do. That was the big thing.
“We weren’t going to be in a good position to win if we didn’t find somebody to slow down and somebody to get more aggressive going to the basket once we broke that pressure. If Chuka and Kangu don’t step up, then we don’t win. We didn’t change anything we were trying to do defensively or offensively when those guys came in. We felt like we were trying to do the right thing. It was finding the guys who were going to do it. It wasn’t a lot of X’s and O’s. It was the right Jimmy or Joe, and in this case we found the right Kevin and Chuka.”
Five VU players finished in double figures. Osawe poured in 17 points. Francis contributed 17 points and 13 rebounds. Freshman Craig Porter scored 12 points. Sandage tallied 11 points and hit three 3-pointers. Kangu scored 10 points.
“We went to Kevin Osawe late and we stretched the floor to open it up,” Franklin said. “We went a little smaller.
“They were going small, stretching us and making it a tough on one end. We usually punish you on the other end inside, but we weren’t really doing that like we needed to. So their quicker, smaller guys were having an advantage over us. Finally, I decided we are going to match it and spread it. I thought that helped us down the stretch. We were able to open up the floor a little bit more with that lineup.”
The Trailblazers win over Moberly Area earned Franklin his 599th career win. His record over 22 years is 599-138.
Franklin will go for win No. 600 against Odessa. Odessa made it to the quarterfinals by beating No. 11 seed Pearl River.
It is going to take another team effort from VU to keep its national championship hopes alive.
“We are excited about advancing,” Kangu said. “We got a good team win.”
PHOTO CREDIT: The Hutchinson News
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