HOLLAND, Mich. — Riding a wave of postseason momentum, this one wasn’t getting away from the Augustana men’s basketball team.
The Vikings earned their second berth in the NCAA Division III Final Four in three years on Saturday, taking a lead less than two minutes into a game against 12th-rated Hanover and never letting go in a 77-64 sectional championship victory at DeVos Fieldhouse.
The College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin regular-season co-champions will face Williams, a team which matches Augustana’s 23-8 record and advanced with a 79-74 win over Middlebury, in a national semifinal match-up on Friday in Salem, Virginia.
Senior Jacob Johnston erased the Panthers’ only lead of the game, scoring the Vikings’ first four points to wipe away a 2-0 deficit and move Augustana ahead to stay at 4-2 when he hit his second jumper 73 seconds after the game started.
“You get a couple of shots to fall, it’s always good for the confidence,’’ Johnston said. “As a team, we’re playing with a lot of confidence. Everybody is playing well and that helps take the pressure off of all of us.’’
Johnston’s effort led the Vikings to an 18-of-34 start from the field, a 52.9-percent touch in the first half which allowed Augustana to play with a lead against an opponent which entered the game on a 12-game winning streak.
“We came out ready,’’ Johnston said. “We were so excited to be there and be playing a team on a neutral court. We knew it would be about energy and we were ready to bring it.’’
Coach Grey Giovanine said Johnston, who led three Vikings in double figures with 19 points, gave Augustana exactly the launch it needed.
“You need seniors to step up when you step on the biggest stage and he certainly did that. I couldn’t be happier for him,’’ Giovanine said. “He hit some big shots for us and was guarding the player of the year in their conference (Wes McKinney) so he got it done on both ends of the floor.’’
Hanover (26-4) reached Saturday’s sectional final by overcoming a double-digit deficit in the final minutes to beat host Hope 79-77 in the semifinal on Friday and the Panthers did not go away quietly against the Vikings.
Augustana maintained a seven-to-nine point lead throughout much of the first half, creating separation with a string of consecutive baskets by Lucas Simon, Chrishawn Orange and Dylan Sortillo which grew a 26-23 lead to a 32-23 advantage with 6 minutes, 23 seconds remaining in the first half.
A pair of baskets by Johnston, who scored nine of his points in the opening half, followed and helped the Vikings maintain a 40-33 advantage at halftime.
Hanover pulled within one point on two occasions during the opening minutes of the second half, the last time at 48-47 on a basket by McKinney with 14:10 remaining in the game.
“We knew at some point they would make a run, but we took their best shot because guys stuck together and played good team basketball,’’ Giovanine said. “That’s been a big part of what we’ve done lately.’’
Micah Martin followed McKinney’s basket with a lay-up on the ensuing possession before Johnston strung together another run of eight straight points.
He followed his second three-point basket of the game with a three-point play and then answered another basket by McKinney with two free throws which left Augustana in front 58-51 midway through the second half.
“Guys stepped up, made stops, grabbed rebounds, made plays,’’ Johnston said. “It’s a collective thing. We’re all doing our jobs.’’
The efforts included Nolan Ebel working his way to the line, where he scored nine of his 17 points and the baskets Brett Benning and Martin that allowed the Vikings to regain a 62-52 edge which grew to 14 points before one final late surge by the Panthers.
Martin finished with 12 points and his seven rebounds matched the team-leading totals of Donovan Ferguson and Sortillo.
Hanover pulled within 66-60 on a three-point basket by Cam Fails with 3:40 to go but baskets by two freshmen, Ferguson and Simon, allowed Augustana to regain a double-digit lead with 2:24 remaining which went unchallenged.
The Vikings limited the Panthers to 38.6 percent shooting despite a 10-of-14 effort and 22-point game down low from Corey Muchmore to go with a 20-point game from McKinney.