In keeping with the script they have penned all season, the Augustana men's basketball team added to the suspense and intrigue with another incredible chapter on Friday.
Watching a 14-point lead over Wheaton with 9:55 left in the CCIW Men's Basketball Tournament semifinal disappear, the Vikings closed out the contest on a 10-2 run to advance to tonight's championship game with a 72-64 victory.
There, the nationally ninth-ranked Vikings (21-5) will take on third-seeded North Central (19-7) at Carver Center at 7 p.m. The Cardinals upset cold-shooting second-seeded Illinois Wesleyan 70-64 in Friday's first semi.
“This team has been as good at finishing, probably better than any team I remember,” said Augie coach Grey Giovanine. “In the stretch, they're going to guard you, they are going to execute and they are going to get to the free-throw line. This group really finishes games.”
They did just that to put themselves in position tonight to win their sixth league tourney title in the 13 years of the event.
With the game knotted at 62 after the Thunder (17-9) rallied from a 58-44 deficit, the Vikings ratcheted-up the defense — led by junior Joe Kellen. The Thunder could only muster a Kobe Eichelberger bucket in the final 2:54.
As the defense shined, the Vikings found enough offense in the stretch to close the deal. Brett Benning (20 points, 12 rebounds) hit three-of-four free throws to start the hot finish. Nolan Ebel (10 points, four assists) booked a three-point play with a circus bucket, and Dylan Sortillo (eight points) and Benning each hit two more free throws in the final 20 seconds to cap the thrilling finish.
While that was happening on the offensive end, the Vikings were making sure to keep the clamps on Aston Francis. The CCIW's Most Outstanding Player finished with a game-high 24 points, but that came on 8-of-24 shooting, including 4-of-13 from the 3-point line. The junior sniper had torched the Vikings for 77 points in their first two meetings, including 40 in Carver Center.
Much of the defensive work on Francis fell on Chrishawn Orange (12 points) and Joe Kellen, who forced Francis into a 28-foot miss with the game still in the balance in the final minute.
“He has played really well the last month,” said Giovanine of Kellen, a junior. “He is one of our better perimeter athletes and one of our better perimeter defenders. He was a huge key in this game. Offensively, he gives us nine points that we're not looking for. He was dynamite.”
Kellen, who converted a game-winning three-point play in Tuesday's regular-season finale against Elmhurst, has been huge this week.
“You want the challenge; you love playing guys who are great scorers,” said Kellen. “You want somebody who's going to make you work hard to keep them from scoring.”
And that spark that Kellen provided with his defense rubbed off on his teammates, who battled foul trouble but still managed to compete and shoot 50-percent from the field (25 of 50).
“It was incredible to watch his energy,” said Benning of Kellen. “We needed it because (Francis) is an incredible player, and we needed that kind of effort to win this game.”