SALEM, Va. — Start fast. Weather the storm. Finish strong.
A familiar formula that has worked all season for the Augustana men’s basketball team worked again Friday, leading the Vikings to a spot in the NCAA Division III national championship game for the second time in three seasons.
“That’s our game,’’ said Chrishawn Orange, who finished with 21 points to lead five Augustana players in double figures in a 90-79 win over Williams in a Final Four match-up the Salem Civic Center.
The victory moves Augustana into today’s 5 p.m. title game against Babson, a 91-85 winner over previously unbeaten and top-ranked Whitman.
“This team has earned that opportunity with the way they’ve played the last five games,’’ Vikings coach Grey Giovanine said. “They’ve proven that they belong and they proved that again against a very talented opponent in this game.’’
Augustana blistered the nets at a 62-percent clip for the game, including a 16-of-24 start from the field which led the Vikings to a 42-34 lead at halftime.
Orange and Dylan Sortillo buried the first two of Augustana’s nine three-point baskets during the first 80 seconds of action, fueling a game-opening 11-0 run by the Vikings.
Williams found itself in a 17-2 hole after Sortillo knocked down the Vikings’ fifth three-point basket with 14 minutes, 41 seconds remaining in the opening half.
“They came out ready,’’ Ephs coach Kevin App said. “They were on from the start and it seemed like they never cooled off.’’
It was the fast start Augustana was looking for against an opponent which blended size with its own three-point touch.
“Everybody was hitting early and that’s just a shot of confidence,’’ said Sortillo, who finished with 15 points and led the Vikings to a 36-24 edge on the glass with nine rebounds. “It was how we wanted to open the game. We came out focused and ready.’’
That extended to the bench, where Brett Benning knocked down 7-of-8 shots to finish with a 17-point effort which was matched by Nolan Ebel.
“You knock down that first one, you start to feel it,’’ Benning said. “Things felt good tonight. It seemed like everybody had it going.’’
Williams (23-9) eventually answered.
By the time Daniel Aronowitz banked home a 3-point shot from just beyond the midcourt stripe to beat the buzzer at halftime, the Ephs had trimmed the Vikings’ lead to 42-34 and Aronowitz was on his way to a 29-point game.
A run of 13 unanswered points by Williams continued into the second half, leading Williams to a 44-42 lead when Cole Teal hit two free throws with 16:46 remaining.
“We knew they’d make a run at us at some point. We just had to be strong enough to withstand it and then keep working,’’ Orange said.
Orange knocked two straight baskets and the Vikings regained the lead, trading baskets with the Eps until Ebel broke a 56-56 deadlock with a 3-pointer with 9:59 left that moved Augustana ahead to stay.
“We kept our composure, stuck with the system and what we do and ultimately, we were able to work our back into the lead,’’ Giovanine said. “That’s something this group has really done a good job with. It’s a big reason why we are still playing on the last day of the season.’’
Depth also made a difference for Augustana (24-8).
In addition to Benning’s offense, Donovan Ferguson came in to complement Micah Martin’s work and the pair combined for five of the Vikings’ seven blocks.
“Those two guys alone probably altered seven more shorts. It’s a mindset,’’ Giovanine said.
When fouls became an issue inside, Michael Hoekstra provided six minutes of defensive relief.
“Those types of things in these games are huge,’’ Sortillo said. “Benning, Hoekstra, Lucas Simon coming in and chasing their point guard all over the place, those are the kinds of things that you need. Those guys are why we’re still playing.’’