HOLLAND, Mich. — Augustana simply wore Wartburg down Friday, sending the Vikings into the Elite Eight of the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament for the third straight year.
Relentless defense and rebounding performances allowed Augustana to overcome a slow start and claim an 80-69 victory, moving the Vikings one step away from the program’s second Final Four berth in three seasons.
The Vikings will play Hanover, an 79-77 winner over Hope, in a 6 p.m. sectional final today at DeVos Fieldhouse for the right to take the floor next weekend in Salem, Virginia.
“To get to this Elite Eight three straight years, and essentially with an entirely new group this time, I couldn’t be happier,’’ Augustana coach Grey Giovanine said. “These guys just keep coming at you, giving it everything they have.’’
The Vikings earned their spot in the national quarterfinals by outscoring the Iowa Conference tourney champions 47-33 in the second half.
Holding the Knights 16 points below their season scoring average, Augustana limited Wartburg to 28.2-percent shooting in the second half and out-rebounded coach Dick Peth’s team 46-32, including a 24-13 edge on the glass over the final 20 minutes.
Freshmen Micah Martin and Donovan Ferguson combined for 16 rebounds for the Vikings, illustrative of the teamwork and depth which helped Augustana rally from a nine-point first-half deficit.
“Those two as freshmen to give us a contribution in a game like this, that’s what it takes this time of year and a lot of guys gave us that type of effort,’’ Giovanine said. “Brett Benning, Brandon Schattner off the bench, they stepped up when we needed them. Our depth made a big, big difference.’’
Wartburg trailed for the first time since 2-0 after Schattner drilled a three-point basket with 16 minutes, 1 second remaining to give the Vikings a 43-42 edge.
A lay-in by Benning and a Lucas Simon free throw pushed Augustana on top 46-42 before the Knights answered.
Nate Woeste tied the game at 49-49 on a free throw midway through the second half, but a jumper by Benning and lay-in by Martin in the next 37 seconds moved Augustana ahead to stay.
Three-point baskets by Chrishawn Orange and Nolan Ebel extended the Vikings’ advantage to 67-57 with 3:55 remaining and when Orange banked in two of his 15 points with 2:46 to go, Augustana had opened a 73-59 lead.
Augustana’s strength proved to be in its balance.
Ebel led five players in double figures with a 16-point performance, an effort complemented by Orange, a 14-point game from Benning and 11 points apiece from Dylan Sortillo and Martin.
A cold start from the field against a challenging defense left Augustana (22-8) in an early hole.
The Vikings hit just seven of their first 26 shots, but responded by hitting 20 of their last 34, including six of their final 10 attempts in the opening half to pull within 36-33 at the break.
“They do some unique things defensively and having a week to prepare helped,’’ Giovanine said. “What they run isn’t really a man or a zone. You have to put guys in the right spots to be successful against that. It took us some time, but we settled in.’’
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Ebel cut into a 33-24 lead Wartburg (21-10) had opened on a basket by Cam Kickbush with 2:37 remaining in the half. Kickbush answered Ebel’s 3s with one of his own, extending the Knights’ lead to 36-30 with :41 remaining in the half.
Orange, whose buzzer-beating baskets decided wins for Augustana in the tournament’s first two rounds, drilled a 3-pointer as time expired to pull the Vikings within three points at halftime.
“Down nine against those guys is tough, but to get within three by halftime after a half where we didn’t really play well, it set a tone,’’ Giovanine said. “Once that happened, we never let up.’’