ROCK ISLAND — The Augustana men's basketball team made a huge statement in their CCIW-opening victory Wednesday night.
With tremendous offensive balance against a tough North Central defense and a gritty effort on both ends, the Vikings did the little things that championship teams do in a 79-72 victory over the Cardinals.
It also was a nice win mentally for the Vikings, who lost junior Pierson Wofford to a season-ending knee injury two-plus games ago. With Augustana trying to bounce back also from a tough double-overtime nonconference road loss at now No. 8 UW-Oshkosh on Saturday, facing another of the league favorites was not really what the Vikings needed to open CCIW play.
“I couldn't be prouder of this team on Dec. 6,” Augie coach Grey Giovanine said after the Vikings moved to 5-1 and dropped the 3-3 Cardinals to 1-1 in the league. “To have to turn around after losing Pierson and losing a tough game, the guys responded just great.”
And it was all the guys who responded in a physical game in which 47 fouls were called and 46 free throws attempted.
Augie had four players finish in double-digit scoring — starters Nolan Ebel with 18, Chrishawn Orange with 16 and Brett Benning with 15 as well as reserve A.J. Dollmeyer providing a huge boost scoring 10 points and grabbing two key rebounds.
“That's a huge win for us for morale and everything,” said Dollmeyer. “Psychologically, coming off a very disappointing double-overtime loss, to bounce back against a team that's favored to win our conference is huge for us.”
It was a tough game for either team to get much of an advantage. Both obviously had solid scouting reports and game plans, making it difficult for the other to get a rhythm.
“It was just a grind-it-out game,” said Orange, whose seven rebounds led the Vikings as both teams grabbed 27 caroms. “We know all conference games are going to be like that. … Everyone you play is going to know your tendencies and know what you want to do. Everybody does a great job scouting, but we do the same things as well.”
That meant it was going to come down to the little things and that happened in one key stretch. Nursing a 62-58 lead with 8:50 left, the Vikings got key plays on consecutive possessions. First, guard Lucas Simon grabbed an offensive rebound to keep alive a possession that ended in Benning's shot-clock-beating bucket. On the other end, nice help defense led to Dylan Sortillo's steal that resulted in Dollmeyer's three-point play as the Vikings opened a 67-58 lead with 5:37 left.
Two Benning free throws with 1:18 left gave the hosts a 75-64, lead and the Vikings hit six of eight free throws from there to seal the deal.
“It was a good statement made toward the CCIW,” said Orange, who scored a rare four-point play that spurred a key 20-5 first-half run that gave the Vikings the lead they never lost after trailing 16-11. “North Central was up there in the rankings, so it was good to get a win.”
All nine Vikings in the game played at least 11 minutes and contributed something in one way or another. A lot of those contributions came on defense, where the Vikings got preseason All-American Alex Sorenson (six points, seven rebounds) in foul trouble. He fouled out, playing only 17 minutes.
“That's who we're going to be,” said Giovanine. “We don't have a dominant player anymore, so we better have good balance.”
On Wednesday, the Vikings did, and it led to a key home conference victory.