ROCK ISLAND — Playing its final regular-season home game with a chance to share the CCIW title and host this weekend's CCIW Tournament, the Augustana men's basketball team was all but out of Tuesday's game against Elmhurst right from the start.
But against huge odds, the Vikings kept chipping away and worked back from a double-digit second-half deficit to pull out a thrilling 79-77 victory.
With Illinois Wesleyan getting knocked off at home 83-74 by North Central, the Vikings (20-5, 12-4) claimed a share of the crown with the Titans — their fourth straight CCIW title. It's the fourth time in CCIW history that a team has won four straight titles and the second time Augustana has done it.
“We just kept battling and had different guys make big plays at different times,” said Augie coach Grey Giovanine of his nationally ninth-ranked club. “I couldn't be prouder of our team to be conference champions under the circumstances with us being so short-handed.”
Augie trailed by as many as 15 points in both halves and was down 66-54 with 8:07 left in regulation before closing on a 25-11 run.
While Brett Benning (24 points) and Chrishawn Orange (18 points before fouling out) did a lot of the heavy lifting against the Bluejays' aggressive and physical defense, the final touches on the comeback were applied by two other juniors.
After losing a 76-71 lead and trailing 77-76 with 41.6 seconds left, the Vikings had the ball with the clock running. Point guard Nolan Ebel (six points, four assists) drove the lane and dished to Joe Kellen in the left corner. He took the ball down the baseline, made the shot and was fouled. He finished the three-point play with :34.0 left for the 79-77 lead.
“Nolan Ebel Drove the lane and made people scramble,” said Kellen, who finished with six points in 19 minutes as he stepped in with Vikings in foul trouble. “Nolan really made the play. It was simple for me, take a dribble, drive the baseline and finish.”
After Elmhurst took a timeout, the Vikings forced all-conference candidate Jeremy Ireland to force a 3 from the left corner that was all air and resulted in a shot-clock violation.
After an Augie timeout, Kellen inbounded to Dylan Sortillo who dribbled out the last three seconds to cap the comeback.
“They really came out and punched us in the mouth and we weren't ready at the start,” said senior Dylan Sortillo, who finished with 17 points. “That's what we do. We just keep playing and keep coming. That's been the summary of the season how this game went tonight. There have been a lot of ups and downs and a lot of adversity, but we were able to come out and finish at the end with some big-time plays and give ourselves a chance.”
That now gives the Vikings the opportunity to host this weekend's CCIW Tournament. Action opens with Friday's semifinals — Illinois Wesleyan in a quick turnaround to face North Central and Augie hosting Wheaton.