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Augie wins CCIW

Augustana's Chrishawn Orange (20) drives to the basket against North Central's Mike Pollack (22) during the CCIW Tournament championship Saturday at the Carver Center in Rock Island. The NCAA tourney-bound Vikings have had 12 of their last 14 games decided by 10 points or less.

After a recent harrowing Augustana men's basketball victory, senior Dylan Sortillo joked that the team is enjoying exciting finishes.

'We like to make things interesting,” he said with a smile.

More like hair-raising and breathtaking.

Unlike some of Augie's previous championship teams that flexed their collective muscles and made quick work of teams by halftime, this season's 22-5 Viking bunch always seems to have games come down to the wire, having 12 of its last 14 games decided by 10 or fewer points — four by three or fewer. This week was the perfect example of that.

The Vikings won three games to secure the CCIW regular-season and tournament championships by a total of 13 points, including Saturday's 77-74 championship game victory over North Central.

“We know it's going to be a dogfight,” said Augie coach Grey Giovanine, adding his team doesn't have the ability to “overpower” teams. “It just doesn't come easy. We're not a prolific team. We just have to grind away.”

But that ability has the Vikings headed into the field of 64 and the NCAA Division III Championships for the fifth straight time, 17th overall and riding a six-game win streak. And surviving this week is more than many teams did.

Upsets befell at least 10 top 25 teams — including four of the top five: previously undefeated No. 1 Whitman, No. 2 Washington University, No. 3 St. John's and No. 5 UW-Platteville.

Augie will find out during this morning's pairings show what its tourney fate will be, but all signs point to at least hosting a pod this coming weekend. There are 43 conference champions headed to the tourney field along with 21 teams receiving Pool C at-large bids.

In winning the CCIW tourney title for the third time in the last four years and avenging last year's loss to North Central, the Vikings watched a 75-66 lead with 2:26 left in regulation dwindle as the Cardinals outscored the Vikings 8-2 in the final 2:16. The guests had the ball at the horn with a chance to tie.

In Friday's 72-64 semifinal victory over Wheaton, the game was tied with 2:53 left before Augie closed on a 10-2 run.

In a must-win situation last Tuesday in the regular-season finale, the Vikings trailed Elmhurst much of the game and were still down with :41 left when junior Joe Kellen scored on a strong baseline drive that resulted in a three-point play and was the difference in a 79-77 victory. That win, along with Illinois Wesleyan's home loss that night, gave the Vikings a historical share of their fourth straight league title and hosting duties for the CCIW Tournament.

It has been uncanny how the Vikings have been able to pull out games that come down to the wire. It started in last season's run to the NCAA Division III title game when Chrishawn Orange hit two game-winning buzzer-beaters for the cardiac Vikings. The 79-78 title-game setback to Babson came down to the last possession.

Winning is the bottom line, and the Vikings are finding ways to get that done with contributions from all the guys on the roster.

While he couldn't say one title was better than the other, Sortillo, one of just two seniors on the team, did admit the most recent one was fun.

“This one is really special; I'm not going to lie,” said Sortillo, who has been part of three tournament titles, the four regular-season crowns and two national runner-up finishes. “Being able to do this my senior year in front of this crowd in this environment … it has been unbelievable.”

What has been even more remarkable is the Vikings' continued success. While it's easy to point to four straight Division III football titles as the school's benchmark, Giovanine's program is doing its best to be recognized as a national power with yet more titles and tourney bids.

“It's one thing to have a good season, but it's another thing to have sustained excellence,” said Giovanine, “and we've clearly been able to do that.”

Starting this week, the Vikings hope to add to that legacy.