Jays upend defending national champs

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Facing a challenging and potentially confidence-battering pre-conference schedule this season, the Tabor Bluejays needed at the very least a better effort at the Sterling College Warrior Classic than they managed the previous weekend in Oklahoma, where they were beaten thoroughly by two NAIA Division I teams.

The Bluejays accomplished that and more with late-game come-from-behind wins against two very big, very athletic teams from the Sooner state.

On Friday, the Bluejays rallied from a nine-point halftime deficit to beat Southern Nazarene University, 85-80.

But the coup de grace came Saturday, when Tabor knocked off the defending NAIA Division I national champion Drovers from the University of Science & Arts of Oklahoma (USAO), 87-82.

“We simply needed to improve our game,” coach Don Brubacher said after the USAO game. “So if we had come in here and lost two games again against very, very good basketball teams-but improved our game-it still would have been reasonably positive for us.

“But to find ways to get it done down the stretch in back-to-back games against very, very good basketball teams is a confidence builder for us as individuals, and it’s also a confidence builder for this team in the game we are working to develop.”

Against USAO, the Bluejays came out of the blocks with considerable confidence, taking the game inside against their much taller opponent to stake a 12-2 lead less than four minutes into the contest. Sophomore Tyson Ratzlaff scored six points during the run.

But with the Bluejays missing shot after shot from behind the arc and about half of their free throws, the Drovers battled back to tie the game at 21 when Michal Williamson stuck back a rebound with 7:43 left in the half.

USAO seemed to gather momentum over the next few minutes, hitting four 3-pointers. But the Bluejays managed to stay within three at intermission, 40-37.

The two teams battled back and forth through opening minutes of the second half before a 7-0 USAO run put the Drovers up 62-52 with 11:34 to go.

The Drovers still led by nine, 72-63, with seven minutes to play when the Bluejays put together a 13-1 run over the next four minutes to reclaim the lead, 76-74, on a steal and layup by Micah Ratzlaff with 3:09 to play.

Over the next two minutes, Tyson Ratzlaff hit 4-of-4 free throws and Jeremiah Randall added a bucket and two free throws to give the Jays an 84-79 margin with a minute to play.

Three USAO free throws cut the lead to 84-82. The Drovers then regained possession with less than 30 seconds left and had a chance to go ahead or tie. But when a 3-point attempt by Alvin Bateman missed the mark, Randall rebounded and was fouled with 9.5 seconds left. He hit one of two free throws to give the Jays an 85-82 lead.

The Drovers worked for a last-second 3-pointer to tie, but Tyson Ratzlaff darted in front of sharpshooter Hayden Herrin, stole a pass and raced the length of the court for a final layup as the buzzer sounded.

That the Bluejays pulled out the win was all the more remarkable given their mediocre shooting. They did well driving inside to score, but managed only three 3-pointers in 27 attempts and finished with 41-percent shooting from the field.

And, take away a huge 12-for-12 performance from the line by Tyson Ratzlaff, the Jays shot under 60 percent from the charity stripe.

“If you asked me if we could shoot that poorly from the free-throw line and even stay in the game against this team, I’d say there’s not a chance in the world,” Brubacher said. “But the defense carried us through.”

Indeed, Tabor held USAO to 40 percent shooting, including 8-of-32 from behind the arc. The previous evening, the Drovers had hit nine straight 3-pointers at the start of the second half to bury Sterling.

“Our goal was not to give up an open look outside the 3-point line, and then do what we could to contain them on the post play,” Brubacher said. “They dribble-penetrate well, they’re very athletic, so we really had to play the whole court defensively.

“It was quite a challenge for us. Of everything I saw from our team tonight, I was most impressed with how we stepped up defensively.”

Scott Brubacher struggled offensively all night, but held Williamson, the MVP of the last season’s national tournament, to seven points on 3-of-11 shooting.

The play of the Ratzlaff brothers was impressive, too.

Micah finished with 26 points, but was intense on both ends of the court. He drew several charging fouls and picked up three steals and 12 rebounds-nine of those off the defensive boards.

“For me personally, I know if I go my hardest, people are going to follow,” Ratzlaff said.

In addition to his bedrock consistency at the free-throw line, brother Tyson pulled down seven boards and finished with 22 points. Though credited with only one steal-the big one at the end of game-his defense contributed a lot to the Drovers’ sub-par shooting.

With the win, Tabor improved to 2-2 on the season and left Brubacher hoping his team had turned a corner.

“You never know,” he said. “We have to keep playing, but it does definitely give us an opportunity to make some positive strides.”

Tabor 85, Southern Nazarene 80

After a ragged first half offensively that left them trailing by nine points, the Bluejays came together when it countered and defeated the Crimson Storm from Bethany, Okla., by scoring the last five points of Friday’s game.

Tabor trailed 41-32 at intermission, but saw the deficit grow to 13 when SNU started the second half with a 6-2 run.

Four of those points came on two straight baskets by sharp-shooter Andre Murray. Moments later, though, the 6-4 guard fouled Micah Ratzlaff, then picked up a technical foul and a permanent seat on the bench for his fifth foul.

Ratzlaff sank all four free-throws to stop the bleeding. From there, Tabor slowly battled its way back into contention until a basket by freshman Brad Gattis gave the Bluejays their first lead, 73-72, with 2:36 to play.

The Crimson Storm managed one last lead, 79-78, on a basket in the paint by 6-11 post Manuel Narvaez with 37 seconds left to play.

After a Tabor timeout, Gattis scored again, this time on a drive to the basket, to put Tabor ahead, 80-79.

Narvaez hit the first of two free throws to tie the game at 80 with 12.9 second left on the clock. But when he missed the second shot, Tabor rebounded and pushed the ball up the court.

Tyson Ratzlaff was fouled driving to the hoop. The junior from Hillsboro calmly sank both free throws for a two-point Tabor edge with seven seconds remaining.

On the inbounds pass, sophomore Grant Brubacher slipped in front of his man, stole the pass and scored with 4.1 seconds to play. He was fouled on the drive and sank the charity shot, too, for the final margin.

Brubacher came off the bench to score 17 points, including a 5-for-5 performance at the line. He also added three assists to his game-deciding steal.

Micah Ratzlaff led Tabor with 22 points even though he struggled from the field. The 6-4 senior was 3-of-7 inside the arc and 3-of-10 beyond it. He did sink seven of nine free-throw attempts.

Also scoring in double figures for Tabor were Scott Brubacher and Gattis, each with 13 points.

As a team, Tabor shot just under 44 percent from the field, but made only five of 24 attempts from 3-point territory.

The Bluejays were out-rebounded by the much taller Crimson Storm, 45 to 35, but Tabor committed only 12 turnovers while forcing its opponents into 22. Tabor outscored SNU off turnovers, 22-9.

Coming-This week it’s dejá vu all over again for the Bluejays as they venture back to Okie land for rematches with some familiar foes.

Tuesday, the Bluejays were to face Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva, another NAIA Division I opponent.

This weekend, Tabor will be in Bethany for back-to-back games. On Friday, the Jays will take on Southern Nazarene again. The following night, they hook up again against Oklahoma Christian College. Tabor lost to OCC, 98-82, in the first game of the season.

Game time Friday is 8 p.m. and on Saturday Tabor plays at 4 p.m.

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