Bluejay men one step from post-season title

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Defeating a quality team three times in one season is always difficult-especially when the last meeting was just one week ago.

But that’s what Tabor accomplished Saturday with a 66-61 win over Friends in the semifinals of the post-season KCAC tournament.

With the win, Tabor advanced to the championship game against Sterling, which was played yesterday (Tuesday).

“Every time a team loses and they’re as well coached as Friends is, the coaches make adjustments,” Tabor coach Don Brubacher said. “We feel very fortunate we were able to withstand their adjustments, make adjustments of our own and come away with a win.”

Early on, the game mirrored the Feb. 21 matchup as Tabor led early only to see the Falcons grab the lead on the strength of their defensive pressure.

“Their press and trapping defense really caused us problems at times,” Brubacher said. “We just did not react well to the adjustments they made from last Saturday.”

The Falcons inched to their largest lead of the contest, 21-15, at the 7:06 mark.

“Their lead in the first half was due primarily to their trapping defense,” Brubacher said. “They came out and trapped us a lot in their half-court defense, and we were not prepared for that.”

Still trailing by six points, 28-22, with 3:51 to play in the half, Tabor solved the trapping problem and promptly scored eight straight points. A 3-point bomb by Brad Gattis gave Tabor a 30-29 halftime lead.

“We simply played better in every aspect of the game during that stretch,” Brubacher said. “Our defensive rebounding came and went throughout the game. But we guarded well in that stretch, we rebounded well and we executed our offense very well. We had very good spacing and passed the ball much more sharply.

“The game really turned our direction at that point.”

Leo Williams began the second half with a layup to give Friends a brief 31-30 lead. But Anthony Monson answered on the other end to put Tabor on top, 32-31. The Falcons would never lead again.

When Jared Reese scored off a bullet pass from Tyson Ratzlaff with 12:22 to play, Tabor enjoyed its largest lead at 47-39.

The Bluejays maintained the advantage for the next three minutes before Friends began pounding the ball inside and took advantage of a rebounding lull by Tabor.

The result was a parade to the free-throw line by Stephan Pittman, Friends’ burly sophomore, who grabbed rebound after rebound on the offensive end.

From a 53-45 deficit with 9:49 to play, Friends scored six straight points to cut Tabor’s lead to 53-51. From that point, the game was a see-saw battle to the final wire.

Tabor led by as many as five points, 62-57, with 3:05 to play, but Friends cut the margin to a single point, 62-61, with 1:05 remaining.

The Bluejays held on down the stretch by connecting on four of six free throws in the last minute to preserve the victory, which raised Tabor’s record to 16-14 for the season.

Reese and Ratzlaff led Tabor with 15 points each while Anthony Monson added 11 and Jeremiah Randall 10. Tabor connected on 43 percent of its field-goal attempts while holding the visitors to just 35.7 percent.

Williams paced Friends with 15.

The Bluejays committed 13 turnovers compared to 16 for the Falcons.

Brubacher said while the offense has struggled through stretches in recent games, his defense has learned to play with consistency.

“There’s no question about that,” he said. “We are learning to play harder on the defensive end to make a better effort. We need to make a similar kind of effort on our offensive end. That’s something we’re still trying to do.”

KCAC quarterfinals

Heading into Thursday’s quarterfinals game with the KCAC champion Tabor Bluejays, Kansas Wesleyan coach Jerry Jones hoped the third meeting between the two teams would be the charm after losing the first two.

For a while, it looked like a possibility. But midway through the second half, the Bluejays began to click and left the Coyotes in the dust, 79-58.

The Coyotes had an early hot hand from long range as Phil Beckner and Jim Vanek hit consecutive 3-point shots to put Kansas Wesleyan on top 10-6.

But the Bluejays didn’t panic, opting instead to pound the ball inside against the undersized Coyotes.

When Jared Reese hit a driving layup with 10:54 to play, Tabor was led 13-12. The Coyotes would not lead again the rest of the night.

Although Tabor was successful inside, the Bluejays lacked efficiency, according to coach Don Brubacher.

“We could get the ball down low anytime we wanted the entire ball game,” he said. “The only question was whether we could do anything with it once we caught it.

“The biggest reason we had difficulty was quite often we settled for very poor post position even though they were standing behind us.

“Their perimeter defense dropped down to help out because we didn’t have proper spacing and our post players set up too far from the basket.”

Still, Tabor managed to slowly distance itself from Wesleyan, building a 25-17 lead at the 5:29 mark. The Coyotes rallied to cut the deficit to five points at halftime, 33-28.

Brubacher credited Tabor’s defense with its slim lead at halftime, especially against Coyote sharp-shooter Tim Melton, who scored just six points.

“Keeping Melton under control was a big factor,” Brubacher said. “We did a nice job on him and made it difficult for him. He’s a very talented offensive player.”

Tabor still found it difficult to shake the Coyotes in the early going of the second half and led only 39-36 with 16:31 to play.

But over the next eight minutes, Tabor heated up like an Eskimo’s skin on a Caribbean beach. Following a traditional 3-point play by Reese, Brad Gattis canned a 3-point shot followed by another 3-pointer from Reese.

Not to be outdone, Tyson Ratzlaff got in the action and nailed his own 3-pointer. As a result of the barrage, Tabor compiled a 20-6 run to grab a commanding 59-42 lead with 8:30 remaining.

“We passed the ball better, we ran a little better motion, and our post players did a better job of catching the ball down low,” Brubacher said about the explosion. “When our post players did catch the ball high, they did a better job of passing the ball rather than trying to make a play themselves.”

Kansas Wesleyan never threatened again as Tabor’s margin swelled to as many as 22 points before finishing at 21.

Defense, according to Brubacher, was the catalyst to the win.

“We built our lead because of how we did on the defensive end,” he said. “We gave up basically the same number of points in each half, but we improved our offensive efficiency.”

Another factor was Tabor’s 46-27 domination on the glass, with Gattis leading the way with seven rebounds.

Balanced scoring was again the hallmark of the victory. Gattis led the way with 16, followed by Reese with 12, Anthony Monson 11, and Colby Bettles and Cody Schafer each scored 10.

Melton led the Coyotes with 17.

Brubacher said fatigue may have affected Kansas Wesleyan.

“They had to be tired,” he said. “They played a tough, close game on Monday against Bethany and that had to be a factor.”

Tabor shot 52 percent from the field-60 percent in the second half-while the Coyotes made only 36 percent.

After hitting only three of nine first-half free throws, the Bluejays canned 18 of 22 in the second half. Kansas Wesleyan hit just 11-of-22 for the game.

The victory put Tabor above .500 for the first time this season, at 15-14.

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