Bluejays fall to Sterling in tournament title finals

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Although both teams had qualified for the NAIA Division II national tournament in Point Lookout, Mo., neither Tabor nor Sterling backed off a bit Tuesday night in their faceoff for the KCAC post-season championship.

In a game that featured nine lead changes and six ties, the Warriors had just enough to prevent Tabor from sweeping the regular-season and post-season tournament championships as they defeated the Bluejays 60-57.

But it wasn’t easy.

The Bluejays looked more than ready to defend their regular-season crown as Tyson Ratzlaff drilled a 3-pointer just 20 seconds into the contest.

After Sterling took a brief 6-5 lead with 16:32 remaining, Tabor used its superior physical strength and began establishing itself on the low blocks.

After Brad Gattis scored to put Tabor on top, 14-10, Colby Bettles dropped in three of Tabor’s next four baskets to give the Bluejays a 22-13 lead with 8:14 left in the half.

“We had good success getting the ball inside for portions of the first half,” coach Don Brubacher said.

But Sterling countered by going to Chris Schneider, who responded with seven straight points to cut the lead to 22-20.

From then on, the two teams displayed a classic battle befitting championship game.

Sterling changed defensive tactics midway through the first half, and the change provided dividends.

“They just got on our backs and shoved us out,” a frustrated Brubacher said. “We allowed them to push us out and we either weren’t smart enough or tough enough to restore quality post position.”

Tabor retained its slim lead through the remainder of the half and took a 29-28 lead at intermission.

Brubacher said even though his team shot 55 percent from the field and had two more rebounds than the Warriors in the first half, adjustments were warranted.

“We tried to talk about what we had to do to relieve the pressure from their trapping defense,” he said. “And we talked about what we need to do to get better ball movement offensively.”

The first three minutes of the second half had the teams swapping the lead three times. But a 3-pointer by newly named KCAC Player-of-the-Year Michael Moncrief started a mini run that put the Warriors on top, 36-33.

Sterling increased its lead to six points on two occasions, the last being at 43-37 with 15:38 to play.

But consecutive field goals by Brad Gattis, Anthony Monson and Jeremiah Randall tied the score at 43 with 14:06 to play.

Brubacher said the Warriors’ physical style had a definite effect on the game’s outcome.

“They play hard pressure and they’re very physical with their pressure on the perimeter,” he said. “It makes it difficult, not impossible, to play effective offense on the perimeter of the court.

“We did find some weak spots in their defense, but we didn’t do it with enough consistency to have the kind of effect on the game it could have.”

Unfortunately for the Bluejays, Tabor was stuck on 43 points for the next 31/2 minutes, but Sterling was almost equally inept, managing only a 47-43 lead.

Tabor eventually tied the score at 47 with 7:32 remaining, setting up a chess match down the stretch that produced three ties and six lead changes.

Tied at 51, Randall scored inside to put Tabor back on top 53-51 with 3:03 to play.

But Moncrief found a gap in the Bluejay defense and made Tabor pay the price as the lanky 6-foot-7 senior drilled a 3-point basket allowing Sterling to reclaim the lead, 54-53, with 2:32 to play.

“We limited Moncrief in the first half and did a pretty good job on him. But when it got down to the stretch, we just didn’t seem to accept what we needed to do with individual defense to keep him from shooting the basketball,” Brubacher said.

But 22 seconds later, Josh Reeves hit his biggest shot as a Bluejay, a 3-point bomb from the top of the key to put Tabor back on top by two, 56-54.

Tabor held its slim lead until Moncrief stepped up and canned his second consecutive 3-point basket with 59 seconds to play, putting Sterling in front, 57-56.

“Moncrief is a tall man who shoots up high and you have to guard him the right way to keep him from hurting you on the perimeter,” Brubacher said. “We did that for big sections of the game, but then we’d forget and give him an open look down the stretch. He absolutely won the game for them.”

After Tabor misfired on its next possession, the Bluejays fouled Nathan Smith, who hit one of two free throws, giving Tabor a chance to tie the score.

As the Bluejays worked the clock down, Randall was fouled with just four seconds remaining.

But the steady senior missed the first of two free throws. Randall made the second toss, but Tabor still trailed by a single point.

Tabor quickly fouled Smith, who made both free throws this time to put Sterling on top by three.

The Warriors then stole the inbounds pass and strolled home with the win.

“Fifty-seven points in a college game is really a very poor effort offensively,” Brubacher said. “No matter what percentage you shoot, if you only score 57 points you’re going to have a hard time winning.”

Monson led Tabor offensively with 14 points. Randall added 11.

Moncrief took game honors with 20 points.

Tabor connected on 23 of 45 shots (51 percent) while holding Sterling to just 23 of 54 (43 percent). But the Warriors hit seven 3-point baskets while Tabor scored just three.

Turnovers also hurt Tabor. The Bluejays had 11 compared to seven for Sterling, but the Warriors scored 10 points off Tabor’s mistakes.

Tabor out rebound the Warriors, 29-27. Randall led the way with nine.

The loss dropped the Bluejays to 16-15.

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