ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
With the pressure of Thursday’s game against conference co-leader Sterling a thing of the past, Tabor could ill afford to stub its toe Saturday against Ottawa.
A win would clinch the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference title and earn Tabor an automatic bid to the national Division II tournament at Point Lookout, Mo. A loss, in all probability, meant a co-championship and the possibility of needing to win the post-season conference tournament to continue its season.
Fortunately, Tabor secured its future with a grueling 64-56 win.
“I’m just thrilled for this team,” coach Don Brubacher said. “Playing in the national tournament is a great experience for these players.”
The first half was worthy of a championship battle as Ottawa built as much as a five-point lead at 8-3 and 22-17.
Still trailing by four points, 24-20, Tabor got a boost from Jared Reese when, fresh off his great performance at Bethany, he hit a layup to cut the lead to two. He followed with back-to-back 3-pointer just 26 seconds apart to propel Tabor into a 28-26 lead.
Seconds later, with the defense respecting Reese on the perimeter, Grant Brubacher dropped a pass to Anthony Monson, who flushed it home to put Tabor on top, 30-26, with 2:33 left in the half.
The half ended with Tabor ahead, 33-30.
The second half was more of the same as Tabor clung to its precarious lead.
A field goal by Martin de Boer with 15:21 remaining, staked Tabor to a 40-33 lead. But just as quickly, the Braves went on a 10-3 run to knot the game at 43 with 9:18 to play.
An old-fashioned 3-point play by Reese put Tabor on top 48-43.
But Ottawa stuck with the Bluejays like a sand burr in a cotton sock, cutting the lead to 51-49 with just 3:12 to play.
A Monson basket, a Grant Brubacher 3-pointer and excellent free-throw shooting down the stretch preserved Tabor’s 64-56 win and earned Tabor its second consecutive regular-season KCAC crown.
Grant Brubacher and Reese both scored 15 points to lead Tabor, which connected on only 18 of 54 (33 percent) field-goal attempts while Ottawa made 22 of 59 (37 percent).
But Tabor made 10 of 29 (35 percent) shots from beyond the 3-point arc while Ottawa was a chilly 3-for-20 (15 percent).
With the win, Tabor improved to 20-8 overall and 14-4 in KCAC play.
Brubacher said the transformation of his team’s 4-4 conference record to 14-4 was due to several factors.
“Our primary improvement came in our board play, both offensively and defensively,” he said. “Our defensive play overall also improved.”
So much, in fact, that going into the weekend, Tabor was the No. 1 team in NAIA Division II in field-goal percentage defense (39).
Another factor in the Bluejays’ 10-game winning streak has been the team’s depth.
“We’ve had a string of players who have stepped up to help us with this streak,” Brubacher said. “Matt Nelson, James Black and Jared Reese have all played important roles.
“And I’m so proud of my seniors-Scott Shaffer, James, Martin de Boer, Josh Wertenberger, Tony Monson. They’ve all given us great minutes and done a good job of doing what we asked.”
Brubacher said the next focus is to keep the momentum through the KCAC tournament, but he hopes his men will perform well at Point Lookout.
“If we can just play solid basketball down there, I’ll be thrilled.”
Sterling-Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. But they probably wouldn’t have won the Tabor-Sterling game Thursday night in Hillsboro. As it was, the Bluejays found enough resolve to defeat the Warriors, 53-48, and avenge a 69-59 loss in mid-January.
The win over the Warriors, who came in tied with Tabor at 12-4, assured Tabor of at least a tie for the conference championship.
From the opening tip, it was evident the officiating crew chose let the players battle it out. Through the first seven minutes, the score was tied three times and the lead changed hands three times.
With the score tied at 10, Sterling scored six straight points, and its 16-10 lead was the largest either team would have in the opening 20 minutes.
By the time the halftime horn sounded, Tabor had whittled the lead to 26-24, setting the stage for a championship second half.
With Tabor trailing 28-26 two minutes into the second half, Andy Brubacher completed a rare four-point play to put Tabor on top 30-28.
The Warriors never led again.
Although Sterling tied the game at 30, the Bluejays pieced together an 8-0 run sparked by four points from Scott Shaffer.
But Sterling cut the margin to 39-37 with 8:13 to play before Martin de Boer became the man of the hour-or at least the final eight minutes. The burly Lawrence senior punished the slightly built Warriors in the low blocks, scoring eight points to keep the Bluejays on top, 47-43, with 3:55 remaining.
“We were looking for any advantage we could gain down the stretch,” Brubacher said. “Our offense is basically an equal-opportunity offense and when we started going to Martin, it wasn’t because there was necessarily a focus.
“We were just moving the ball and he got great position and we had some nice passes to him and he took advantage,” he added.
Both teams struggled to shoot the ball in the closing minutes, and Tabor led by just three points when De Boer blocked a game-tying 3-point attempt from Josh Berry. The effort turned into a Grant Brubacher layup with just 11 seconds to play to secure the win.
While Tabor made 22 of 48 field goal attempts (46 percent), the Warriors shot an icy 19 of 61 (31 percent), including seven of 24 (29 percent) from the 3-point line.
The Warriors made on three of eight free throws while Tabor managed only six 6 of 17.
“We were fortunate (to win) for a number of reasons, and how we shot from the free-throw line was one of them,” Brubacher said.
“The second was that Grant had the flu the last couple of days and obviously was not his normal self. Our game does revolve around him to a significant extent, so his inability to play with the strength that is typical of him hurt us a lot.
De Boer led Tabor with 18 points on 9-for-11 shooting.
Coming-The Bluejays will host the Friends Falcons (13-15), 71-59 winners over Kansas Wesleyan on Monday, tonight (Wednesday) beginning at 7 p.m.