Great Scots! Surprising Alma seizes MIAA lead

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Scott Nikodemski's sharpshooting has the Scots on the verge of making history.
Photo by Steve Frommell, 

By Greg Chandler

Sam Hargraves knew the challenge that lay before him when he took over the Alma men's basketball program five years ago.

The Scots had not had a winning season since 1997, they had not won a share of the MIAA title since 1978, and their last outright MIAA championship came during the 1941-42 season.

But Hargraves, who had played in the MIAA at Calvin in the late 1990s and was an assistant at Alma for two years thereafter, had a goal in his first head coaching opportunity: to give Alma, its alumni, and its student body a program to be proud of.

So far, Hargraves has delivered. Last year, Alma finished in the top four of the MIAA for the first time in more than two decades. Last week, the Scots had a week most MIAA coaches could only dream of: knocking off traditional powerhouses Hope and Calvin within a span of four days to seize sole possession of first place in the conference at 4-0, and cracking the Top 25 for the first time in school history at No. 21.

On Wednesday at Art Smith Arena, the Scots stunned No. 4 Hope, 86-75, for their first win ever over a team ranked in the Top 10. Alma then went to Grand Rapids Saturday and posted an 86-64 whipping over Calvin, snapping a 19-game road losing streak to the Knights dating back to 1999 and dealing Calvin its worst loss ever at Van Noord Arena.

"It feels great to win. We've been building for it for five years and we've been close a couple times in the past. It's really good to break through," Hargraves said. "It doesn't matter what the records are, it doesn't matter the ranking, if you get to beat Hope or Calvin, it's a beautiful thing. If you get to win at one of their places on the road, it's an unbelievable thing."

Alma shot 59.6 percent from the field in the win over Hope, then followed up with a 52.5 percent performance from the field in the rout of Calvin. On the season, the Scots are averaging 84 points per game and are shooting 52 percent from the field.

The Scots boast a balanced attack with five players averaging in double figures. Seniors Scott Nikodemski and DJ Beckman lead the way for Alma, with Nikodemski averaging 14.4 points and 5.7 assists per game while shooting an incredible 72.2 percent from the field, and Beckman averaging 13.9 points while shooting 42 percent from 3-point range. But the senior leadership on this team doesn't stop with Nikodemski and Beckman, according to Hargraves.

"We have four (other) seniors who don't get to play a lot, but they still enjoy the process and have accepted their roles. They play such a huge role every day in making us better," he said.

Alma has also not been afraid to take on the top Division III teams. The Scots earlier this year romped over then-No. 23 St. Norbert to win the Green Knights' holiday tournament. They also only lost by two points to current No. 2 Elmhurst and by one point to then-ranked Texas Lutheran.

"We're trying to get to that level, and you're not going to get there without trying to beat some of those top schools," Hargraves said.

While Alma currently has a one-game lead in the MIAA standings, Hargraves says it's way too early to celebrate. Coming up Wednesday is a road test at Trine, a place Alma has not won at during Hargraves' tenure.

"It's going to be incredibly difficult. They've built such a great program in the same amount of time as we have," Hargraves said.

Bluffton women blowing past the competition

Of the six remaining unbeaten teams in Division III women's basketball, three are in the Great Lakes region. Thomas More has been the No. 1 team the entire season, and No. 3 Hope has been in the top 10 the entire season.

The third is Bluffton University, which is 15-0 but not ranked, although the Beavers are the first team outside the Top 25. The Beavers have dominated the HCAC in the early going, improving to 8-0 in conference play Saturday with an 87-68 romp over Hanover. Bluffton shot 52 percent from the field and placed five players in double figures, led by Taylor Whitaker with 20 points. Macey Sheerer added 16 points and eight rebounds, while Rachel Beining had 15 points, eight boards, six blocked shots and five assists.

Sheerer leads a balanced Bluffton attack at 13.4 points and 7.7 rebounds per contest, with Beining adding 11.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and nearly two blocked shots per game.

Barring a second-half slump, the Beavers should top their school record for victories set last season, when Bluffton won 18 games and finished fourth in the HCAC.

John Carroll blasts Mount Union to take OAC men's lead

The much-anticipated OAC men's showdown between John Carroll and Mount Union turned into a romp for the No. 5 Blue Streaks, as JCU rolled to a 116-93 win over the No. 19 Purple Raiders in front of nearly 1,300 fans in University Heights Saturday.

Seven JCU players scored in double figures for coach Mike Moran, with Ryan Farragher coming off the bench to score 21 points in just 18 minutes of play. Simon Kucharewicz added 17 points, Doug Caputo had 14 points and 12 rebounds, and David Linane dished out 13 assists while not committing a turnover and scoring 11 points.

The Blue Streaks dominated the boards, outrebounding Mount Union 56-29, including a 26-7 edge on the offensive glass. JJ Kukura led Mount Union with 22 points.

DePauw women break out of slump with dominating defense

After falling out of first place in the NCAC with rare back-to-back losses, DePauw bounced back with two wins last week to stay within lockstep of conference leader Denison.

The Tigers used a suffocating defense in defeating Wittenberg, 62-28, then downed Ohio Wesleyan 69-48. The 28 points allowed against Witt were the fewest allowed by the Tigers since February 1996. In the Ohio Wesleyan win, Colleen Connors nailed six 3-pointers and scored 20 points in just her second career start.

Around the Great Lakes was written by Greg Chandler during the 2015-16 season. He is a veteran journalist and broadcaster who has followed Division III basketball for more than 25 years. He has called Hope basketball for radio, including the 2006 national championship run, and served as the first publicist for the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association.