ROCK ISLAND, Ill. – The Elmhurst men's basketball team secured its spot in the CCIW Tournament final by holding off second-seeded North Central 60-58.
Elmhurst, ranked 17th in the latest D3hoops.com poll, proved the third time is the charm as the Bluejays avenged a pair of regular season losses to the 11th-ranked Cardinals.
Elmhurst (21-6), led for over 30 minutes, but the Bluejays let a double-digit lead slip away late, before Will Nixon delivered a critical three-point play with less than a minute to lock up the victory for the Bluejays.
The Bluejays led for the majority of the first half, trailing only briefly at 6-4. With the score even at 18-18 with eight minutes remaining, the Bluejays used a 6-0 run sparked by four points from Nixon to take a 24-18 lead. The Cardinals closed to within two points, but back-to-back fast break layups, from Pat Coleman put the Bluejays back in front by six and forced North Central to burn a timeout.
A three-pointer from Peyton Wyatt with three minutes remaining gave Elmhurst a seven-point cushion and the Bluejays took their biggest lead of the half at eight after a free throw from Eric Leonard. North Central cut the deficit down to four with less than a minute, but a bucket from Will Nixon gave Elmhurst a 34-28 lead at the half.
Leading by only three early in the second half, the Bluejays ripped of a 13-3 run over the next four minutes, opening up a double-digit lead at 46-36 after Wyatt drained a three-pointer from the corner.
North Central (19-7) surged back using a 9-2 run over the next four minutes to pull to within three points with 8:30 remaining. The Cardinals made it a one-point game with just over six minutes to play, but Wuest quick answered by splashing home a long-range three-pointer. After a North Central miss, Nixon hit a jump hook in the paint to put the Bluejays back up by six with just under five minutes left on the clock.
The Cardinals responded with a 7-0 run, taking their first lead of the game since the opening minutes of the first half with a three-point play by Kevin Honn. The Bluejays reclaimed the lead with a layup from Wuest layup, but a Jagger Anderson layup put the Cardinals back in front 58-57 with 1:13 left.
Elmhurst took the lead for good with less than a minute to play, as Nixon hit a shot in the paint and was fouled in the process. Nixon hit the free throw to cap the three-point play, giving Elmhurst a 60-58 lead with just over 50 seconds left.
After both teams missed on their next possessions, the Cardinals had one more chance, but Connor Raridon missed a three-pointer from the corner, giving Elmhurst the 60-58 win.
North Central outshot Elmhurst 47.9 percent (23-of-48) to 39.0 percent (23-of-59), but the Bluejays' controlled the glass, outrebounding the Cardinals 38-21. Both teams struggled from long-distance as each team shot just 21.4 percent (3-of-14) from three-point range. Elmhurst finished with a 17-7 edge on the offensive glass outscoring North Central 10-3 in second-chance points in the process.
Nixon paced the Bluejays in the victory, scoring a game-high 16 points while shooting 6-of-13 from the floor. He added a team-best seven rebounds in the win. Wuest added 14 points in the win, shooting 6-of-15 from the floor and adding a pair of steals. Coleman also reached double digits in scoring, netting 10 points while shooting 4-of-6 from the field. Erik Crittenden and Wyatt added six points apiece for the Bluejays in the win.
Alex Sorenson led the Cardinals in the loss, scoring a team-leading 15 points to go with a game-high eight rebounds. Sorenson shot 6-of-10 from the floor and also blocked four shots. Raridon finished with 11 points while Honn totaled 10 for the Cardinals.
Elmhurst will face the winner of the Augustana/Illinois Wesleyan game tomorrow at 7:00 p.m. The winner will earn the CCIW's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.