North Central Men Headed to 3rd Straight CCIW Title Game

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Less than two weeks removed from seeing its Senior Night celebration dampened by its local rivals, the North Central College men's basketball team exacted some measure of revenge against Wheaton College on Friday, taking control down the stretch and silencing the Thunder, 94-87, in the semifinals of the College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin (CCIW) Tournament at Augustana College's Carver Center.
The 21st-ranked Cardinals (21-5) claimed a second victory in three meetings with Wheaton this season, ending the game in opposite fashion of the Thunder's 82-71 win at Gregory Arena on Feb. 9, when they overtook North Central in the final five minutes of play. This time, the Cardinals fashioned a 10-2 run immediately after Wheaton had fought to reclaim the lead late in the contest, putting them in the CCIW Tournament championship game for the third straight year.
The victory sets up a title game rematch with No. 3-ranked Augustana College (24-2), as the teams will meet up to decide the CCIW's tournament champion for a third straight year. North Central defeated the Vikings, 69-64, in the 2017 final, while Augustana returned the favor with a 77-74 victory last season. The teams split their two regular-season meetings this season, with the Vikings claiming a 76-59 win at home on Jan. 2 and North Central prevailing, 68-63, on its home court Jan. 31.
Wheaton (19-8) opened the game in a rhythm on the offensive end, sinking seven of its first 10 shots from the floor and opening up a 15-7 lead after six minutes of play. The Cardinals countered by piling up 10 points in the next two minutes and taking their first lead at 17-16 following two straight three-pointers from Blaise Meredith. The lead changed hands five more times before halftime, the last of which came when the Thunder's Spencer Peterson scored the final two points of the period from the free-throw line to send Wheaton into halftime with a 44-42 lead.
The teams traded the lead back and forth nine times in the first eight minutes of the second half before Will Clausel's layup nudged North Central in front, 64-63. The Cardinals held Wheaton scoreless for the next four possessions and got two free throws from Connor Raridon and an inside jumper from Matt Cappelletti to extend their advantage to 68-63 with 9:56 left.
North Central owned a 70-66 advantage when Thunder forward Anajuwon Spencer made his bid to tilt the scales in his team's favor. The junior sank a pair of threes to knot the score before sailing through the lane in transition for a dunk to give Wheaton a 74-72 lead and prompt a Cardinal timeout with 7:09 to play. Coming out of the stoppage, Aaron Jones canned an 18-foot jumper to slow the surge, though Wheaton's Aston Francis banked in a 15-footer on the other end to restore the Thunder's two-point edge.
On the ensuing possession, Jones drew a double team and delivered a jumping, spinning pass to Connor Raridon, whose three-pointer from the top of the key thrust the Cardinals back in front, 77-76. Raridon then rebounded a missed three-point attempt by Francis and netted a spinning, fallaway jump shot in the lane before Cappelletti collected a rebound and fed Meredith for a three-pointer on the fast break to complete a run of eight straight points in just 41 seconds of play.
Francis drove the lane for a layup after a Thunder timeout, though Tommy Koth scored on a putback of his own missed shot soon thereafter. Wheaton narrowed the gap to 85-83 on a Francis three-pointer with 1:52 to go, but Raridon fought through contact to score in the paint and the Cardinals made 7 of 8 free throws in the final 52 seconds to ice the victory.
Cappelletti returned from a two-game absence to post a 27-point, 10-rebound double-double, his fifth of the season. Raridon finished with 21 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and a 10 for 10 showing at the free-throw line, while Meredith totaled 19 points. Meredith was a perfect 6 for 6 from three-point range, coming only one triple short of the program's single-game record for three-pointers made without a miss. The Cardinals shot 52.2 percent from three-point range (12 of 23) in the game and connected at a 58.6 percent clip (17 of 29) from the floor in the second half to post their highest scoring total of the campaign.
Francis led five double-figure scorers for Wheaton with 30 points on 11 of 24 shooting. Luke Peters and Luke Anthony scored 12 points each.
Saturday's championship game is set to tip off at 7:00 p.m., with the winner to receive the CCIW's automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Men's Basketball Championship.