OSKALOOSA — This time, John Henry didn’t even make it to the locker room.
The William Penn men’s basketball team had a shower waiting on the court Tuesday night. The fifth-ranked Statesmen celebrated a 96-90 win over No. 22 Clarke in a thrilling Heart of America Athletic Conference men’s basketball tournament final, leading to a postgame celebration that included everything from ringing a victory bell to players dousing Henry with water bottles long after the nets had been cut down at Penn Gymnasium.
“When we won the regular season conference title and celebrated in the locker room. Coach was prepared,” William Penn junior forward Nathan Gehring said. “He had his own water prepared to get us when he walked in that night. Tonight, he wasn’t ready for it.”
William Penn backed up the regular season Heart title winning a battle of the top-two seeds in the conference tournament. Dexter Hood, the conference’s Player of the Year and Top Newcomer, scored 20 of his 25 points in the first half including a pair of free throws that gave the Statesmen a 40-29 lead. William Penn led throughout the first 22 minutes before a 3-pointer by Josh Meier with 16:01 left finally gave Clarke its first lead at 52-50.
“Hats off to Clarke. I told all my teammates in the locker room that, while a lot of teams will lay down when we get up on them, this team wasn’t going to do that They were going to fight us until the very end. That’s what made this such a great game.”
Clarke (24-9) continued to trade the lead with William Penn, eventually opening a 65-62 lead on a pair of field goals inside by Jordan Lake and Nick Marshall. Gehring would answer on the other end with back-to-back field goals, including a put back that put the Statesmen back ahead for good.
Gehring would prove to be a force inside for the Statesmen in Tuesday’s championship game. The Waukee native led William Penn with 26 points and hauled in 17 rebounds, matching teammate Kevion Blaylock with 10 offensive boards.
“I was asking our assistant coaches who was out there wearing No. 12, because he was a beast tonight, Henry said. “He had 17 rebounds and about five dunks. He was a grown man out there for us, and we needed every bit of it.”
Gehring found motivation early in Tuesday’s title game, watching junior forward Eddie Daley go down with a knee injury while fighting for a rebound in the first half. Daley missed the remainder of the game after playing just 29 seconds off the bench.
“When I saw Eddie go down, I knew I was going to have to step up it in a big way for us in the second half,” Gehring said. “I wouldn’t wish getting hurt on my worst enemy. It sucks getting hurt when you’re out there trying to play the game. All you want to do is play. Eddie couldn’t, so I knew I had to step it up for him.”
Josh Watkins sank a tiebreaking 3-pointer from the corner that put William Penn up for good. That lead would swell to 78-69 with 5:25 left before Clarke again fought back, paced by a 31-point night from Darius Lasley, one of four players for the Pride to reach double figures in scoring.
“I really thought we had worn them down, but Clarke is a tremendous team,” Henry said. “We were playing really good defense. They just kept hitting tough shot after tough shot.”
Clarke got back within 84-80 with three minutes left and had a chance to get as close as one from the free throw line. Keith Johnson missed three straight free throws, allowing the Statesmen (30-3) to remain ahead by at least two possessions until the final buzzer sounded.
William Penn will find out if they have earned one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NAIA Division I men’s basketball national tournament on Wednesday. The tournament begins next week in Kansas City.
“We’ve found ourselves in almost every different situation you could put a team in,” Henry said. “We should be ready for this.”