OTTUMWA – First came the stunning end to the North Central District title game on Saturday night.
Then, 24 hours later, came the stunning end to the most unique basketball season in the history of the proud Indian Hills Community College program.
Curtis Jones and Tyrese Nickelson both missed shots in the final seconds, allowing Dawson Community College to escape on Saturday with a 68-67 win over the sixth-ranked Warriors. The Buccaneers will play in the NJCAA Division I Men's Basketball National Tournament for the first time in the program's 63 years, taking the court against Indian River State on Tuesday, Apr. 20, at 10 a.m.
Indian River State was announced as the 14th overall seed, and the last of the eight at-large teams selected to the national tournament on Sunday night when the NJCAA officially announced the 24-team bracket for the national tournament. For the first time since 2013, the Warriors did not qualify for the season-ending trip to Hutchinson, Kansas.
“I believe we got punished for a schedule that we did not create and could not control,” Indian Hills head men's basketball coach Hank Plona said. “Granted, we all wish we performed at a higher level (Saturday), but the point of the at-large bids is to reward the eight best teams for their season if they do not win the district.
"I am crushed for our guys that they, as a team, that I believe with all my heart is one of the very best teams in the country, did not get rewarded.”
Indian Hills will be the highest ranked team to not be a part of the national tournament as the only top-10 team left out of the 24-team field. At-large selections went to second-ranked South Plains, third-ranked Odessa, fifth-ranked Coffeyville, eighth-ranked Trinity Valley, No. 13 Salt Lake, No. 17 Indian River, No. 20 Vincennes and Hutchinson, who proved to be the final at-large team selected according to Dean Myrick, the chairman of the NJCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee.
“This year more than any other was very difficult to determine not only the seeds, but the at-large bids,” Myrick said. “The lack of preseason jamborees, scrimmages, and cross-region play made our jobs very, very difficult. We did not have the sample size that we’ve had in the past.”
Hutchinson finished with a final record of 18-6, losing 116-107 to Cowley College in the Region 6 final. The Blue Dragons were unranked entering postseason play and finished 1-4 against ranked opponents, but did so playing all 24 games against Division I opponents.
The biggest factor in Hutchinson's favor was that every team the Blue Dragons faced during regional play came against 14 Division I teams. Indian Hills was forced to play all 21 regular season games, including 16 against Division II programs, within the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference in a decision made at the start of the academic year the schools within the state to ensure seasons could be held in the middle of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“We felt like we had three to four teams that were discussed for the last two in,” Myrick said. “We debated on those three or four teams heavily, and for a while. Again, the sample size and lack of tournaments and so-on and so-forth that we had in the past were just not there, which just made it a lot more difficult.”
Ultimately, Indian Hills did not win the game that would have clinched a return trip to the national tournament on Saturday. Dawson (22-2) led wire-to-wire against the Warriors on their home floor, building a 17-point lead midway through the second half before holding off Indian Hills in the final minutes.
Indian Hills struggled to hit consistently from the outside, a weapon that has made a huge difference throughout the season for the Warriors. Indian Hills, having shot 36.5 percent from 3-point territory while averaging nearly 11 made 3-pointers per game, hit just five of 24 shots (20.8 percent) from beyond the arc on Saturday playing over 13 hours from home against Dawson, playing with high energy fed off a raucous crowd that was at 75 percent capacity inside the Toepke Center.
"After not having played in front of a crowd all year, what a tough environment that was," Plona said. "Dawson has a passionate fan base that created the most difficult environment any team had to play in for a district final, much like Warrior Nation to them last year.
"It's just different playing in that type of atmosphere, and it was our first time in it."
The Bucs went on a 21-8 run shortly into the second half with a balanced attack. Kennedy Brown scored on a jump shot with 10:21 remaining to give the home team a commanding 57-40 lead.
With an automatic berth in the National Tournament at stake, Indian Hills wasn’t going to go down without a fight. Posterizing dunks from Tyem Freeman, who led all scorers with 20 points, and Chris Payton helped IHCC get back in the game
Kennedy Brown, Dawson's top scorer in the district final with 15 points, scored on a traditional 3-point play to give the Buccaneers a 64-58 lead. Indian Hills again responded, cutting Dawson's lead to 64-62 on drives to the basket by Freeman and Tyrese Nickelson.
Jajuan Tot drove and made a little floater in the lane, putting Dawson on top 68-64. Jones hit IHCC's fifth and final 3-pointer of the season, banking in a huge shot with 14 seconds left bringing the Warriors within one.
Michael Jok was fouled with 11 seconds left, but failed to hit the first attempt of a 1-and-1. Payton rebounded the ball, clinching a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double in what proved to be his final game in a Warrior uniform giving IHCC a chance to win the district title and automatic national tournament berth with a field goal.
Jones dribbled into a double team in the corner and, without a timeout, was forced to launch a desperate 3-point attempt in the final seconds. The shot hit the back of the rim, bouncing perfectly to Nickelson allowing the sophomore a leaping attempt to win the district title and extend IHCC's season.
Instead, Nickelson's final shot in a Warrior uniform rimmed out. Payton's final tip at the rim also rimmed out, but ultimately came right after time had expired.
“I’m just absolutely heartbroken for our players. Chris, Tyrese and Theo (Bourgeois) are 51-6 at Indian Hills and haven’t gotten the chance to step on the floor at Hutch,” said Plona. “Add our current group of Curt, Braxton (Bayless), Tyem, Levar (Williams), Taj (Anderson), Trey (Harris), Gabe (Oliveira) and Mouhamadou (Mbow) with them… they’ve just been a joy to coach. They are champions through and through.”
North Central District Final
Dawson 68, No. 6 Indian Hills 67
IHCC 30 37 — 67
Dawson 33 35 — 68
Indian Hills (67) — Tyem Freeman 20, Tyrese Nickelson 13, Curtis Jones 11, Chris Payton 10, Braxton Bayless 6, Levar Williams 5, Trey Harris 2. Totals 28-72 6-10 67.
3-point goals — 5-24 (Freeman 2-6, Nickelson 1-4, Jones 1-6, Williams 1-6, Theo Bourgeois 0-1, Payton 0-1). Rebounds — 39 (Payton 10, Jones 8, Freeman 7, Bayless 6, Nickelson 6, Williams 2). Assists — 14 (Jones 7, Freeman 3, Nickelson 2, Payton, Williams). Steals — 9 (Freeman 3, Williams 2, Bayless, Jones, Nickelson, Payton). Blocks — 4 (Freeman 2, Nickelson, Payton). Total fouls — 15. Turnovers — 11.
Dawson (68) — Kennedy Brown 15, Michael Jok 14, Cordell Stinson 10, Jajuan Tot 7, Charles Lampten 6, Riley Spoonhunter 5, Kose Egbule 4, Reggie Martin 4, Jalen Tot 3. Totals 28-66 9-16 68.
3-point goals — 3-16 (Jok 1-3, Jaj. Tot 1-3, Jal. Tot 1-4, Egbule 0-1, Martin 0-1, Lampten 0-2, Stinson 0-2). Rebounds — 41 (Jok 9, Stinson 8, Brown 7, Lampten 5, Jaj. Tot 4, Martin 3, Jal. Tot 3, Egbule, Spoonhunter). Assists — 10 (Jok 2, Spoonhunter 2, Egbule, Lampten, Martin, Stinson, Jaj. Tot, Jal. Tot). Steals — 7 (Jok 2, Stinson 2, Jal. Tot 2, Martin). Blocks — 9 (Brown 4, Lampten 2, Martin, Stinson, Jal. Tot). Total fouls — 12. Turnovers — 14.