OTTUMWA — Once the final buzzer sounded on Wednesday night, Tyon Grant-Foster had nothing but hugs and laughs to share with many members of the North Central Missouri Pirates.
Before the final buzzer, however, Grant-Foster took it right at his longtime friends. The Indian Hills sophomore scored 17 points and pulled in 13 rebounds, leading the fourth-ranked (DI) Warriors to a 90-72 win over North Central Missouri, the top-ranked team in NJCAA Division II.
“I’d say it’s harder out there only because we play against each other so much back home,” Grant-Foster said. “We all know what each other can do out there, so it’s harder to score than it is against other teams.”
Ultimately, the difference in Wednesday’s showdown of teams that each hope to be hoisting national championship trophies in March was the difficulty for North Central to score in the final 11 minutes of the first half. After a lay-up by T.J. Babikir, one of six Kansas City natives along with Grant-Foster playing in the game, the Pirates led 23-21 with 11:02 left before halftime.
Indian Hills responded with a 28-8 run, allowing just three more field goals to the Pirates. Grant-Foster opened the run driving from the baseline for a tying lay-up, the first of three consecutive field goals for the Warrior sophomore, the last of which drew the second foul on NCMC’s top scorer Atavian Butler.
Butler hit the bench. Indian Hills never looked back, outscoring the Pirates 22-6 over the final nine minutes of the first half. The Warriors took a 49-31 lead into the locker room and never let up, building a 25-point lead early in the second half and using a 13-5 run late in the second half to put the win away in IHCC’s final non-conference test of the regular season.
“We respect the fact that (North Central) is 22-1. They hadn’t lost in three months and earned the right to be ranked No. 1 in the country,” Indian Hills head coach Hank Plona said. “We fully respected what they’ve done and what they’ve accomplished as players.”
It also didn’t hurt that the Warriors were tested by the Pirates almost exactly one year earlier. Indian Hills overcame a 13-point deficit in the first half, winning 99-84 in a game that was still very much hanging in the balance before a late 10-0 run put NCMC away.
“J.D. (Muila) and Tyon definitely remembered that game,” Plona said. “Sometimes you worry about whether a team has your respect going in, but I think we all knew this was going to be a great game between two teams having great year. Hopefully, it can help both teams moving forward.”
Grant-Foster was one of five IHCC players to reach double figures in scoring, matched by Chris Payton who also had a double-double scoring 17 points while grabbing 10 rebounds. Maurice Calloo added 14 points, coming in off the bench as did Malique Jacobs who drove in several times as part of a 12-point effort.
While the Warriors had balance on offense, helping Indian Hills shoot over 50 percent from the field (35-68), Plona credited the defense with turning the tables in what proved to be the decisive run of the game.
“You look up at 25-25 midway through the first half. We’re on pace for both teams to score 100 points,” Plona said. “We’ve been good when we defend. We started playing a little more zone defense. It seemed to bother them. Our length really bothered them and we were able to switch some things up. That got us some run outs.
“When you get stops and turn that into transition points, everything is connected and we’ve been pretty good when we’ve been able to make those connections.”
Butler avoided foul trouble in the second half, finishing with a game-high 19 points for NCMC. Babikir added 18 points and four assists.
“Every game we have from this point forward is going to be pretty intense,” Grant-Foster said. “If we drop a game, we might drop out of the rankings. Nobody is going to lose at this point, so every game we’ve got we have to bring the same high level of intensity and play hard.”
Grant-Foster will be one of several sophomores that will be honored on Saturday night as IHCC (25-3) hosts Northeast in the final home game of the regular season. The Warriors will try to wrap up the regular-season Iowa Community College Athletic Conference title with the win and a few more home games in the postseason.