MASON CITY – The second meeting of the season between NIACC and ninth-ranked Indian Hills proved to be much more competitive than IHCC's 95-67 win over the Trojans back on Jan. 30.
The Warriors battled to the end to finally compete the first first series sweep of the season, putting a 90-77 road win on Saturday afternoon. Indian Hills has now won eight straight games since a season-opening loss at Southwestern over a month ago, holding off the Trojans in the second half.
"NIACC's playing a lot better than they did earlier in the game," IHCC head men's basketball coach Hank Plona said. "We made a strong run early in the second half and were able to shoot the ball well from the foul line to put it away."
Indian Hills opened the day short-handed, playing without Gabe Oliveira after the freshman injured his knee during practice on Friday. Chris Payton stepped up in the post for the Warriors, scoring a season-high 24 points while pulling in 10 rebounds showing the skills that made Payton a preseason All-American.
NIACC, however, would not allow Indian Hills to run away in the first half. Payton, Curtis Jones and Tyem Freeman all picked up their second fouls during the first 20 minutes as IHCC held on to a 35-29 lead at halftime, 11 points closer than the 43-26 halftime lead IHCC built against the Trojans in the first meeting between the teams in Ottumwa.
"I thought we let some missed shots affect our effectiveness and intensity on the defensive end," Plona said. "We can't expect to be perfect. This isn't easy. I thought we did a good job of that for most of the day."
Taj Anderson provided the Warriors a spark in the second half, scoring 17 points including a pair of four-point plays as IHCC opened a 19-point lead. NIACC got as close as 84-75 in the final minutes before the Warriors put the game out of reach from the foul line, completing a stellar night in which Indian Hills (8-1) hit 28 of 32 shots from the charity stripe.
"You want to play your best when needed. I think we've done that," Plona said. "When the moment gets important, our guys lock in and make the big plays."
Ismael Cruz added 14 points off the bench for the Warriors while Freeman added 13 points. Tyrese Nickelson finished with 10 points for IHCC, going 7-8 from the foul line.
Jaden Horton led NIACC (1-9) with 19 points, eight rebounds and four assists. McKelary Robertson added 18 points, going 7-10 from the field, while Bradley Andrews scored 13 points for the improving Trojans.
"Teams are going to keep getting better. I think coaches are going to figure out how to improve their teams," Plona said. "It gets harder to beat a team the more you face them. It's all about how a team can handle the ups and downs and how you adjust when certain things aren't going your way."
Ninth-ranked Indian Hills will be right back on the floor on Tuesday night, hosting the fifth-ranked team in the NJCAA Division II poll. DMACC (7-2) visits the Hellyer Student Life Center as the Warriors continue their busiest stretch of the season with four games in eight days.
"DMACC's right behind us in the league standings. They've been a part of a regional championship team," Plona said. "It's a busy week and we'll be ready. We've got to be ready both physically and mentally."