DUNBAR, Wis. - Northland International University completed an unbeaten Midwest Regional men's basketball season, knocking off Maranatha Baptist Bible College, 73-65, and defending national champion Grace Bible College, 72-61, at the Pioneer Center.
The two wins over Maranatha Baptist Bible College and Grace Bible College places NIU as the No. 1 seed in Midwest Region of the NCCAA. With that top seeding, NIU has a bye on Thursday night and will play the winner of Maranatha Baptist Bible College and Great Lakes Christian College on Friday night at 5 p.m. (Central time). The championship game is scheduled for Saturday at 2 p.m.
The Pioneers (17-8), ranked second in the National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association (NCCAA) Division 2 national poll, defeated the Crusaders of Maranatha in a big rivalry game in front of over 600 people at the Pioneer Athletic Center.
"This is a big game for both teams every year," NIU head coach Pete Wehry said. "We have a great relationship with MBBC, so this is a big instate rivalry game."
NIU struggled offensively in the first half.
"We made a conscious effort at halftime to get to the basket in the second half," Wehry said.
The game was back and forth, with the Crusaders shooting a blazing 11 from 18 behind the arc in the second half. Northland attacked the basket, finished inside well, and got to the free-throw line 23 times in the second half.
"We had some mismatch situations we were able to take advantage of and it paid off in getting the ball to the basket," Wehry said.
The Pioneers were led by Josh Conover's 26 points, followed by Anthony Lewis, 18, and Kyler Gardner, 13.
"It was a great game by our guys and we had great support from our crowd and it was exciting to have the Pembine High School band come and support us," Wehry said. 'It was just a great college basketball atmosphere."
The next night, NIU and Grace Bible, also unbeaten in the Midwest Region, squared off at the Pioneer Center to decide the No. 1 seed for the tournament. The defending national champion Tigers have won the region five years in a row.
"Grace is a really solid basketball program, not just a team," Wehry said. "The task looked pretty formidable for us, but the guys were truly up for the challenge."
The first half ended up with the Tigers surging to a 39-34 lead.
"We missed some easy shots and lost assignments defensively, so at halftime we talked about shoring these things up and coming out and executing in the second half," Wehry said.
With the hot shooting of Lewis (17 points), clutch play of Conover (22 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds) and confident leadership of point guard Micah Baines (12 points and 6 assists), NIU outscored Grace 38-22 in the second half.
With NIU down 59-58 with 7:12 to go, Northland rolled 13-2 to pull out the win.
"Honestly, we played really well those seven minutes," Wehry said. "Great defense, great rebounding, we sprinted the floor for a couple of easy baskets and then we really did a good job stretching them out at the end and executing our sets."
If the Pioneers continue their success, there is potential for NIU to head to the NCCAA Division 2 nationals in Springfield, Missouri, either as region champs or a possible at large bid.
"We have a solid team, and we seem to be playing well at the right time," Wehry said. "We plan on working hard, playing as well as we can, and giving God the glory. It is a real privilege to represent NIU."