Once again taking advantage of quality play in the low post, the North Central College men’s basketball team treated its home crowd to a long-awaited postseason win last Saturday.
The Cardinals pulled away steadily in the second half and posted a 66-50 victory over Centre College in the first round of the NCAA Division III Championship at Gregory Arena.
Playing in its first NCAA tournament home game since 1990, third-ranked North Central (25-3) converted 23 of its 26 successful field-goal attempts in the paint and led nearly the entire way to advance to a second-round showdown with the No. 5-ranked University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
The Cardinals stumbled out of the gate with turnovers on their first three possessions and trailed for most of the first five minutes of play. The hosts moved in front for the first time at 8-6 when Charlie Rosenberg came up with a steal and broke free for a dunk with 15:14 on the clock. He later added a jumper and a free throw before two more charity shots from Jack Merrithey left North Central with a 13-6 advantage with 12:31 left in the period.
Centre (21-6) cut the lead to 19-17 on Matt Griggs’ jumper, but the Colonels were held scoreless for more than five minutes thereafter, during which time the Cardinals scored nine straight to take their first double-digit lead at 28-17. Centre sank the final two field goals of the half and headed into halftime facing a 28-21 deficit.
After shooting just 39.3 percent (11 of 28) in the opening half, North Central heated up to 68.2 percent accuracy (15 of 22) in the second period. A 10-2 run, capped off by a pair of layups from Rosenberg, put the Cardinals up, 40-25, and the hosts led by at least 12 points the rest of the way.
“We got good looks in the first half and just missed some shots,” said North Central head coach Todd Raridon. “We had to continue to get the ball inside and we did a nice job of it. We struggled a little shooting from the outside, but we knew the inside game was there. That’s the sign of a smart basketball team.”
The Cardinals’ Landon Gamble led all scorers with 17 points while also sharing the team lead in rebounds (8) with Aaron Tiknis and handing out a team-high four assists. He scored 11 points in 13 second-half minutes to help North Central pull away. Rosenberg added 11 points and five rebounds in 14 minutes off the bench, while Tiknis and Derek Raridon each scored 10. Vince Kmiec’s two steals give him 59 for the season, tying the North Central single-season record.
“It’s always good for the bigs to have an all-around good game like this,” Gamble said. “It makes it hard on the opponents when they come in because they can’t double-team. When they double off, it opens things up for everyone else and when you get everyone going like this, we’re a very hard team to stop.”
Wisconsin-Whitewater (24-4) opened the tournament with a 58-42 victory over the University of Dubuque. North Central’s second-round game against the Warhawks will be played at 7 p.m. Saturday at a site to be announced.