By Murray Evans
WINONA LAKE, Ind. (March 14, 2013) – This one was all about defense for the Oklahoma Christian Eagles.
OC jumped on Cedarville (Ohio) early, built a double-digit lead and never let the Yellow Jackets come back en route to a 79-66 win in the semifinals of the National Christian College Athletic Association Championship on Thursday afternoon at the Orthopaedic Capital Center.
OC (19-11) advanced to a national championship game for the first time in the program’s history. The Eagles will face Shorter (Ga.) – an NAIA Division I semifinalist last season – in the title game on Saturday. Shorter beat Fresno Pacific (Calif.) in the other semifinal.
Will Reinke led OC with 23 points and 11 rebounds and Kendre Talley scored 12 points, including a 10-of-10 performance from the free-throw line in the final 1:20 to slam the door on Cedarville (21-9), which had won 12 straight games and was last year’s NCCAA champion.
“We had a really good game plan,” OC coach Dan Hays said. “We chose not to have a shootaround. We had a meeting in the hotel and we were able to really go through things. (Assistant) coach (Bob) Battisti did a really good job of making just one little adjustment. That’s a really good team we beat. Cedarville hadn’t lost in 56 days.”
Cedarville entered the game shooting 39.6 percent from 3-point range, so the Eagles made it a priority to guard the perimeter. The strategy proved successful as the Yellow Jackets finished 8-of-27 from behind the arc (29.6 percent) and never made a sustained rally in the second half.
“Our team is playing its best at the right time,” Hays said. “Everybody that played was just outstanding. We played hard and we played physical. We played through a little bit of adversity. We shot a good percentage and were good from the free-throw line. But the thing that won it for us was our defense, no question.”
Cedarville’s only lead came at 2-0. Reinke scored at the 18:18 mark of the first half to make it 4-2 and the Eagles never trailed again.
OC gradually built a double-digit lead, going ahead 28-15 on two free throws by Reinke at the 9:48 mark. Cedarville’s Marcus Reineke briefly got hot, draining three 3-pointers and a 2-pointer to key an 11-2 run that pulled the Yellow Jackets within 31-26, but OC held on and led 40-32 at halftime.
Cedarville twice pulled within four points in the second half, the last time at 49-45 on a 3-pointer by Zach Brown with 14:58 left. But every time the Yellow Jackets threated, OC seemed to have an answer. A 10-3 spurt by the Eagles, capped by a corner 3-pointer by Willie Harper, rebuilt their lead to 59-48 with 10:55 left.
“Everyone was shooting well and they were getting me the ball real well,” Reinke said. “When that happens, we’re hard to beat.”
OC led 65-54 after a Reinke basket with 6:47 left. The Eagles didn’t score again until the 1:53 mark, but limited Cedarville to three points – all on free throws – during that stretch to hold the lead.
“We really played good defense – probably the best defense we’ve played all year,” Reinke said. “We were prepared.”
Talley’s free throws sealed the win and kept alive championship hopes that seemed gone six days ago, after OC lost to Mid-America Christian in the NCCAA Central Region semifinals. The Eagles received the last at-large bid to the NCCAA Championship and now will play for the title.
“We got a second chance and we’re not going to let that go to waste,” Reinke said.
Zimmy Nwogbo led the Yellow Jackets with 14 points and nine rebounds. Austin Foote and Reineke scored 13 points each and Brown had 10 for Cedarville, which hadn’t lost since Jan. 15.
Brandon Troutman, Derek Johnson and Harper each hit a pair of 3-pointers for OC. Troutman, Harper and Nick Tate scored eight points each for the Eagles.