KANSAS CITY – The first NAIA Fab Four game of the evening had more of a feel of a track meet than a basketball game. But in the closing minutes, Mid-America Christian edged past Campbellsville (Ky.) in the sprint to the finish and advance to the first NAIA title game in school history.
MACU defeated CU, 93-89, in the semifinal of the 2016 NAIA Men’s Basketball National Championship on Monday.
Mid-America Christian coach Josh Gamblin talked about the offensive aggressiveness at the outset and said he agreed with the track analogy.
“Yes, it was,” Gamblin said. “We came out and couldn’t get a stop for the first 10 minutes of the game.
“Then we kind of slowed them down, I thought, defensively late in the first half. But in the second half, they really exposed our pick and roll coverage.”
Both teams were firing at a high rate and 12 minutes into the contest the score was tied at 33-apiece. But MACU seemed to start to pull away at that point with a 15-2 run that opened up a 50-35 lead with 4:39 remaining in the first half.
Bryon Miller, who recorded another double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds, had eight straight points during that run.
MACU went to the intermission up 55-44.
The lead was built to 16 four minutes into the second half. But the Tigers started to show why they were also in the Fab Four.
With 12:39 left to play, MACU was on top, 74-61. CU then took off on an 18-1 run over the next four minutes of game time to take a 79-75 lead.
“Some of that was (defensive) breakdowns, but some of them are just really good offensive players on the other side,” Gamblin said. “Sometimes you just have to tip your hat. And it’s hard watching the ball get put in. But we were able to get some big ones down the stretch.
“But the credit goes to Campbellsville. They’re extremely well coached. Really good guard play, good shooters and a big who is extremely dynamic and can do some big things.”
One of those guards was Sekou Harris who had nine points and seven straight during that CU run.
“They have two dynamic guards and shooters all over the place. They’re very well coached and did a lot of good things. We were just able to make a few more plays down the stretch.”
Nick Tate made a couple of those plays with big shots as the game wound down. He was held to only 11 points, but hit a jumper to help MACU regain a lead at 82-81.
The teams traded shots and free throws until it was tied again at 89-89 with just more than a minute left, when Chris Runnels came away with steal and Bryon Miller put in a shot from close range to give the Evangels their final lead.
After a steal on the inbound with two seconds left, Tate iced the game with two free throws.
“We’re fortunate to have really good players,” Gamblin said. “They can really score it. They’re sharing the ball. They’re playing together.
“Nick (Tate) was our fifth-highest scorer, but he made some big ones in the second half. Devonse Reed has been as tough of a cover as anyone in this whole tournament. And Bryon Miller, Malcolm Mann, and Chris Runnels are so consistent for us night in and night out.
“We have guys off the bench like Jerrick Massenburge, and you know what he can do, so we need to depend on them one more time.”
Reed once again led the team in scoring with 27 points. Mann had 14 points, Massenburge had 12 and Tate scored 11 with seven rebounds and three assists.
Campbellsville’s Harris had a game-high 30 points and Dii-jon Allen-Jordan was a force on the inside with 25 points.
Gamblin spoke of the privilege he has to be where he is now.
“Well, first and foremost, we came into a really good position as a staff. Willie Holley has done an unreal job with this program, having built it from scratch.
“We have a great administration, a great athletic director in Marcus Moeller, a president who supports us. President Fozard was dancing in our locker room post game.
“So my job has been easy, but our players have been unreal. I couldn’t have asked for a better group. And I mean this, the Lord blessed me in so many ways with these kids. I think I’ve learned more from them.
“I feel fortunate and I’m excited for tomorrow, but I know our pregame speech is going to be our last one of the year, so that’s also going to be tough. Just extremely blessed to get to work with this group, and I can’t wait to see what all of them do in the next 10 years.”
Mid-America Christian (27-9) now looks to the more immediate future of a title game in less than 24 hours against another team from the state of Kentucky – Georgetown College (32-3).
“Extremely talented, but also really well coached,” Gamblin said. “Big, athletic, disciplined, and we will need to play our best game of the year to beat them.
“It will be a big time challenge, but again, I don’t think you’d want it any other way in the national championship and I know our guys are fired up and ready for the opportunity.”
The NAIA championship game is set to tip at 7:02 p.m. on Tuesday in the Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City.