By BRAD KEITH
Photos by JESSIE HORTON
EVANSVILLE (March 26, 2015) — Two of the nation’s top defenses squared off in a national semifinal at the Ford Center Thursday night, and it was Indiana (Pa.) that made the biggest defensive plays of all to punch a ticket to the national championship game.
Tarleton State (31-4) led 49-39, and appeared to be in total control. The Texans were dunking the ball seemingly at will, lobbing alley-oops to Davene Carter and Malcolm Hamilton for highlight-reel plays.
But IUP (31-6) persevered, then used its defensive pressure to fuel the biggest run of the night in a game that featured several of them both ways.
The Crimson Hawks scored 12 straight points and ultimately turned it into a 26-6 run to steal control in a 72-68 victory. IUP plays the winner of Florida Southern and Bellarmine, Thursday’s late semifinal, at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Tarleton set a senior college-era school record with 31 wins, won its third South Central Region championship and reached Division II’s final four for the second time.
IUP ended Tarleton’s 30-game win streak against teams from outside the Lone Star Conference. The Crimson Hawks are the first non-LSC member to defeat Tarleton since Metropolitan State-Denver in the 2013 regional tournament.
IUP, back in the final for the second time in six years, scored 43 points in the second half after leading 29-27 at intermission. The Crimson Hawks were 28-34 from the foul stripe, where Tarleton was just 6-8. The Texans entered the game second in the nation in free throw attempts.
IUP guard Shawn Dyer, a West Liberty (W.Va.) transfer playing in his fourth straight Elite Eight, was 10-11 from the line and led everyone with 20 points. Daddy Ugbede scored 16 including an 8-10 performance from the stripe, while Devante Chance scored 14 and dealt four assists. Brandon Norfleet scored 11.
Michael Hardge hit two late 3-pointers and scored 17 while dealing four assists for Tarleton, which also picked up 16 from Damion Clemons, 13 from EJ Reed and 12 from Mo Lee. The Texans shot 55.1 percent, its best mark of the NCAA playoffs, but also committed a playoff-high 15 turnovers.
IUP’s big second-half run appeared to come out of nowhere after Tarleton got dunk happy for a stretch and Crimson Hawk head coach Joe Lombardi picked up a technical foul, but over the final nine minutes of the game, everything changed.
“We had a 10-point lead and they went on a run. There were a few critical plays down the stretch, and they made all of them,” said 27th-year Tarleton head coach Lonn Reisman. “They hit some big threes, got a big offensive rebound to get one of them and go up five when we could have got the rebound and had a chance to tie the game. Those are little things that decide games played as close as I felt this game was played.”
Lombardi said it was a combination of things going right for his IUP club.
“I don’t think there was any one thing that did it. The press obviously helped. Coming down and executing on offense helped,” said Lombardi. “We got some second chance points and that gave us momentum, and basketball’s a game of momentum and runs. Uncle ‘Mo’ was in the building and he’s hard to get out.”
The Texans, 59-7 over the last two seasons, slipped to 19-12 all-time in the Division II playoffs, which they have reached 12 of the last 14 seasons. Tarleton is 2-3 all time in games at the Elite Eight tournament. Reisman has 589 wins leading the Texans, tying for 16th all-time in Division II. He has 610 career wins.
“We had an outstanding season and I thank God for the opportunity to experience it with this excellent group of young men,” said Reisman.
Senior and four-year letter winner Damion Clemons will look back favorably on his last season.
“For me this is a once in a lifetime experience. I wouldn’t say we were just happy to be here, we wanted to win it all, but we got this far and it was a great season,” said Clemons who led all players with nine boards in his final college game. “I was just trying to do anything and everything I could to help the team win, and we came up short.”
Mo Lee called the Elite Eight and reaching the final four an “amazing experience.” It was, however, bittersweet.
“It’s been an amazing experience, it’s just a tough pill to swallow right now,” said Lee, the South Central Region Championship MVP. “I won’t get to play another game with my brothers. “Other than that, it’s been an amazing experience for me.”
EJ Reed, a junior forward and Division I transfer, is among those who will be back next season. Tarleton will have three starters and eight total letter winners returning.
“I can tell you right now, this taste I have in my mouth will stay there for a minute,” Reed said. “It will stay there through the offseason, the summer, the pre-season and the beginning of next season. I won’t forget this and I don’t want to feel this way again.”