MARYVILLE, Mo. — Emporia State coach Craig Doty summed it up after the Hornets’ semifinal game against Drew Blair and Minnesota-Duluth. When Blair went down in a heap in the quarterfinals, Doty thought he’d be done for the tournament.
With 29 points against Emporia State. Blair showed that he was far from done. And on Tuesday, Blair doubled down on that with 28 points on 9-of-16 shooting and 5-of-8 from beyond the arc.
“I pretty much made up my mind that nothing is going to stop me from coming out here with these guys at this time of the year,” Blair said. “There is no better time to play basketball with the boys. Obviously, the biggest games we’ve ever played in — to get this program here.”
Blair was the lone Bulldog to hit double figures on Tuesday, but his scoring and the team’s defense led the Bulldogs to a 62-52 win over Southern Nazarene in the Central Region championship.
“I’m a little speechless right now, quite honestly,” Bulldog coach Justin Wieck said. “… These guys bought into a vision a long time ago."
Southern Nazarene was coming off a semifinal win over 3-time defending national champion Northwest Missouri State — but didn’t come out as sharp against Duluth.
“We were a step slow, we were heavy-legged,” Southern Nazarene coach Adam Bohac said. “They were quicker to all the balls than us. It was such a juiced up atmosphere the other night. We knew that was going to be a challenge today. There is just a human element to it and we didn’t fight it off very good — that forever and ever this has been the place and that was the team that we beat in the second game that means that you are there and means you are going to the Elite Eight.
“But it didn’t mean you were going to the Elite Eight. There was more to do and I didn’t do a good enough job of getting us to flush that and turn the page. Just emotionally, I thought that we were not quite there.”
Javon Jackson was one of the Crimson Storm players who couldn’t recapture that magic from Sunday. After going 9-of-13 for 24 points on heavily contested shots against Northwest, Jackson was just 8-for-25 on Tuesday and 2-of-11 from 3-point range.
Joshua Brown was a big key defensively in limiting the Storm guards and finished as the team’s second-leading scorer with nine points.
“Our effort level was off the charts,” Wieck said.
The Bulldogs held a slim 4-point lead at halftime, but a foul on a Brown 3-pointer allowed him to make three free throws and build a 7-point lead. Blair had 8-straight points — including two 3-pointers — and increased the lead to 47-33 with 8:48 left.
The Crimson Storm answered with a basket, but Blair was in a zone and hit another 3-pointer for a 15-point lead.
Duluth made its free throws down the stretch and sealed the 10-point win. The Bulldogs become the 13th team in NCAA Division-II to send both its men’s and women’s teams to the Elite Eight in the same year.
“To see it pay off for our guys on this stage for our guys is just amazing,” Wieck said. “I’m happy for them. To see their smiles and tears and all that stuff up on the court — that is what it is all about.”
The Central Region champion has won six of the last eight national titles with four for Northwest Missouri State, one for Augustana and one for Central Missouri. The Bulldogs open with a matchup against Black Hills State on Tuesday at Noon in Evansville, Indiana.
“It is going to be fun,” Bulldog forward Charlie Katona said. “The kind of basketball we are playing right now is fun to play.”