Evangel and MidAmerica Nazarene entered Tuesday night’s conference tournament title game as locks for the upcoming NAIA Division I Tournament in Kansas City.
But as Crusaders coach Steve Jenkins put it, if they’re keeping score, it matters.
Getting a little payback for two losses to the Pioneers in the regular season, Evangel celebrated on its home floor after an 88-81 victory in the Heart of America Athletic Conference Tournament finals. The win figures to give the Crusaders a better seed for the national tournament, which begins March 13.
"The fun part was seeing our guys competing," Jenkins said. "It was a championship game, but both teams are going to Kansas City. There's not pressure from that standpoint, 'Well we have to win to get into the national tournament.' It wasn't that at all. It was more, 'I am competing because this is an important game for us. This is what we worked for.'”
Senior Stephen Cotten led Evangel with 21 points, going 8-for-12 from the field. Victor Agbasi scored 19 off the bench and Brodie Wingert added 15 points for the Crusaders, who also finished first in the HAAC regular season standings.
"This was Goal No. 2 that we're going to meet this year. Goal No. 1 we took care of in the regular season,” Jenkins said. “To see our guys dig down and really have a gut check and play that well was fun. I'm a competitor. As long as they're going to put a scoreboard up, I think it's our duty to try our best to win the game. Our guys really did that."
The game was tight throughout. In all, there were 13 ties and 12 lead changes, most coming in the first half.
Neither side led by more than five points until Cotten’s basket with 8:27 remaining put the Crusaders ahead 63-57.
Evangel seemed to be on the verge of pulling away when it converted a steal into a Wingert basket to go ahead 81-72 with less than four minutes left. The Pioneers closed the gap to 81-77 about two minutes later.
Evangel answered by hitting three of four free throws, forcing a MNU turnover in between, to put the contest out of reach. Cotten threw down a two-handed dunk in the final minute to make it 86-77.
"They're so explosive and they gladly trade a basket to have a chance to get a quick one on you," Jenkins said about the Pioneers. "I thought we handled their pressure well and were composed enough down the stretch, executed when we really needed to."
MNU’s Rustin Dowd scored a game-high 24 and Brandon Newton added 21. Evangel shot 57 percent from the field in the second half and 5-for-12 from the 3-point line overall.
"We have a tendency to really, really like shooting from the 3-point line," Jenkins said. "These last several games, we've not shot it that great from the 3. We go 5-for-12 tonight. That's more like it. That's better than shooting 24 3s, and making six or something."
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