It may have come one day early on the campus of Mount Vernon Nazarene College, but March Madness was at a fever pitch in the Physical Education Center on Tuesday evening as the top-seeded Cougars defeated second-seeded Walsh University 84-72 in the championship game of the American Mideast Conference Tournament before an excited standing-room only crowd.
With the victory, MVNC (25-7) earns an automatic berth to its third straight NAIA Division II National Tournament. The Cougars will pack their bags and head to Branson, Missouri, for the 32-team event sometime on Monday.
The two teams battled to a 10-10 tie after the first five minutes of action, but then MVNC went on a 20-10 run to build a 30-20 lead with 5:04 remaining in the first half. Phil Argento, the AMC's Freshman of the Year, fueled the run with 12 points.
However, the Cavaliers (20-10) showed why they had made it to eight conference tournament championship games in the last nine years as they reeled off nine straight points to close the gap to 30-29 with 3:22 left before the break. Ben Holt nailed back-to-back three-pointers to bring Walsh back into contention.
The Cougars answered with a 9-2 run to close the half as MVNC took a 39-31 lead with them to the locker room. Lenny Foyer nailed four straight free throws, and Adam Stevens drained a three-pointer to help the Cougars regain a comfortable lead.
Argento led MVNC with 14 first-half points, while Kenny Chaffin added eight points. Foyer also contributed seven points and seven rebounds. The Cavaliers were paced by Rashad Hanibal with seven points and five rebounds, and Holt and Drake Mosby with six points each.
The Cougars opened the second half with a three-point play by Chaffin and a trey by Argento as MVNC extended the lead to 45-31 with just over two minutes gone by in the final period.
The Cougars kept their double figure lead as the teams traded baskets over the next 10 minutes, and MVNC held its biggest advantage of the game on a three-pointer by Stevens that put the Cougars ahead 67-51 with 7:38 left in the game.
However, Walsh did not give up as the Cavaliers went on a 15-4 run to pull to 71-66 with 2:08 left on the clock. Kevin Verde led the comeback with four free throws and a three-pointer.
That would be as close as Walsh would get, though, as the Cougars nailed 11-of-14 free throws down the stretch to pull away for the 84-72 victory. Argento and Matt Keller each went 5-of-6 at the charity stripe to lead the way.
Argento led MVNC by matching his career high with 27 points. Chaffin added 19 points, nine rebounds, and a career-high six blocked shots, while Stevens finished with 12 points, eight rebounds, and six assists. Foyer contributed 11 points and a career-high nine rebounds, and Keller dished out a game-high seven assists to go along with nine points.
Mosby paced the Cavaliers with 15 points and eight rebounds, while Hanibal finished with 14 points, seven rebounds, and six assists. Jason Zupp and Verde recorded 12 and 11 points respectively.
The Cougars will wait to see who they will play in the first round of the tournament that begins on Wednesday, March 8. The bracket will be released by Thursday.