For the first time since 1998, the Rowan men’s basketball team is heading to the NCAA Division III Sweet 16.
NCAA Division III tournament action got started for the Profs on Friday, March 3, against the Cal Lutheran Kingsmen, who made the tournament after winning the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC).
Rowan got off to a hot start and held the lead until Logan McCullough hit a contested three-pointer with 8:32 left, which gave the Kingsmen a lead they held until midway through the second half.
Whether it was from the corner or wing, whether it was contested or open, Cal Lutheran couldn’t miss in the first half, resulting in a 47.4 shooting percentage from three. This propelled them to a 46-38 lead at the break, and the Profs knew that if they wanted to avoid a first-round exit they would need to switch up their defense and adjust to the Kingsmen’s sharpshooters.
“When they got hot offensively, we went to what was supposed to be a take away the three defense, but we didn’t do it well,” Head Coach Joe Crispin said. “We didn’t adjust in the first half… We adjusted defensively in the second half. Just guard them, guard your dude. If you need help, come out, and we did a good job.”
The Profs bought into the defensive adjustment Coach Crispin had for them in the halftime locker room, and as a result, the Kingsmen struggled to get the same open looks they had in the first half.
“They did a better job of guarding the ball and making guys in the paint make more plays,” Cal Lutheran’s Head Coach Russell White said. “In the first half, they were collapsing on drives, and they didn’t do that as much in the second half.”
After playing catch-up for the majority of the game, the Profs finally retook the lead with 9:15 to
go after junior forward Ja’Zere Noel scored two of his game-high 29 on a fastbreak layup. The
aggressiveness of Noel, who set a season-high in field goals attempts and makes, was crucial for the
Profs, as they needed a spark to keep up with Cal Lutheran’s elite shooting performance.
“When I go into games, I don’t want to lose at all. Especially a game like today, it was a great environment,” Noel said. “I always think of my teammates. A lot of people think that I think for me, I think
for my teammates. I come out, I want to win for my teammates. I love my teammates. I want to do the
best I can for them, for my coaches, for my family. It’s never about me.”
From there, the two teams were on the seesaw. Rowan held a one-point lead with 30 seconds left to play, and free throws from a calm and collected Connor Dickerson and Noel iced the game for the Profs.
“Believe it or not, it looks good, but it’s tough [to stay calm],” Noel said. “We all gotta talk to each
other, we all gotta bring it in. It’s just unity, and I think that’s a big thing as far as this whole year. We’ve just all been together, staying together, sticking together and getting through everything. Ups and downs, we’ve been through it all, and wins like this just show that we’ve been through it and we’re working through it.”
With a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line, the Profs matched up with the Utica University Pioneers in the second round on Saturday, March 4, following their 72-60 win the day prior versus Babson. After watching the film, Utica could instantly see how much talent this Profs team has.
“Rowan’s really good, we saw that on film,” Utica’s Head Coach Sean Coffey said. “They’re really good. They got great players, size, and athleticism.”
Rowan put their athleticism on display early, as they forced the Pioneers to miss their first six shots from the field. Utica refused to roll over, however. They continued to chip away at the Profs’ lead and even tied it at 18 after Utica guard Darius Hopkins drained a three from way beyond the arc. Despite the adversity, the Profs were able to enter the locker room with a 13-point lead.
Rowan came out of the half and looked to be in command after senior forward Andrew Seager put the Profs up 16. But Hopkins proceeded to drop 13 of his game-high 30 points, leading the Pioneers to a 21-8 run and cutting Rowan’s lead to three with 10:53 to go.
From side-step jumpers to acrobatic finishes, Hopkins’ ability to will Utica back into it was one that
caught Rowan’s attention.
“He was incredible,” Crispin said. “It was one of those ones that you’re like ‘he’s not going to keep
hitting them,’ and then he did… He played tremendously. We didn’t necessarily label him as a DJ Campbell, but he was.”
Rowan then went on an 11-0 run of their own to push the lead back to a comfortable 14 points, which is where it hovered for the remainder of the game.
Just one night after dropping 29 points and 14 rebounds, Noel posted yet another double-double,
with 14 points and 10 boards. Seager was also able to shine, as he posted 20 of his 23 points inside the paint to pair with his 10 rebounds.
“It helps when we have Ja’Zere [Noel] on our team,” Seager said. “He had 29 points last night, so if they weren’t going to try and contain him, he would have had probably 40. He just opens up so much for us. Throughout the year, he’s just opening up shots for all of us, so the paint was just open. Coach [Crispin] drew up some good plays to clear out some spots for us.”
Now with a taste of NCAA tournament play, the team is starving for more.
“This feels good,” Coach Crispin said. “This is a good group of guys, talented guys. They’ve worked very hard… These guys worked hard in the offseason and they’re not around me doing that, so when we came into the season, we did have high expectations. It feels good to take this next step, but we’re hungry for more.”
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