The Southwestern men let a golden opportunity slip away here Wednesday in a 79-76 loss to North Iowa Area Community College.
Going into the final three conference games against NIACC, at second-place Kirkwood and at home March 2 against Iowa Central, coach Mike Holmes felt winning two of three would solidify a spot in the top four. That would mean a home game to start the regional tournament.
The Spartans raced to an 11-0 lead in the opening 3:30 of the game Wednesday, prompting NIACC coach Mark Mohl to burn two early timeouts.
Six minutes later, Southwestern was facing a two-point deficit (17-15), and it was shaping up as a fight to the finish.
The Spartans clung to a 33-31 halftime lead, but fell behind in the second half and couldn’t get untracked in time, trailing by margins of four to six points most of the way.
Reserve sophomore Chase Blazek of Creston canned two 3-pointers when the Spartans were looking to make up points in a hurry in the final minute, but the Trojans made enough free throws to keep the Spartans at bay.
“Chase, that’s his specialty,” SWCC coach Mike Holmes said. “He’s a good guy to go to in a situation like that. He can shoot it coming off the bus.”
For the game, NIACC was 22-28 at the line. SWCC was 17-22.
The ramifications of the loss are stinging. Southwestern is now tied with Iowa Central for fourth place at 6-6, behind a tie for second between Ellsworth and Kirkwood at 7-4 each. NIACC is right behind now at 5-6, and DMACC is still in the hunt at 5-7.
So, there’s a logjam of four teams, essentially, chasing the fourth spot if Ellsworth and Kirkwood hang on to second and third.
“This hurts,” Holmes said. “We needed that one. If we win out, we’re in the top four. But if we split, now it depends on what Iowa Central and some of the other teams end up doing. We need some help.”
Southwestern falls to 13-13 overall, while NIACC improves to 18-9 by winning six of its last seven games.
“We had our opportunity,” Holmes said. “So many people are bunched in the middle, we could just tumble here if we’re not careful.”
The picture was rosy in the first four minutes, as the frustrated Trojans faced an 11-point deficit on the road.
“That’s college basketball,” Holmes said. “You know that people with their talent, it can change in a hurry. Sometimes a big early lead like that is almost a negative. You might lose concentration for a minute, you might take a possession off on the defensive end, you might get a little sloppy with the basketball.”
Turnovers, and untimely missed layups, proved to be problems as NIACC guard Josiah Lee went on a scoring binge in the second half, including a couple of runouts off of steals.
“That’s why we can’t turn it over,” Holmes said. “We can guard everything else, but we can’t guard turnovers. Even near the end of the game we had a costly one that went the other way. When we do that, we’re not going to win. That’s the bottom line.”
Center Devin Kastrup has been productive of late and continued that trend with a team-high 19 points Wednesday. Marquealis Edwards shot 7-of-8 at the free throw line in scoring 17. Patrick Wright, a second-half spark driving the lane, scored 14 and Jack Harrison dropped in 13.
It was the first appearance of the season for 6-6 sophomore Trevor Kayser, coming off knee surgery. He made a brief appearance in the first half.
“He gave us some energy in practice, so we wanted to get him some floor time,” Holmes said. “But after only two practices, he looked a little fatigued and they went small, so we had to counter with a smaller lineup.”
Pending the severity of the snowstorm forecast for the region, Southwestern is scheduled to travel to Southeast Nebraska Saturday for a nonconference game before a league trip to Kirkwood next Wednesday.
NIACC (79) — Chris Davis 8 4-6 23, David Humphries 6 3-4 16, Josiah Lee 6 3-3 15, Mike Wagner 3 5-6 12, Mathew Don 2 3-4 7, Sam Skogen 1 2-3 4, John Hafoka 0 2-2 2. Totals — 26 22-28 79. 3-point goals — 6 (Davis 3, Wagner 2, Humphries 1). Team fouls — 21. Fouled out — None.
SOUTHWESTERN (76) — Devin Kastrup 8 3-3 19, Marquealis Edwards 5 7-8 17, Patrick Wright 4 6-6 14, Jack Harrison 6 1-3 13, Chase Blazek 2 0-0 6, Delby Halcomb 2 0-0 4, Jared Theis 1 0-0 2, Marcus Littleton 0 1-2 1. Totals — 28 17-22 76. 3-point goals — 3 (Blazek 2, Kastrup 1). Team fouls — 22. Fouled out — Edwards.
NIACC — 31 79
SWCC — 33 76