Central earns automatic bid to tournament with win in conference tourney final
UPDATE: Central College will open the Division III NCAA Tournament at 6 p.m. on Friday against St. Olaf College in Stevens Point, Wis.
PELLA — Central College senior Spencer Bakerink’s dream is coming true.
The post player from Creston dreamed that someday he’d be able to play in the NCAA Tournament with the Central Dutch.
By virtue of Saturday’s 74-70 win over Luther in the Iowa Conference Tournament final, the Dutch are going dancing, earning the IIAC’s automatic berth into the 61-team Division III field.
“Four years ago, when I first started this journey, it was a dream,” Bakerink said. “It was something all the freshmen coming in wanted to do. It was this longshot dream we had. After last night (Saturday), it’s still kind of surreal.
“I was talking to Matt (Greenfield) this morning, and we still can’t believe we’re going to be in the NCAA Tournament. To actually have the dream come true, it’s kind of hard to believe.”
Central, which has made a habit of playing in close games, squeaked out another win in the conference tournament final.
During a nine-game winning streak this year, the Dutch won by an average margin of just 6.8 points per game. Two of those games went into overtime, and the loss that snapped the streak was a three-point loss in overtime.
Saturday, the Dutch overcame a double-digit deficit before hanging on to a 74-70 win over six-seed Luther.
The Norse built a 14-point lead midway through the first half, leading Central 27-13 with 11:03 to go in the half.
But Central went on a 24-9 run to end the half with a 38-36 lead on a 3-pointer at the buzzer from Greenfield.
The Dutch eventually built a double-digit lead of their own at 53-42 with 14:05 to go in the game.
Luther wouldn’t go away, however, keeping the margin within five over the final 8:19 of the game.
Despite shooting just 39.4 percent from the field and being outrebounded 51-39, the Dutch held on for the win, sweeping the regular season and conference tournament titles.
Freshman Colby Taylor of Creston finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds for his third double-double of the season. Bakerink recorded five points and seven rebounds.
Kevin Kaerwer and Nile Eckermann both finished with 19 points to lead Central, while Greenfield added 17, going over 1,000 career points in the process.
It’s been a long journey to this point for the Dutch, who were picked to finish last in the eight-team Iowa Conference in the preseason coaches poll.
“I feel like that was a huge motivator,” Taylor said. “That was good bulletin board material that other coaches predicted us last. To go out there and prove everyone wrong the first time in conference, and to do it a second time in the tournament was even better.”
A preseason exhibition game at Division I Drake University showed the Central team what it was capable of this season.
“We played with a Division I team pretty dang close for probably the first 28 minutes,” Bakerink said. “I feel like after we played Drake, we played a lot of good non-conference teams. Everybody came to practice every day, wanting to work hard to get that tournament berth.”
The regular season conference championship was Central’s 17th Iowa Conference title.
With Saturday’s win, Central earns its 10th appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
“I never got a conference championship in high school,” Taylor said. “Doing it my first year in college is pretty special. I’m really excited to be able to play in the national tournament and see how other teams around the country are.”
Taylor said he only saw himself playing a few minutes per game as a freshman. Now, he finds himself starting on a team playing in the national tournament.
“Being able to do this my freshman year, it seconds how good my decision was to come to Central,” he said.
For Bakerink, it’s been three years in the making.
“Last year we didn’t have that good of a season,” Bakerink said. “I think we were 3-11 in the conference. Last year’s senior class, we saw how bad it hurt them. I think it’s very special when I get to come back for alumni games, I can look up and see that (championship and NCAA Tournament) banner. It’s been a very special season for us.”
Winning a conference championship together, and now making it to the NCAA Tournament as teammates has been a special experience for Bakerink and Taylor.
“The only couple of games we played together in high school was the final district games,” Taylor said. “That didn’t end the way we wanted it to. To come here and in our only year together, to win a conference championship together, that’s special.”
Bakerink says there’s still work to be done, however.
“It’s been a fun journey, but it’s not over,” he said. “We have this high, lofty goal to be national champion. We set ourselves up pretty good, but it starts when we hear who we play.”
The tournament bracket was announced at 11:30 a.m. today. It can be found at www.ncaa.com.