Vikings will likely make the Central Region Tournament
After falling in a 2OT 97-89 classic to Southwest Minnesota State Monday, Augustana gave up the NSIC Tournament crown it has worn for the last two seasons.
Still, another championship defense remains—a national one—and the Vikings will likely make the Central Region Tournament to fight for it. As of Wednesday, the Vikings are ranked fifth in the region-the top eight teams make the tournament.
“If the right teams win, I think we’re in,” head coach Tom Billeter said Tuesday morning before the NSIC Championship.
SMSU held up their end of the bargain, preventing Upper Iowa from securing an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament which accompanies a conference tournament title.
The Peacocks have been behind the Vikings in each iteration of the Central Region rankings and that seems unlikely to change come Selection Sunday. In fact, the latest ranking placed Augustana one spot above Minnesota State Moorhead, another NSIC team, for the first time Upper Iowa is currently eighth.
Billeter said missing the regional would hurt especially bad because of the team’s improvement throughout the year and because its 23 wins are tied for the fourth-most in school history.
Senior guard Adam Beyer said he could hardly wrap his head around the possibility.
“It’d just be so weird, to me, to not be able to play in that tournament,” Beyer said. “With the season we had and the past success we’ve had the last couple of years,… on Sunday if we weren’t called, it’d just be weird to me. No matter what our record says, we deserve to be in there.”
Barring severe fluctuations in the rankings and unranked teams winning the GAC and MIAA conference tournaments and therefore stealing an NCAA bid, the Vikings should be in. They will also likely avoid being the region’s eight seed and a first-round matchup with Northwest Missouri State on the latter’s home floor. The Bearcats have only one loss and beat Augustana 82-71 earlier this season.
Billeter said he doesn’t care about the matchups as long as the Vikings make the tournament.
Beyer said the, vikings will likely need to play the Bearcats anyway if they want to make the Elite Eight (played at theSanford Pentagon March 22-25), so he cares little of seeding.
“Obviously it’d be nice to avoid them, but at the same time, you have to face them eventually,” Beyer said. “You’ve got to be ready for it whenever.”
Junior guard Jordan Spencer said the Vikings are more ready to compete with the Bearcats than in their first meeting, when AU was outscored 45-21 in the first half.
“There’s a lot of hype around Northwest, and rightfully so, but when we played them that first time [Nov. 17], we were a brand new team,” Spencer said. “We know they’re beatable.”
The Vikings could have relaxed going into Selection Sunday had it won the NSIC Tournament. Blowing a 10-point lead in the final three minutes of regulation against SMSU didn’t help.
Spencer—who broke the Augustana’s career assist record (677) in the loss—was hard on himself after the loss but also confident of his team’s ability
“[The loss] was painful, especially when you know you’re better than a team, and you know that it was kind of down to you for losing that game,” Spencer said.
Both assessments are arguable but fair. Despite having a worse record than SMSU, Augustana has a better point differential (10.6 to 7.2) than the Mustangs. Individually, Spencer didn’t have his best game, shooting 5-18 from the field, including a crucial missed layup in the last few minutes that likely would have been the difference. He played all 50 minutes.
“We didn’t really do anything that we normally do,” Spencer said. “Offensively we were very stagnant, very timid.”
He added that he, as the leader of the offense, started burning clock a little too early and that the lack of aggressiveness proved costly.
“I should’ve pushed the ball more when we were up 10,” Spencer said, “kept pushing it until about the two-minute mark.”
Beyer said the Vikings’ principles of team defense fell apart in the last five minutes of regulation, noting that guys were unwilling to help off their man for fear of giving up an open shot.
“Everybody on defense felt like they had to make sure that they didn’t lose the game,” Beyer said. “We didn’t stick to what we were supposed to do. The sink, the whole rotations that we normally do weren’t there because people didn’t want to leave their person.”
The late-game execution left a lot to be desired, and Billeter said he feels partially responsible. After sophomore guard John Warren nailed a three (one of his six on the night) with 10 seconds left in the first overtime to give the Vikings a two-point lead, Billeter wished he had called timeout to set up his defense.
SMSU came right back, attacked the rim and managed a put-back after an airballed layupto send it to double overtime.
“If I could’ve done one thing [differently] … I wish I would’ve [called timeout],” Billeter said.
Senior center Zach Huisken’s foul trouble was a huge, underrated factor in the game, according to Billeter. Huisken picked up his second foul four minutes into the game. Billeter estimated the big man’s sporadic playing time after that cost the Vikings 2-6 points.
“It was really, to be quite honest, like balancing bowling balls with [Huisken’s playing time] the whole game,” Billeter said.
The Vikings went with a small lineup often when Huisken was out,playing Beyer a senior forward and Mike Busack in the frontcourt. The strategy fueled the offense but hurt their rebounding. In the last few minutes of regulation, they couldn’t end defensive possessions with rebounds, and cost them the game.
“Normally we’ve rebounded well when we’ve gone small so it hasn’t really been a problem, but I think a lot of factors came in to [the game], like fatigue, which we gave into,” Spencer said. “[The Mustangs] made the key hustle plays when they needed to.”
Yet Augustana may be able to avenge the loss. SMSU is in the regional, projected as the two-seed. Augustana will likely be there, too, and the teams could meet as soon as the first round.