The McKendree University men’s basketball team registered a season-high in points on its way to a 96-84 win Wednesday night at the Statham Center against Blackburn College.
The Bearcats, who made just 1 of 8 attempts from the free-throw line in the first half, reversed their fortunes and hit 25 of 27 shots from the charity stripe in the final 20 minutes in pulling away for the win. In fact, McKendree connected on its final 18 shots from the line and finished the night shooting 74.3 percent (26 of 35).
Senior guard Nate Michael poured in a season-high 25 points, hitting four three-pointers in the win for McKendree. Junior guard Alijah Thomas had 11 of his 19 points in the second half while adding five assists and a game-high three steals for the Bearcats. Senior guard Giovanni Offard flirted with a triple-double against Blackburn before finishing the contest with 16 points, seven rebounds and matched a career-high with eight assists. Sophomore guard Carrington Bass came off the bench and contributed 13 points and six rebounds for the Bearcats.
The first half of Wednesday’s contest featured five ties and 10 lead changes. McKendree scored seven of the first nine points before Blackburn put together a 9-4 run to knot the score at 11-11 with 13:14 left in the period. Thomas then scored on a layup to spark a run of six straight points to push the Bearcats’ lead back to 17-11 before the Beavers battled back once again and grabbed a 23-22 advantage. The teams traded leads for the next several minutes until Blackburn pulled even at 36-36 heading into the final minute of the half.
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On the Bearcats’ final possession of the first half, Michael buried a three-pointer in front of the Blackburn bench to send McKendree into the locker room with a 39-36 lead. Michael’s shot was the start of a 12-0 run that spilled over into the start of the second half as the Bearcats stretched their cushion to 48-36 with 16:31 to play. After hitting the three-pointer just ahead of the first-half buzzer, Michael added six more points during McKendree’s fast start in the second period.
McKendree pushed its margin to as many as 14 points in the second half before Blackburn made one final run at the Bearcats. The Beavers trimmed their deficit to 67-60 with just over seven minutes to play, but McKendree was able to hold the visitors at bay from the free throw line. The Bearcats’ run of 18 consecutive free throws covered the final 7:29 of play. Thomas led the charge at the stripe, hitting all eight of his attempts in that span.
Along with its solid second-half free-throw shooting, McKendree committed a season-low four turnovers. The Bearcats forced 16 miscues by Blackburn and held a commanding 25-5 edge in points off turnovers.
Karson Hayes knocked down 25 points to lead Blackburn, while Bryson Kirby connected on seven three-point field goals and finished the contest with 21 points. The Beavers were 10 of 19 from beyond the arc (52.6 percent) in the first half and sank 18 three-pointers against the Bearcats.
McKendree moves above the .500 mark for the first time this season at 4-3 and will head to Ada, Okla., for a Saturday afternoon meeting against East Central University. Game time is slated for 1 p.m.