After four months of two-hour practice sessions, long bus rides and many bumps and bruises, the 2015-16 season boils down to one game for the Southwestern Illinois College Blue Storm.
Sophomore Chris Galbreath led a balanced Blue Storm attack with 14 points and dominated the backboards for a second straight nine as SWIC rolled to a 90-63 win over Shawnee College in the semifinals of the NJCAA Region 24 Men’s Basketball Tournament on Thursday at Rend Lake College.
Ranked 21st in the latest NJCAA Division I poll, the top-seeded Blue Storm got off to a sluggish start before warming up with four 3-point field goals in five possessions midway in the first half as it opened a commanding 20-10 lead over the fifth-seeded Saints.
Shawnee, which upset fourth-seeded Lincoln Trail in a quarterfinal round game on Wednesday, would get no closer then seven points the rest of the night as the depth and balanced scoring of the Blue Storm proved to much to overcome.
“We knew coming into tonight that Shawnee was a very physical basketball team and that we needed to be even more physical then they were,’’ Blue Storm coach Jay Harrington said. “I thoguht we did a good job of that and I also thought we played good defense.
“We came into tonight wanting to be able to get some rest for some of our players. If we were fortunate enough to win it meant that we would be playing three games in three days. At this level it’s tough. But by winning tonight, that’s we’re going to have to do. Whoever we play, it will be an absolute war.’’
The top-seeded Blue Storm (27-5) will take on the winner of the game between second-seeded Vincennes University and John A. Logan College for the Region 24 title at 8 p.m. on Friday. The winner gets a bid into the NJCAA Division I National Tournament which begins March 14 in Hutchinson, Ks.
The Vincennes-John Logan game had not ended at press time.
“We’ve had a great season and won 27 games. What team wouldn’t like to have 27 wins and be where we are right now?” Harrington said. “But lets be honest. It comes down to one game.’’
Holding just a 10-6 lead against an inspired Saints squad with just over 12 minutes left in the first half, SWIC warmed up quickly. With sophomores Bo Burkhart, Dorian Butler, De’Antae McMurray and Dez Marshall all connecting on 3-point field goal attempts in a three minute span, the Blue Storm expanded its lead to 23-10 with still over eight minutes left in the first half.
Sophomore Quan Poindexter added six points later in the half and combined with Butler for 14 points in the first 20 minutes of play as SWIC took a 36-22 lead.
“We got good play from several kids tonight, but I thought Dorian (Butler) just had a huge game fort us,’’ Harrington said. “He gives us a No; 5 guy who can step out and hit 3-point jumper. Justin Diecker gives us our best post offense at the No. 5 spot and when LaRoyce Eason is in there he provides our best defense in the post. We’ve got all of our bases covered at that spot.’’
Any hopes the Saints had of a comeback quickly disappeared in the opening two minutes of the second half when McMurray, still limping on a sore knee, hit a 3-point jumper, Burkhart knocked down a 16-foot jumper and Galbreath added a basket on an offensive rebound as SWIC’S lead grew to 43-22.
The final 15 minutes were played at a snail’s pace as play became even more physical. A total of six technical fouls — five on the Saints — were called in the final 12 minutes.
Galbreath led SWIC with 14 points while Butler and Poindexter chipped in with 13 each.