TERRE HAUTE —
Rose-Hulman started and finished the first half with a flurry to take control in the second semifinal game of the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference Tournament.
The Engineers picked up where they left off and put the Defiance Yellow Jackets away early in the second half, advancing to tonight's championship game with a 81-59 victory.
The Engineers, who shot 53.6 percent (30-of-56) from the field, had a season-high point total as four players reached double figures. Rose-Hulman's offensive execution was outstanding, with 18 assists to four turnovers.
"I thought we executed well offensively. We made some adjustments from our game two weeks ago that I thought were effective," Rose-Hulman coach Jim Shaw said of the Engineers' 63-62 win at Defiance earlier this month. "That's one of the reasons Brenton [Balsbaugh] had such a big night, he did a great job of learning from things in practice.
Balsbaugh poured in 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting, second to Julian Strickland's 18 points.
The d3hoops.com No. 23 Engineers will play Hanover — 87-82 winners over No. 2-seed Transylvania in Friday's first semifinal — at 7 p.m. with the chance to win a second straight conference tournament.
The regular-season champions got Defiance frustrated quickly after the halftime break.
Strickland converted on the low block, and the Engineers forced a Defiance shot-clock violation, prompting Defiance coach Kyle Brumett to slam his booklet of plays to the floor.
Rose-Hulman's 7-0 run to start the second half continued with a Jon Gerken 3-pointer in the corner and another mid-range Strickland jumper.
"At halftime, we were saying just don't let up," Strickland said. "We talked about it being 0-0," Strickland said. "We've given up leads before earlier in the season, and we learned our lesson and want to improve on that aspect of our game. We want to bring another [tournament title]home and it would be even nicer to do it here on our home court."
The Engineers' senior post duo of Balsbaugh and Gerken continued to dominate the game early in the second half, recording 11 of their team's first 15 points as Rose-Hulman led 54-34 with 13:45 to go in the contest.
Balsbaugh and Gerken had combined for 28 of Rose-Hulman's 54 at that point, and Rose-Hulman outscored Defiance 46-14 on points in the paint for the game.
"Brenton came up big. That's what we've wanted him to do," Strickland said. "That's the Brenton we need if we're going to come up big and make it far and win this conference tournament and make the NCAA Tournament."
Senior reserve Nate Gissentanner extended the lead to a game-high 23 points, and Strickland made sure it stayed there, swishing a deep two-pointer to give him 15.
Strickland had eight points in the game's first 11 minutes as Defiance fell behind 17-3 to start the game.
But the Yellow Jackets mounted a rally. Sharp-shooting Logan Wolfrum, who finished with a game-high 23 points, was the catalyst each time. Wolfrum hit a 3 and deep 2-pointer to pull Defiance within 24-19 with 5:50 to go in the first half.
Austin Weatherford scored seven, including a 3-pointer, to lead Rose-Hulman on a 15-6 run to take a 39-25 halftime advantage after the Defiance rally.
Wolfrum also led a smaller rally in the second half, pulling the Yellow Jackets within 61-46 with 8:47 to go.
"You're not going to play perfect defensively," Shaw said. "They took advantage when we did make a mistake. They didn't get much easy at the basket. As the game wore on, the 3s became tougher and tougher to get with the exception of Wolfrum. He's one of the best players to ever play in the HCAC."
Strickland's 3-pointer and Weatherford's breakaway layup halted that momentum quickly, and the Engineers' defense was steady down the stretch to keep the upset-seeking Yellow Jackets at bay.
Gerken and Weatherford each added 13 for the Engineers.