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March 3, 2012

Engineers fall just short in D3 tourney opener

St. LOUIS — Rose-Hulman’s men’s basketball players never let North Central of Illinois get away from them. North Central was always within arm’s length.

But agonizingly for the Engineers, they could never reach out and grab the lead away from their opponents.

North Central proved too hard for the Engineers to stop on a consistent basis and the high-powered Cardinals earned a 74-71 victory over Rose-Hulman, as its first NCAA Division III Tournament appearance in 13 years ended in frustration at Washington University Fieldhouse.

Or did it? The Engineers had little to complain about regarding their own play. They shot 55.6 percent — including a 72.2-percent performance in the second half that featured 7-of-10 shooting from 3-point range.

“It hurts. They shot the ball as well as us. It was a really good game all around. Credit to them, they made big shots and made big plays when they needed them,” Rose’s Austin Weatherford said.

Julian Strickland led the Engineers (20-9) with 25 points and was 5 of 6 from 3-point range. Weatherford had 17 and was 5 of 7. North Central big man Landon Gamble led all scorers with 27 points. The Cardinals shot a tad better than the Engineers at 56.1 percent.

“They were brilliant. They were as good as I feared they would be. We lost, but I thought both teams played really well. It was probably one of the top five games we played all year,” Rose-Hulman coach Jim Shaw said.

The first half boiled down to whether Rose could contain skilled North Central big man Landon Gamble. The sophomore averaged 13.5 points during the regular season and proved to be a tough stop for the Engineers in the paint. He scored 16 by halftime.

“He’s a beast, though. The difference between him and some of the big guys we play are two things. Some of the big guys we play are better out on the floor, but North Central is so disciplined and so good, they see a weakness and keep going at it,” Shaw said. “He could beat you in different ways, even though it was all inside power game.”

Three other Cardinals average double-figures too. The Engineers kept them under wraps, but not guard Kevin Gillespie. The North Central shooter made three first-half 3-pointers.

The combined effort and Gamble and Gillespie offset a good team effort from the Engineers, who shot 44.4 percent. Weatherford, Strickland and Spencer Harlan all hit big shots — Harlan converted a leaner at 9:28 to give the Engineers their largest first-half lead at 22-18.

But when Gamble converted a layup at 1:34 and Gillespie made a 3-pointer at 1:11, North Central led 37-34 at halftime. The Cardinals shot even better than the Engineers in the opening half as they converted at a 53.8 percent rate.

It was more of the same in the second half. North Central threatened to pull away as it took a 43-37 lead with 16:56 to go, but Rose-Hulman cut its deficit to one.

The pattern would continue to play out for the rest of the contest. North Central thrice led by seven, only to have Rose get the deficit back down to a single possession.

Rose-Hulman only had two possessions to tie the game or take the lead and came up empty on both. Jordy Martin missed a 3-point attempt when it was 58-56 and Weatherford missed the front end of a one-and-one at 7:07 that could have tied it.

Still, the Engineers were never out of reach. North Central led 71-65 with 34 seconds left, but Weatherford drained a 3-pointer to make it 71-68. Even after C.J. Goldthree converted a layup with 6 seconds left, Strickland made another 3-pointer with 2 seconds left to make it 73-71.

“When they shoot the way they do, it keeps you on your toes,” Gillespie said. “They didn’t let down, we couldn’t either.”

Rose-Hulman never got another good chance. An Aaron Tiknis free throw made it 74-71 with 1.1 seconds left and Rose’s in-bound pass was tipped away at the buzzer.

Four seniors — Jason Haslag, Blake Knotts, Jordan Nelson and Harlan — ended their Rose-Hulman careers, but the Engineers have its four top scorers back for next year. The future is bright.

“I can’t wait [to get going]. We made it here and lost, and that’s the bad side. But the good side is we still have years to come,” said Strickland, a sophomore.

Shaw was proud of his senior group. As underclassmen, they failed to reach double-digit wins. Now Rose-Hulman is back on the NCAA map.

“It’s nice to see us back. Our record wasn’t good [when the seniors] were underclassmen, they came into a program that had some lean times and they got us out of it,” Shaw said. “It was a great year. There’s no death toll being rung, it’s a celebration, as disappointed as we are [to lose].”

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