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February 24, 2013

NCAA bound: Rose-Hulman wins second straight HCAC title

TERRE HAUTE — For a coach whose college basketball teams are built on the most traditional of concepts — defense, good shots, taking care of the basketball, things like that — Rose-Hulman’s Jim Shaw isn’t afraid to espouse non-traditional ideas once in a while.

Two of his against-the-grain precepts were put to the test Saturday night and the Engineers passed with flying colors, finishing the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament championship game on a 7-2 run for a 64-59 win over Hanover in Hulbert Arena.

The Engineers will learn shortly after 12:30 p.m. Monday where — or if — they will have to travel for the first round of NCAA Division III tournament play. A link to the NCAA pairings show will be available sometime Monday on the Rose-Hulman athletics website.

Saturday’s win over the Panthers was the third this season by the Engineers; unlike most coaches, Shaw says a third win against an opponent should be easier to get and this one was — relatively speaking.

The other two were a one-pointer at the buzzer and a two-point road win that earned Rose-Hulman the regular-season championship and hosting duties for the postseason tournament.

Which brings us to Shaw’s other less-than-conventional view, although in this case the Rose-Hulman coach got to have his cake and eat it too.

“It’s a combination of joy and relief,” Shaw said as his team danced and prepared to cut down the nets. “We had such a great year … everybody, wrongfully, focuses on the NCAAs, but a league championship is hard to win and it’s done over a long haul.

“I didn’t want this team not to play in the NCAA tourney,” he concluded. “I’m extremely proud and privileged to be with this group of guys.”

The Engineers got contributions from virtually every member of their group Saturday, both offensively and defensively, and down the stretch it was one of that group’s least-heralded members who took the game over.

After falling behind 12-2 in the first eight minutes, Rose gradually worked its way back into the contest. Nine consecutive Engineer points gave the home team a 29-26 lead late in the first half, but Hanover rallied to take a 34-31 lead at the break.

A 6-0 Rose-Hulman run for a 44-42 lead early in the second half was matched by the Panthers, who got back-to-back steals by Drake Hendricks and an unexpected shot-clock-beating jumper from Desmond Marks for a 48-44 advantage.

Austin Weatherford hit a 3-pointer for the Engineers, but Marks scored inside to keep the visitors up 50-47. Then Brenton Balsbaugh took over.

His three-point play with 5:58 tied the score, wiping out what would turn out to be Hanover’s last lead. On the Panthers’ next possession, Balsbaugh got two blocks on quicksilver point guard Tim Bass within a few seconds of each other to preserve the tie.

“He’s fast,” Balsbaugh said of Bass afterward. “I just tried to be there to help. Austin [Weatherford] did a good job funneling [Bass] to where I was.”

Rose took the lead with 5:07 left on a 3-pointer by Julian Strickland, then padded it to 55-50 with about three minutes left when Balsbaugh took Strickland’s pass and made a layup. Hanover tied the game one more time, at 57-57 on a 3-pointer by Brian Gunter with 1:17 to play, but Jon Gerken got an offensive rebound and assisted on a Strickland basket for the final tie-breaker and Weatherford, Strickland and Gerken hit five free throws in the last 33 seconds.

Balsbaugh, who had a season-high 17 points for the second night in a row, was named tournament MVP.

 “He was a little hurt at the end of the year,” Shaw said of his senior center, “but he got healthy last week. He was tremendous last night [in an 81-59 win over Defiance] and in the second half tonight — finishing, rebounding and defending.

“We’re a different team when we get interior play like that, and thanks to him we were able to withstand a spotty shooting performance,” Shaw added. “But the mark of a good team is it’s always somebody.”

Strickland added 13 points, Weatherford 12 and Gerken 10 for the Engineers. Strickland had nine rebounds and four assists, while Gerken and Weatherford had five assists each.

Bass had 12 points and Ryan Nowicki 10 for Hanover.

“I’m pretty excited,” Balsbaugh said after the game. “We were regular-season winners and we brought [a championship] home here too.

“We set some goals at the beginning [of the season], and [winning the conference tournament] was one of them,” he added. “Winning 20 games, winning the regular season, this was the next [goal].”

Any more goals, he was asked.

“At least another one,” Balsbaugh answered with a smile.

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