DANVILLE, Ill. — You learn to expect the expected in the world of junior college basketball. Wake Tech’s run to its first NJCAA Division II National Tournament featured a little bit of everything. From overtime thrillers to big-game heartbreak, the Eagles run to a fourth-place finish this past weekend in east-central Illinois gives head coach Joe Mitchell and his program something to build on.
“Overall I thought it was a great experience for us,” Mitchell said. “Finishing fourth in our first National Tournament isn’t bad. We’ll take the experience and move forward.”
The Eagles, who finished the season with a 25-12 record, return five freshmen to next season’s team, including all-tournament performer, Waymond Wright. Wright was his team’s most consistent player in Danville, averaging just over 13 points per game while playing solid defense.
“This is a step,” Wright said. “We wanted to win the national championship this year. That’s going to be (our) goal next year.”
Wake Tech won its first two games at the national tournament before dropping a tightly contested game against eventual national runner-up Essex College out of New Jersey in the semifinals and a drama-filled third-place contest to Columbus, Kansas-based Central Community College.
Wake Tech 93, Potomac State 88
The Eagles overcame a 41-35 halftime deficit to force their third consecutive overtime affair by outlasting the Catamounts in a wild finish to regulation.
Just when it looked like the Eagles has surged ahead for good on a Michael Adams 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds left that put his team ahead 79-77, the Catamounts answered in unlikely fashion when Derondell Jenkins last second attempt was counted on a goaltending call against Wake Tech.
“I thought it was a foul actually,” Mitchell said. “But things happen. It’s the national tournament; you have to expect anything.”
In the extra session – something the Eagles had become accustomed to after winning the final two games of the District VI Tournament in extra periods – Wake Tech caught fire, outscoring Potomac State 14-9.
Sophomore guard Joshua Mellette led the Eagles with a game-high 31 points and eight rebounds. Wright added 13 points and a game-high six assists.
Wake Tech 95, Wayne County 72
The quarterfinals of the winner’s bracket pitted the Eagles against Detroit-based Wayne County. It was no contest. Wake Tech started fast, jumping out to a 13-2 lead in the first four minutes, and never looked back in breezing into the semifinals.
“I liked the way our defense started the game tonight,” Mitchell said. “We wanted to start fast and be aggressive and I thought we did a good job of that.”
The Eagles led 42-27 at halftime and shot a blistering 59 percent from the floor for the game, including a 72 percent (18 of 25) display in the second half.
Wayne County got as close as nine, 42-33, early in the second half before Tech again turned up the defense.
“We did a good job of withstanding their burst,” Mitchell said. “We expected it (comeback) and they made a run and we answered.”
Adams led five Eagles in double figures with 16 points. Mellette and Lemont Michael-Wright added 14 each. Wright pitched in with 12 points and five assists and Jordan Jones tossed in 10 points.
Essex County College 75, Wake Tech 67
Wake Tech’s coaching staff had a chance to see Essex play twice prior to their semifinal showdown. What the Eagles didn’t see in either display was freshman reserve Denzel Christian.
Christian had totaled one point in the Wolverines first two tournament games and wasn’t much of a blip on the scouting report. That changed in a big way against the Eagles. Christian erupted for 15 points to lead Essex past Wake Tech and into the championship game.
“We really didn’t know what to expect from him,” Mitchell said. “But this time of year guys can step up and he did for them. It comes down to who doesn’t want to go home yet.”
Wake Tech looked early on to be the team to be moving on. The Eagles led 32-20 at intermission but couldn’t withstand Christian and his teammate’s second-half burst. Christian scored nine straight points early in the second half to vault the Wolverines into the lead for good.
The Wolverines stretched the lead to eight before Wake Tech pulled to within three, 64-61, with just over three minutes to play. But that would be as close as the Eagles would get. Essex answered with a 9-2 run to secure its place in the title game while the Eagles were left to wonder ‘what if’?
“We struggled tonight,” Mitchell said. “Over the course of the season it happens. We’ve had some really good games and a few down games. This was a down game.”
Central Community College 94, Wake Tech 87
The third-place game was overshadowed early on when Central star, Tyron Criswell, landed awkwardly on his back and neck after a first-half dunk. Criswell lied writhing in pain for several minutes while trainers and staff looked on. Eventually Criswell was taken by ambulance to a local hospital where it was discovered that he had suffered a broken foot but no serious spinal damage.
“That kind of puts things in perspective,” Mitchell said. “It’s hard to concentrate on basketball when something like that happens.”
After a near 30-minute delay, play resumed with the teams playing to a 33-33 first-half deadlock. With news that their teammate was going to be okay, the Raiders (25-11) seemed to play with relief after intermission.
Central used a 20-5 run to open the half to catapult them to their highest finish in school history. The Eagles got to within 76-70 with four minutes to play, but could get no closer.
Wake Tech was led in scoring by Wright’s 22 points. He added six rebounds and four assists. Jones added 15 points and Mellette contributed 14 points and 11 rebounds. Adams added 13 points and six boards.
“Obviously we wanted to finish higher,” Mitchell said. “But fourth-place in our first national tournament isn’t bad. I’m proud of our team.”