Sterling outscored Kansas Wesleyan 25-9 the final 13 minutes and pulled away for a 75-66 upset victory in a quarterfinal game of the Kansas Conference Championship on Wednesday night inside Mabee Arena.
The No. 12-ranked and second-seeded Coyotes (25-4) will now wait to see if they receive an expected at-large bid when the field for the NAIA National Championship is announced March 2. KWU will receive an automatic bid if top-seeded Oklahoma Wesleyan wins the KCAC tournament.
Izaiah Hale (SO/Wichita, Kan.)’s 3-pointer with 13:03 left in the game gave the Coyotes a 57-50 lead before Sterling, the No. 7 seed, began its comeback.
A 13-5 run gave the Warriors a 63-62 lead with 6:16 remaining. A Cory Kaplan (JR/Merritt Island, Fla.) free throw tied the game at 63 with 2:59 left but Sterling scored the next eight points, six on free throws (6 of 7). Tyus Jeffries (SR/Oklahoma City, Okla.) scored inside with 1:03 left and Jun Murdock (JR/Wichita, Kan.) made one of two free throws with 39.3 seconds left to get the Coyotes within 71-66.
Sterling (15-14) sealed it, though, with four free throws the final 34.2 seconds.
“Got to give them a lot of credit, they played like there was no tomorrow,” KWU coach Anthony Monson said. “It’s disappointing for us especially coming off the regular season. We just weren’t ready to go.”
KWU trailed 9-2 at the start but battled back, closed the first half on an 8-4 run and led 44-42 at the break. The Coyotes shot 41 percent the first 20 minutes (14 of 34), including 7 of 14 from beyond the 3-point arc, but couldn’t maintain the pace the second half.
They scored 22 points, had three field goals the final 13 minutes and shot 26 percent the second half (8 of 31).
Sterling won the rebounding battle 42-37, had 17 second chance points and scored 34 points in the paint led primarily by 6-foot-10 forward Elias Ngoga who finished with 17 points and 14 rebounds. Kavonte Kinney, a 6-6 forward, added 15 points and five rebounds.
“We gave up a bunch of offensive boards at crucial times,” Monson said. “The second half we just didn’t finish shots, we didn’t finish shots at the basket or 3-point shots. We let them hang around and this is what happens. They were tough all night and battled and competed.”
Sterling shot 47 percent overall (28 of 60) and was 3 of 16 from 3-point range.
Alex Littlejohn (SO/Newton, Kan.) led KWU with 17 points before fouling out with 2:40 left.
“Their game plan was to put Alex on the perimeter and not on the block,” Monson said. “They sagged off and left him open and he still hit the shots (4 of 6 from deep) but at the same time that’s not what Alex is. He’s best around and they did a really good job of keeping him out of there.”
Murdock and Hale scored 12 apiece for KWU. The Coyotes shot 34 percent for the game (22 of 65) with half of their made field goals coming from 3-point range (11 of 26).
“They did a good job of clogging the lane and saying ‘you’re going to have to hit shots to beat us’ and we just didn’t hit enough shots,” Monson said. “We kind of fell into that trap (shooting threes) a little bit. We got some good looks down the stretch that we just didn’t hit.”
Monson said his team lacked patience at times.
“I think we rushed things,” he said. “We played these guys twice (winning both handily) and things were rolling for us. I think we just didn’t come out with the energy that we needed.”