Blue Devils fall short of tourney bid
By Scott A. Kolb
State tournament dreams for the Riverland men’s basketball team were dashed on Monday night with a home loss to Minnesota West.
Both teams came into the playoff game tied for fourth place in the Minnesota Community College Conference, South Division. The winner of this third meeting of the season between the Blue Devils and Bluejays qualified for the MCCC State Tournament later in the week.
Minnesota West got a big night from Cornelius Bardney and beat Riverland 80-76 to get the last state tourney berth.
Bardney led all scorers with 29 points. Bardney netted 23 points in the first half as the Bluejays built a lead. It was a nine-point lead at halftime for the visitors.
"Cornelius had 37 points the first time we played here, so he likes this gym," West coach Justin Heckenlaible said. "We made just enough free throws at the end to pull it out."
A big run by West in the closing minutes of the first half put Riverland in the hole. The Blue Devils then had to spend the initial portion of the second half digging out of that deficit.
Mike Polis, who led Riverland with 16 points, hit the first of his four 3-pointers with 8:11 left in the first half. This cut the Blue Devils deficit to one point, but then the Bluejays went on an 11-0 run over the next three minutes and took a comfortable lead into the break.
"We were a half step late defensively, and our turnovers in the first half allowed them to go on that big run," Riverland coach Dan Swift said. "We didn’t shoot well the whole night, but the guys battled back and played right with them in the second half."
It took eight minutes at the start of the second half, but the Blue Devils finally erased their deficit. Matt Kraft made a pair of free throws for Riverland with 11:51 to play and tied the game at 50.
Despite the comeback, the Blue Devils never did get the lead. Craig Doty hit a free throw to give the Bluejays the lead back, and Kanir Jackson followed with a basket. Derek Roeder then hit a 3-pointer for Riverland to tie the game for the last time with 10 minutes left.
Jackson had all nine of his points down the stretch in the second half. Kraft scored inside to get it back within two, but Jackson answered with seven straight points. Chris Stringer came back with a trey for the Blue Devils, and it would remain a see-saw battle until the final horn.
Minnesota West made its free throws in the final minutes to seal the deal. Cameron Barlowe went 7-for-8 at the line over the last four minutes for the Bluejays.
"I went up to the line with a lot of confidence," Barlowe said. "It was just me, the ball and the rim. I didn’t hear any crowd noise and made the free throws."
The Blue Devils didn’t go down without a fight. Polis canned a trio of treys in the last two minutes to keep his team close. The only free throw Barlowe missed in the stretch run came with 14 seconds left.
This gave the Blue Devils the ball, and they were only down by three points. In the confusion that followed, Polis inadvertently stepped on the out-of-bounds line, and the Blue Devils never got off a shot. Eddie Marrs made the last free throw to cap the win.
"Mike brought us back with some clutch outside shooting, and then it was just a freak play where he stepped out," Swift said. "The guys battled hard, we just needed one more stop and one more shot. It was great to see a packed house, so I can’t ask any more from our fans or the team. We came up short of state, but it was still a good season and a positive step for the program."
Riverland finished the season with a 10-15 record. Minnesota West (13-12) plays Northland College in the first round of the state tournament on Friday night.
MINNESOTA WEST 80, RIVERLAND 76
MINNESOTA WEST (80)
Kanir Jackson 9, Zach Traphagen 0, Chris Aggen 0, Cameron Barlowe 11, Craig Doty 5, Cornelius Bardney 29, Michael Riley 3, Eddie Marrs 5, Lu Mendez 0, Gordy Sanford 15, Lucas Isder 3, Justin Lee 0.
DiJon Reese 8, Derek Roeder 14, Ryan Barthels 3, Edwyn Jensen 14, Matt Kraft 10, Chris Stringer 11, Mike Polis 16.
Halftime score — Minnesota West 42, Riverland 33.
Three-pointers — MW 4-14 (Sanford 2, Riley 1, Jackson 1). Riverland 10-23 (Roeder 4, Polis 4, Stringer 1, Barthels 1).
Free throws — MW 14-20, Riverland 4-5.
Rebounds — MW 30 (Bardney 8); Riverland 36 (Stringer 8, Reese 7).
Turnovers — MW 17, Riverland 18.