FREMONT, Neb. – Midland University’s men’s basketball team got off to a hot start, but faltered down the stretch and dropped an instant classic to the Bellevue Bruins in Sunday night’s Draemel Classic finale.
The Warriors (3-5 overall) and the Bruins (6-5 overall) needed two extra five-minute periods to settle Sunday’s game after the Bruins stormed back in the second half and erased a 23-point deficit from the first half to steal away a 101-98 victory.
“There were so many times where we just had to have one guy make one more play, and it would have been the difference,” said Midland head coach Oliver Drake. “I think some of our guys just got froze up in the moment a little bit, and that’s just part of the growth process. Sometimes you have to go through a really tough one like this to get better, and I believe our guys will.”
Midland couldn’t have dreamt up a better start to the game as every shot seemed to fall in the early going. The Warriors took a commanding 35-12 lead with eight minutes to play in the first half and looked poised to run the Bruins straight out of the Wikert Event Center after shooting 18-for-34 (52.9 percent) from the floor and 7-for-15 from three-point range.
Bellevue had other plans and cut the deficit to a slightly more manageable 19 points as Midland entered the break with a 50-31 lead. Out of halftime, the tides changed completely, and it was Bellevue’s turn to go on a big run.
The Bruins held the Warriors to just 11 points in the first 13 minutes of the second half and outscored them 30-11 to take their first lead of the game at 62-61 with eight minutes to play. With momentum firmly on their side, an alley-oop from Jemeil King to Isaiah Bates put an emphatic final touch on Bellevue’s long climb to the lead.
Down the stretch, the team’s traded baskets and went to overtime tied at 74-74 as Midland managed to weather the storm and do just enough to stay in the game after a strenuous second half.
In the first overtime, the Warriors looked to have regained their momentum and jumped out to an eight-point lead after back-to-back three-pointers from sophomore Bowen Sandquist and freshman Kylan Smallwood. But in the final three minutes, Bellevue scored eight straight points, including a late layup from Lewis Hayes, to send the game to a second overtime.
Overtime number two saw the teams trade baskets early as Connor Dukes and Sandquist exchanged threes in the first two possessions. But three straight layups from King in a one-minute span put the Bruins up five with 35 seconds to play.
Despite 10 straight points from junior guard Laurence Merritt, Midland couldn’t overcome that deficit as the Bruins hit free throws to keep the lead late. Dukes missed his final free throw with 3.8 seconds on the clock, but a long rebound that bounced around between hands kept the Warriors from getting off a last-second shot as Bellevue completed the miraculous comeback, 101-98.
King led the Bruins with 32 points and was simply unguardable at times throughout the game. In 39 minutes, King was 13-for-19 from the field and dished out nine assists to lead his team to the comeback win.
Merritt was the spark for the Warriors all night as he shattered his previous career-high and finished with 37 points by shooting 11-for-22 from the field, 7-for-11 from three-point range, and 8-for-9 from the free throw line. Without the junior’s leadership during the rough second half, it’s unlikely the game would have reached overtime.
“He’s been playing really, really well, and the cool thing about Laurence is that for his first two years he played primarily JV,” Drake said. “But he stuck with it, didn’t give in, didn’t make excuses, didn’t quit. He took the hard way, and this is what happens when you get on the other end of it. We’re really proud of him and glad he’s on our team.”
Sandquist also got going and knocked down four three-pointers to finish with 19 points, while Emanuel Bryson totaled 10 points. Smallwood finished with 13 points and 12 rebounds to notch his second consecutive double-double.
The second-half collapse leaves a sour taste in the Warriors’ mouths, but there is still plenty to grow on from Sunday’s game. With Merritt emerging as the leader, the young group has a veteran presence to lean on it close games. Also, the shots have finally started to fall, which does wonders for the team’s confidence.
For a young team, ever game presents a learning curve. Sometimes, it can take a while to learn how to win when your backs are against the wall.
“We’re a work in progress, we’ve got a lot of room for improvement,” Drake said. “We did some things in the second half that we would all like back, but I really like coaching this group. It’s a fun group to be around, but it is what it is for right now. It’s a work in a progress.”
Midland returns to the court on Wednesday, Dec. 4, when the Warriors host conference foe No. 2 Morningside (8-0 overall, 3-0 GPAC) at 8:00 p.m.