By Eric Montgomery | NAIA Staff
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – (Box score) MidAmerica Nazarene claimed the final spot in the Fab Four of the 2014 Buffalo Funds-NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball National Championship after knocking off St. Catharine (Ky.), 86-73, Saturday evening in Municipal Auditorium. The Pioneers will face No. 8-seeded Emmanuel (Ga.) on Monday, March 24 at 8:00 p.m. CDT.
The Pioneers will make their second semifinal appearance in the last six years, making their debut in the Fab Four during the 2009 tournament. MNU also ran its current winning streak to 10 games as one of two unseeded teams (St. Gregory’s) to reach the last four.
“This Fab Four is the most special to me,” said MNU head coach Rocky Lamar, who is appearing in his sixth overall after taking the Pioneers to four semifinals when the program played in NAIA Division II. "When we were 9-7, no one gave us a chance, but we kept fighting and believing and here we are.”
Luke Thomas led MNU with 26 points and 15 rebounds, hitting 14 of his 17 free throw attempts as the Pioneers converted 35 of 43 (.814). St. Catharine struggled at the free throw line, making just 16 of 29 (.552) from the charity stripe and 55.2 percent (9 of 17) in the second half.
MNU turned around an early 7-4 deficit with an 8-0 run to take a 12-7 lead at the 11:39 mark. The Patriots were able to tie the game twice in the next three minutes, but the Pioneers never trailed the remainder of the game. MNU turned a six-point cushion into a 44-29 lead before St. Catharine hit a late bucket for a 13-point halftime margin.
Rebounding was a key for the Pioneers in the first half as they posted a 34-18 advantage on the glass in the first half. Fourteen offensive rebounds provided MNU with 10 second-chance points and helped limit the Patriots on the glass, the No. 3 team in NAIA Division I in offensive rebounds with 15.6 per game.
The Pioneers led by as much as 17 points in the early stages of the second half and led by at least eight points the rest of the game. The Patriots closed to 74-66 with 2:28 to play, but MNU made 11 of 13 free throws down the stretch to seal the win.
Conner Langrehr chipped in with 15 points for the Pioneers, while Nick Syrie added a double-double with 13 points, 11 assists, six rebounds and three steals. Brandon Newton also finished with 13 points and four rebounds.
“They were just the better team tonight,” said St. Catharine head coach J.T. Burton. “They outhustled us and we just couldn’t make shots.”
William Tolefree led the way for St. Catharine with 16 points and six rebounds, while Raymon Austin collected 14 points and 10 rebounds. Omar Skinner and Chris Johnson each registered 13 points and five rebounds for the Patriots, who shot 37.5 percent from the field and made three of their 13 three-point attempts.
St. Catharine finishes its season with a record of 20-13.
MidAmerica Nazarene– The Pioneers appeared in their second-straight quarterfinal round game and improved to 2-1 all-time in the round of eight … Luke Thomas recorded his NAIA-best 29th double-double and increased his averages to 20.4 points and 13.3 rebounds per game … Nick Syrie matched the tournament single-game high of 11 assists, matching the number posted by Tevin Morris of Philander Smith (Ark.) … MNU is the only team in the Fab Four to have previously played in the semifinal round.
St. Catharine – The Patriots were making their second appearance in the National Championship in program history with the first coming in 2011 and improved to 2-2 all-time … William Tolefree scored in double figures for the 10th-straight game … The Patriots came into the game shooting 67.9 percent at the free throw line, but shot 55.2 percent in the quarterfinal game … St. Catharine recorded nine blocked shots, one shy of their season-high of 10 set against Shawnee State (Ohio) on Feb. 13.