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Chiefs upset Triton, advance to Nationals

Chiefs rally to upset 4th ranked Triton in Region IV Championship

It is called March Madness because you never know what is going to happen. Waubonsee Community College’s men’s basketball team was clearly the underdog heading into their Region IV Division II District 4B title game with powerhouse Triton College. However, when the final buzzer sounded it was the Chiefs who registered the upset 89-83 comeback victory in a thrilling overtime battle before a packed Erickson Hall gymnasium. The last of four Region IV Championship games that were played on Saturday, March 11 at Waubonsee, the marquee matchup lived up to the hype.  It was not necessarily David versus Goliath, but there were some similarities.

Triton, ranked number one in the nation for a month of the regular season and fourth nationally in the final NJCAA Division II poll, entered the evening with a 30-2 record. For the second consecutive year the Trojans went 14-0 to win the North Central Community College Conference (N4C) title, their fourth league championship in a row and eighth under head coach Steve Christiansen in his 13th season. The Trojans have also averaged 28 wins a season the last nine years, entered the game with a 35-game winning streak against Illinois Skyway Collegiate Conference (ISCC) opponents, and reached the National Championship game last season before falling 83-76 to Kirkwood (IA) Community College to finish second in the nation. 

Meanwhile, resurgent Waubonsee stepped on to the floor with a 24-8 overall record this season after winning only 30 games total the previous three years combined. The Chiefs were co-champions of the ISCC this season, finishing 11-3 to tie with Elgin Community College. The ISCC title was the 12th under the guidance of head coach Dave Heiss, in his 32nd season at Waubonsee.

But Triton’s superior size and strength is where the true mismatch seemed evident prior to the tipoff. The Trojans’ front line consisted of 6’9” 300-pound Virgil Allen, 6’6” 220-pound Johnny Fox and a pair of 6’4” swingmen in All-American candidate Dante Thorpe and Deonta Terrell, the Trojans’ leading scorers. Triton also had another pair of 6’4” 210-pound forwards at their disposal off the bench. Waubonsee countered with 6’9” Jake Pike, who tips the scales at 85 pounds less than Allen, and the slender 6’5” 180-pound Germaine Roebuck and 6’3” 200-pound Tyrone Carey. The Chiefs’ primary reserves consisted of 6’0” 160-pound Deon Ward, 6’2” 220-pound Demetrius Ewing and 5’10” 160-pound Jacob Niesman. However, what the Chiefs lacked in size they made up for with heart, tenacity and speed to ultimately pull off the victory.

Triton never trailed in a somewhat defensive first half. The Trojans gradually built a 12-point advantage before heading to the break with a 35-25 lead. Waubonsee committed 13 first half turnovers as the visitors recorded 11 steals and seemed to have control of the game. Four minutes into the second half the Trojans grabbed their biggest lead of the contest when they went ahead 45-32 on an inside basket by Thorpe. Resilient Waubonsee responded by reeling off the next 13 points to knot the score with 13:09 remaining. Triton quickly went back in front by six points before the Chiefs again tied the game at 56-all on a short jumper by Roebuck with 7:54 to go.

Waubonsee finally took its first lead of the game two and a half minutes later when Ewing scored in close to put the Chiefs in front 64-63. A three-point basket by guard Alec Goetz and a twisting reverse layup in traffic by Ward put Waubonsee ahead 72-65 with exactly three minutes left. Clinging to a 74-71 lead in the final minute and a half of regulation, the Chiefs turned the ball over, committed an offensive foul on an illegal screen their next possession, and threw the ball away again to give Triton the ball back with 0:18 to go.

After a Trojans timeout, Thorpe connected on a long three-pointer with 0:06.3 remaining to knot the score at 74. Waubonsee quickly pushed the ball up court and it was knocked out of bounds by a Triton player with 0:02.6 left. The Chiefs called a pair of timeouts to draw up a final play, but Tyrone Carey’s ensuing 17-foot shot between two defenders came up well short to send the game into overtime.  

Thorpe then buried another three-pointer to start the extra session before Goetz answered with a trey of his own. After a Triton misfire on their ensuing possession, Ewing drilled a three-pointer from the left corner as the shot clock wound down. His first triple of the game and only the twelfth all season staked Waubonsee to an 80-77 lead with 2:36 to go.

A key to Waubonsee’s success was out rebounding the bigger and stronger Trojans 53-39 for the game overall. Still clinging to that three-point lead, the Chiefs snagged three straight offensive rebounds in a pivotal sequence that eventually resulted in a made free throw to make it a two possession game with 1:26 to go. Ward then sank six straight free throws in the final 0:40 of play to seal the deal. The sophomore guard from Champaign Centennial High School finished with a team-high 21 points, connecting on 13 of 15 from the line.

Carey, selected the Tournament’s Most Valuable Player, finished with 15 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. Roebuck followed up an 18 point and 17 rebound semi-final performance, with 18 points and 10 more boards in the title game to also earn All-Tournament honors. Ewing finished with a dozen points and 10 rebounds to give the Chiefs three players with a double-double in points and boards. Goetz also booked 15 points as the Chiefs had five players finish in double figures. Waubonsee’s bench outscored the Trojans’ reserves 33-13 for the game, and the Chiefs went 23 of 34 from the charity stripe while Triton finished 15 of 24 from the line. Thorpe led all scorers with 32 points to go along with seven rebounds and three steals. Terrell finished with 14 points and nine boards, while Fox added 13 points, nine rebounds and four steals for the Trojans.

Waubonsee will begin play in the 16-team, double-elimination NJCAA Division II National Tournament on March 21 in downstate Danville. The Chiefs will play eighth-seeded Pima (AZ) Community College, the highest scoring team in the nation averaging 100.8 points per game, in the very first game of the tournament starting at 9:00 a.m. (CST). All the games of the tournament will be streamed ‘live’ on www.NJCAAtv.com and additional information can also be found on the tournament website at www.DACC.edu/NJCAA. This will be the sixth time in school history that the Chiefs have reached the National Tournament, all under the direction of Heiss, who won his 600th career game in early February.  

South Suburban College won the other men’s title contest played prior to Waubonsee’s game. The Bulldogs knocked off Carl Sandburg College 81-69 to capture the District 3A Championship and advance to Danville as well. In the women’s finals earlier in the day, fourth-ranked Kankakee Community College (28-2) pulled out a 64-62 over Carl Sandburg College in overtime to win the District D title. The Cavaliers now advance to the NJCAA Division II National Tournament in Harrison, Arkansas. They will be joined by District L Champion Moraine Valley Community College, which ousted Illinois Valley Community College 92-72 in the second game of the day.