Lawrence Vikings win MWC basketball championship

Douglas McEneaney

Lawrence men’s basketball became the conference champions this past weekend with victories over St. Norbert College and Carroll College. However, these victories did not come easy for our Vikings, as both games were decided in the final seconds.Our Vikings were ranked first in conference going into this weekend’s playoffs and 16th in the nation. Because of the first-place seeding, Lawrence’s Alexander Gym hosted the entire Midwest Conference Tournament, which definitely gave an edge to our Vikings during both playoff games.

During the first round of the playoffs, Carroll College defeated Grinnell College 124-122, the usual high scoring game when Grinnell is on the court. Carroll College’s victory allowed them to advance to the championship, where they would face the winner of Friday night’s game between Lawrence and St. Norbert College.

Carroll was 1-1 against both Lawrence and St. Norbert during the regular season.

Friday night’s game, much like most of the Vikings games of late, was dramatic and stressful for all of the 1050 die-hard fans.

Prior to the game, the Vikings men’s team, along with leader Coach Joel DePagter, was recognized as conference champions by the sports information director for the Midwest Conference. A touching moment, the Vikings had to maintain focus, as their journey was certainly not going to be over.

The conference championship trophy still needed a home and two more Lawrence victories were needed to secure that home at Alexander Gymnasium.

The Viking student section, from the very beginning of the game, was strongly noticeable and the constant attention of these fans proved to give the Vikings momentum, even when the play did not dictate so.

The fans were also very helpful at pointing out stains on the court as this game was also recorded as the bloodiest game in conference history.

From the much-anticipated tipoff until midway through the half, our Vikings saw only the backs of the Green Knights, despite senior Andy Hurley scoring on Lawrence’s opening play of the game.

Within the first five minutes of the game, our Vikings were down 10 points, a statistic no one could have predicted. The Vikings battled back, not willing to let their fans and title down, and with 11:18 left in the half, the Vikings jumped into the lead with sophomore John Dekker’s three-pointer.

The rest of the half was a seesaw battle, with several lead changes and many cheers to get the Vikings back into the lead. The Vikings shot under 50 percent from the field and an uncharacteristic 25 percent from beyond the arc. The Green Knights took advantage of the Vikings poor shooting and they led at the half, 32-30.

Within the opening minutes of the second half, the Vikings jumped to a lead, and from 18:36 left in the half to the 38-minute mark, the Green Knights did not see a single lead.

The Vikings’ largest lead came at the 12:25 mark when Hurley hit one of his nine shots of the game. That lead was shortly cut to five as St. Norbert’s Dave Wipperfurth hit a three pointer in the next possession.

The Vikings preserved their lead throughout the remaining minutes of the half, despite the Green Knights consistently battling back. With four minutes left in the half, the Vikings saw a six point lead.

However, the Vikings went on a four-minute drought, not scoring a single point. The Green Knights were not able to take advantage as the Viking defense proved to be this game’s strength, along with the roars of the student section.

With 38 seconds left in the game, the Vikings sadly lost their lead they held for the previous 18 minutes. Many thought that this could not happen. The four-minute drought let the Green Knights back in and with seconds left, the lead was lost.

The team could have given up. The fans could have thrown in the towel, but this is not the Lawrence way, this is not the men’s basketball way. The season was too long and they worked too hard to let this huge momentum swing send them packing.

During the next Viking possession, the ball was in the hands of senior captain Hurley, a man to give us our lead back. Down by one point, he drove to the basket, was bumped and put up the shot that rumbled around the room.

The student section roared with screams as nothing was called. St. Norbert found the rebound and was quickly fouled to stop the clock. Noise echoed throughout the gymnasium as the Viking season was 19 seconds from ending, and once again the team and fans wished the referees saw the game from their eyes.

Hope still filled the room and the Green Knights hit one of two free throws, giving them a two-point lead with 19 seconds to play. This possession was the make-or-break of the season and everyone in the gym knew it. And then … magic happened.

Junior Ryan Kroeger found his hands on the ball as the seconds began to tick away. Everyone in the stands reassured each other: “All we need are two points … just two points.” Kroeger did not feel this way. The game was not going to go into overtime.

As he crossed over his defender anticipating some type of drive to the hoop, he lofted one of his beautiful shots into the air, and the gymnasium reverberated with the sound of net.
The Vikings took the lead!

There was silence, much silence, as no one realized what just happened. As the scoreboard responded, the stands jumped. The four minutes of drought was over with Kroeger’s only three of the game, and what better time for it.

After a missed shot in the next possession, Hurley ended the game with an intentional missed free throw to not allow another Green Knight attempt for the lead. The Vikings won 59-58.

Hurley led all scorers with 20 points, along with another double-double. The Vikings shot under 50 percent from the field and a startling 20 percent from beyond the arc.

Sometimes the best offense is a good defense, and the Vikings proved why. It takes a great team to win uncharacteristically and our Vikings showed why they are a great team.

Despite the victory, the Vikings knew they would have to play better against their season foes, Carroll College.