The College of Idaho men’s basketball team didn’t need to win Tuesday night as it had essentially already secured a bid to next week’s national tournament. But the Coyotes did anyway.
The Yotes locked up an automatic berth in the NAIA Division II national tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D. with a 70-55 win over Southern Oregon, a team that beat the Yotes by 16 just a few weeks earlier.
The conference crown is the fourth in six years for C of I and is the second in as many seasons.
“We really wanted to go back to back,” senior Keun Palu-Thompson said. “Winning it a second time is never easy. We knew everybody was coming for us.”
There are 24 automatic bids to the NAIA Division II tournament. The Cascade Conference gets two, one for its regular-season champion and one for its tournament champion. The rest of the 32-team field is filled using the Top 25 coaches’ poll. But since 21 of the 24 automatic bids already were determined heading into Tuesday night and the Yotes were ranked seventh in the last poll, it was nearly impossible for the Yotes to miss this year’s tournament.
The win dashed any hope Southern Oregon had of a tournament berth and capped off a Cascade Conference tournament that was dominated by C of I from start to finish.
The Yotes broke a school record in both their quarterfinal and semifinal wins over Western Pacific and Northwest in margin of victory, beating the schools by a combined 71 points.
But Tuesday’s game was more challenging.
Matt Meyers was responsible for C of I’s first nine points as he made his first four field goals, but he was the only offense early on. The Yotes struggled to shoot the ball in the first half, making six of their first 17 field goals. Southern Oregon made seven of its first 13 shots and led by as many as six in the first half.
“That usually happens,” College of Idaho coach Colby Blaine said. “Teams usually have a pretty good idea on how to score early but then we make the adjustment and come roaring back.”
The Yotes rallied to lead by eight points at halftime. Meyers had 16 of the Yotes’ 33 first-half points and finished with 19 points and seven rebounds.
“I found my shots and they just started going in,” Meyers said. “Coach always talks about shooting with confidence and swagger and that’s what I did.”
The Yotes opened the second half on an 11-5 run over the first 5 minutes. A dunk by Nate Bruneel, who finished with 11 points, and a Gibson Berryhill three helped push the lead to seven with 9 minutes to go.
SOU hit some big shots, and a quick 5-0 run kept the Raiders optimistic. But that was about all the offense Southern Oregon found as the Yotes held the Raiders to four points over the next 6 minutes, taking a 67-50 lead late in the game on what was a 12-4 run.
Connor Desaulniers finished with 12 points and seven rebounds for C of I. Talon Pinckney had 10 points and Gibson Berryhill had nine.
Last year, C of I lost in the national semifinals, but this year, Blaine believes his team can win it all.
“We are confident,” he said. “I really believe we can make a run next week.”