It may be a little early to discuss a Midwest Collegiate Conference men’s basketball title for Ashford University.
But after a 74-59 victory over Clarke University on Thursday at Kehl Arena, the Saints put themselves in position to contend for a league championship. With an MCC record of 8-3, Ashford is alone in third place (after a St. Ambrose University loss), a half game back of Mount Mercy and just two games behind conference leader Iowa Wesleyan. It nearly was more interesting, but Iowa Wesleyan escaped with a 74-73 win over William Penn on Thursday.
Big showdowns with the Mustangs (Saturday in Cedar Rapids) and Iowa Wesleyan (Feb. 12 at home) await the Saints. Despite being well aware of his team’s good position to go for the title, coach Oliver Drake said he’s choosing to take a game-at-a-time approach to matters.
“No question,” he said when asked about a conference title possibility. “We’ve got to take it game by game, though, and we can’t think big picture yet. We’ve got to take care of business game by game.
“We have a huge one on Saturday,” he continued, referring to Mount Mercy. “That’s where all our focus is right now. We’re taking things one game, one possession and one stop at a time. We’re happy with our position, but we’re not going to settle for good when better’s possible.”
The Saints (17-8) certainly showed they can contend for being the best, particularly on a night that featured 53 percent shooting from the field, 10 made 3-point shots, a great assist-to-turnover ratio (19 assists, seven miscues) and all-around great play by everybody.
That said, the game — delayed a day, thanks to the great blizzard that shut down the Midwest on Wednesday — was a relative snoozer.
With their team leading just 33-21 at halftime, Lamar Wall and Javier Valdez woke up the Ashford fans with some exciting play in the second half.
Wall connected on 7 of 9 shots in the final 20 minutes to finish with a game-high 19 points. Valdez drilled all four of his 3-point shots after halftime to finish with 14 points.
“Coach told me that they were sagging off, so I wanted to take advantage of it,” Wall said. “They told me if they sagged off to go shoot it. I shot it with confidence. They’re my kind of shots, and I hit them.”
Valdez added: “We just come out and play hard every single day.”
Drake said Wall and Valdez were capable of going off on anybody any given night. While his team has plenty of offensive and defensive weapons, “When Lamar and Javier get it going, we’re a pretty dangerous team.”
Valdez’s fourth trifecta gave the Saints a 61-39 lead with 10:55 to play, and the Crusaders never got closer than 17 until the very end. But Kehl Arena really erupted when Pete Tanzillo had a poster-style monster dunk with just over 8 minutes left to give the Saints a 67-46 advantage.
“We’ve been waiting for Pete to make moves like that,” Drake said. “He’s capable and this is a great time of the year to see him play the way he’s playing. We’re excited about all of our guys, and Pete’s play down the stretch was outstanding.”
Wall’s jam a minute later was icing on the Saints’ victory cake.
“I think our guys, especially in the second half, played some great offense,” Drake said. “We shared the ball, and we made the extra pass We played to our strengths and were unselfish offensively, and that makes a big difference in February and late-season basketball. You’ve got to play to your strengths and be unselfish, and we definitely displayed that night.”
Jonathan Wyatt was also in double digits for the Saints with 12 points, all off four 3-pointers.
Now come the big games against Mount Mercy and Iowa Wesleyan, and the Saints know where their focus is.
“All we’re worried about is one game at a time,” Wall said. “We don’t want to get too big-headed or get ahead of ourselves. We just want to get out and play our hardest every game and hopefully we get to be in the big picture.
Valdez said: “We need to play hard and (take things) game by game. If we do, we’re going to get the win. Coach is doing a great job, and we need to follow him.”
ASHFORD 74, CLARKE 59
CLARKE (11-14, 4-8) — Charles Nunn 5-6 1-2 11, Brock Zins 4-8 3-3 11, Eli Fitzsimons 5-10 0-0 12, Travis Ferrell 1-4 0-0 2, Justin Heng 5013 909 12, Joseph Wilson 2-3 0-0 4, Nathan Bingham 0-0 0-0 0, Bryan Louff 0-2 0-0 0, Brian O’Donnell 1-2 1-2 4, Elliott Carr 0-3 0-0 0, Charles Deneen 1-1 1-1 3. Totals: Name 24-52 6-8 59.
ASHFORD (17-8, 8-3) — Jason Landry 2-4 0-0 4, Peter Tanzillo 4-5 1-2 9, Mike Relerford 1-2 0-0 3, Javier Valdez 5-12 0-0 14, Lamar Wall 9-13 1-2 10, Dustin Barker 0-1 0-0 0, Marin Backo 0-0 0-0 0, Jonathan Wyatt 4-7 0-0 12, Matthias Burns 4-7 0-0 8, Mitch Jankowski 0-1 0-0 0, Klynton Bollinger 2-6 0-0 5. Totals: 31-58 2-4 74.
Halftime — Ashford 33, Clarke 21. 3-point goals — Clarke 5-10 (Fitzsimons 2-4, Heng 2-4, O’Donnell 1-2), Ashford 10-21 (Relerford 1-1, Valdez 4-7, Wall 0-1, Barker 0-1, Wyatt 4-6, Jankowski 0-1, Bollinger 1-4). Rebounds — Clarke 26 (Zins 7), Ashford 29 (Bollinger 8, Landry 7). Assists — Clarke 8 (Ferrell 4), Ashford 19 (Relerford 8, Landry 5). Blocks — Clarke 1, Ashford 3 (Landry 3). Turnovers — Clarke 15, Ashford 7. Fouls — Clarke 6, Ashford 14. Fouled out — None.