Ashford used a strong second half to overcome a lackluster opening 20 minutes and advance to its second Midwest Collegiate Conference men’s basketball final with a 65-62 victory over Clarke in the MCC semifinals Friday at Kehl Arena.
The Saints, who trailed by 10 points at halftime, needed some late-game heroics to stop Clarke, seeded seventh, from its second upset in the tournament.
Ashford, seeded third, trailed by four with 6 1/2 minutes to play when Jason Landry took over. Landry scored six points and dished off an assist to Javier Valdez for a 3-pointer during an 11-6 run that gave Ashford a 59-58 lead with 1:02 to play.
“Those last six minutes, it was just like practice where we do this two-minute drill,” Landry said. “You’re down and you’ve got to go as hard as you can. That’s all I was thinking. It’s just like the drill we do everyday in practice. I just went hard to see what I could do. I wasn’t ready to give up. I wasn’t ready to go home.”
Clarke’s Eli Fitzsimmons fired up a shot from the corner on the other end but missed. The rebound was tipped around, until Landry beat a Clarke player to the ball near midcourt and was off on a fast break.
“I saw it and it got tipped,” Landry said. “Then it was either me or him. I know I’m a pretty fast guy. I haven’t lost a lot of races, so I knew I could beat him to the ball. I got it and I just took off from there.”
Landry finished the play with a two-handed jam that put the Saints ahead by three and sent the home crowd into a frenzy.
“My team always tells me every time I get a dunk or a hustle play, they love that,” Landry said. “They get so excited.”
Clarke had a response, though. Bryan Louff knocked down a 3-pointer with 14 seconds left to tie the game. That game-tying shot accounted for all of Louff’s second-half points after he scored 12 before halftime.
Valdez answered right back for the Saints. He pulled up and drilled his fifth 3-pointer of the night to give Ashford a 64-61 lead with 4.7 seconds remaining.
“It was a big play,” Valdez said. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to drive or shoot it. I started dribbling and he backed up. He didn’t respect my shot, so I just took it and made it. I’m so happy we’re going to the finals.”
Ashford fouled Clarke’s Brian O’Donnell so the Crusaders wouldn’t be able to attempt a tying 3-pointer. O’Donnell made the first free throw but missed the second. Peter Tanzillo grabbed the rebound for Ashford and was immediately fouled. He made the first shot to extend the lead to three, but missed the second.
“They had to foul me because we were up,” Tanzillo said. “Free throws, they’re all routine. After I made the first one, one of their players said, ‘No pressure on the next one.’ I said, ‘The pressure is not on me. We’re up.’ I ended up missing the second one, but they still had to hit the 3 to go into overtime.”
Clarke’s Travis Ferrell missed a 3-pointer as time expired. Ferrell’s shot hit the back of the rim and clanged out.
Clarke closed the first half on a 10-2 run over the last four minutes to take a 39-29 lead into halftime. In the first half, Clarke attempted six more free throws than Ashford and was outrebounding the Saints.
“We didn’t follow through with our gameplan,” Landry said. “Our gameplan was perfect. We just didn’t do it. In the second half, we stuck to it and it worked.”
Tanzillo said: “During halftime, we pointed out some things they were beating us on. But it was things under our control. We knew that if we gave a better effort we could handle those things. They weren’t doing anything special. It was just us being lazy at times.”
One of those things was rebounding. Ashford outrebound Clarke 22-7 in the second half. Tanzillo grabbed seven second-half rebounds after getting only two in the first half.
“Coaches are always on me about rebounding,” Tanzillo said. “That’s one of my big roles on the team. We’ve got to work hard down there. I’m an undersized post. I needed to give 100 percent effort.”
The Saints attempted 10 more free throws in the second half than Clarke because their offense was more aggressive after halftime.
Ashford beat Clarke by 15 points at home on Feb. 2. Tanzillo said the season ending for the losing team brought out more fire from the Crusaders.
“It’s tournament time,” he said. “It’s win-or-go-home, so people have that in the back of their heads. If they lose, that’s it. They probably had a little bit more intensity. We came out flat. We just can’t have that on Sunday.”
Ashford travels to Mount Pleasant on Sunday to take on top-seeded Iowa Wesleyan in the MCC final. The teams split the season series, with each winning at home.
“We definitely are going to come out hard,” Landry said. “We’re going to start preparing tonight for the game. We’re going to get focused, get ready. We need to come out ready defensively.”
Landry’s parents were in attendance for the first time at an Ashford home game.
“Sometimes it’s a lot of pressure,” Landry said. “They go watch my older brothers play and it’s very exciting watching them play. They come watch me play and I’m thinking I’ve got to match that and get a dunk or a couple nice plays. It puts pressure on me to play harder, a lot harder.”
Landry’s brother Carl was traded from the Sacramento Kings to the New Orleans Hornets earlier this week, while brother Marcus plays for the Reno Bighorns in the NBA Development League. Carl Landry and Marcus Landry played college basketball at Purdue and Wisconsin, respectively.
ASHFORD 65, CLARKE 62
CLARKE (13-18) — Charles Nunn 2-3 0-0 4, Eli Fitzsimmons 6-13 1-2 16, Travis Ferrell 2-10 2-2 7, Bryan Louff 4-9 5-6 15, Elliott Carr 0-0 3-4 3, Joseph Wilson 0-0 0-1 0, Justin Heng 4-5 0-1 10, Nathan Bingham 0-0 0-0 0, Craig Christopher 0-4 2-2 2, Brock Zins 2-5 0-0 4, Brian O’Donnell 0-0 1-2 1, Totals 20-49 14-20 62.
ASHFORD (22-10) — Javier Valdez 5-13 3-4 18, Jonathan Wyatt 1-10 3-3 5, Matthias Burns 3-6 2-2 8, Jason Landry 6-12 6-7 18, Peter Tanzillo 6-10 4-8 16, Marin Backo 0-2 0-0 0, Klynton Bollinger 0-1 0-0 0, Totals 21-54 18-24 65.
Halftime score: Clarke 39, Ashford 29. 3-point goals — Clarke 8-19 (Fitzsimmons 3-8, Heng 2-3, Louff 2-4, Ferrell 1-3, Zins 0-1); Ashford 5-21 (Valdez 5-9, Bollinger 0-1, Landry 0-1, Backo 0-2, Wyatt 0-8). Total fouls — Clarke 20; Ashford 19. Fouled out — none. Rebounds — Clarke 22 (Nunn 4, Ferrell 4); Ashford 35 (Tanzillo 9, Burns 8, Valdez 7). Assists — Clarke 11 (Ferrell 4); Ashford 9 (Valdez 4). Steals — Clarke 4 (Ferrell 2); Ashford 3 (Valdez, Burns, Backo). Blocks — Clarke 3 (Zins 3); Ashford 3 (Tanzillo 2). Turnovers — Clarke 13; Ashford 14.