ROCK ISLAND - Blown out in the first half, the Illinois Wesleyan basketball team kicked up a breeze of its own in the second half Saturday at Carver Center.
North Central found just enough air to thwart a frantic Titans' comeback and claim a dramatic 51-49 victory in the championship game of the inaugural College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin Tournament before a crowd of 895.
Adam Krumtinger's rebound basket with 1:03 remaining proved to be the difference as the second-seeded Cardinals moved to 22-5 and captured the league's automatic berth to the NCAA Division III Tournament.
IWU's Zach Freeman, a former teammate of Krumtinger at Normal Community High School, could not convert two free throws with three-tenths of a second remaining.
"We got what we deserved," said IWU coach Scott Trost, whose team trailed by 16 at the half and 19 with 15:34 remaining before mounting an unlikely rally to grab a short-lived lead. "To start out like we did … We didn't play well the first half, with no energy. We were a lot more aggressive the second half."
The fourth-seeded Titans dropped to 20-6. IWU's season is now at the mercy of the Division III national selection committee. The 59-team men's field will be announced this evening on the Web site ncaasports.com with the tournament bracket set for release Monday morning.
No. 12-ranked IWU hopes to snare one of 18 at-large bids with conference rival Augustana likely ahead of the Titans in line.
"I'm not talking about the NCAA Tournament," said Trost when asked about his team's chances.
No. 19 North Central led 45-26 before IWU suddenly and amazingly shook itself out of a deep funk.
The Titans reeled off 20 of the next 21 points and pulled even at 46-all on a Keelan Amelianovich 3-pointer at the 6:18 mark.
"We were up 17 at the half, but it was one half," Krumtinger said. "We knew they could come back in the same amount of time and they did. We got the last one. That's what matters."
IWU took its first lead (47-46) since 6-4 on a Freeman free throw. Two Cory Jones free throws with 4:48 showing gave the Titans a 49-47 edge and had the pro-Wesleyan crowd roaring.
Yet as quickly as the Titans' spurt began, it screeched to a halt. IWU would not score again.
"We had three or four possessions up two and we didn't score. That's the game," said Trost. "We couldn't make lay-ups, we didn't execute, we took bad shots."
Dan Walton scored from the lane with 2:05 left to tie the score, and Krumtinger's rebound basket gave North Central back the lead.
"I snuck in behind Zach and got him boxed out a little," Krumtinger said. "It came my way, and I got the layup."
After North Central blocked an Adam Dauksas 3-point attempt to get the ball back, the Cardinals ran the shot clock down until Freeman swiped a pass at the 11-second mark.
IWU hurried downcourt and got the ball inside to Freeman, who missed an inside shot and got his own rebound. The second chance shot rolled off as North Central was called for a foul. The clock showed 0:00, but the horn did not sound and the officials ruled three-tenths of a second remained.
Freeman's first free throw bounced off the back of the rim. He intentionally missed the second, but the carom went nowhere near a Titan as time expired.
"We had great intensity the second half. But half a game is not going to get it done against a good team," Amelianovich said. "The opportunities were definitely there. We got some great defensive stops, but we couldn't convert on the other side."
Freeman paced the Titans with 17 points, while Cory Jones contributed 10 points and a game-high nine rebounds. Amelianovich added nine, but Dauksas scored only five points (nine below his average) and was 1 of 12 from the field.
The Cardinals and Simmons were nothing short of dominant in the first half. The 6-foot-6 junior was outscoring Wesleyan, 16-15, with North Central enjoying a 27-15 lead that grew to 37-21 by halftime.
"We tried to double him and that didn't work," Trost said. "We were too easy on him, too soft. We were letting him get the ball."
Simmons was 9 of 11 shooting in the first half and scored 20 of his 24 points. Walton chipped in 13 points, while Krumtinger had six points and seven rebounds.
"We played extremely well the first half. Illinois Wesleyan played extremely well the second half," North Central coach Todd Raridon said. "Wesleyan was more intense the second half. I'm pleased our kids hung on. Krumtinger's put-back was huge."
North Central shot 57.7 percent and held Wesleyan to 30.8 percent. The Cardinals were 5 of 18 (27.8 percent) in the second half and 45.5 percent overall.
"I hope Illinois Wesleyan makes it," Krumtinger said of the NCAA Tournament. "They're a good team."
The Titans finished at 35.4 percent (17 of 48) from the field, were 3 of 16 from 3-point range and outrebounded North Central, 32-27.