Heading into one of the most inhospitable environments for a visiting team anywhere at the NCAA Division III level, the North Central College men's basketball team made itself right at home at Augustana College's Carver Center Saturday evening, leading for nearly the entire closely-contested College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin (CCIW) Tournament championship game. The 21st-ranked Cardinals handed the third-ranked Vikings a second defeat in 24 days, 72-65, to win their fifth conference tournament crown and their second in the last three seasons.
North Central (22-5) claims the CCIW's automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Men's Basketball Championship, advancing to the national tournament for the fourth consecutive year. The Cardinals improved to 7-6 against Augustana in the CCIW Tournament and 3-1 against the Vikings in championship games.
Augustana (24-3) put up the game's first six points to secure an early advantage, though the Cardinals quickly slowed the hosts' momentum with an inside jumper by Connor Raridon and a three-pointer by Blaise Meredith. The score was tied at 9-9 before Meredith's jump shot provided North Central's first lead after just under five minutes had elapsed. The Vikings' Lucas Simon connected from three-point range on the next possession, giving Augustana what would be its last lead in the game.
An inside bucket by Cappelletti and a three-pointer from Aaron Jones quickly nudged the Cardinals back in front, and they led throughout the rest of the first half, but never by more than five points before Will Clausel scored in the paint for the final basket of the period, sending the guests into halftime with a 35-29 advantage. North Central's defense stifled the Vikings' efforts for the entire opening 20 minutes, as Augustana managed just 35.5 percent shooting accuracy from the floor (11 of 31).
The Cardinals extended their lead to double digits for the first time with 14:46 to play, following a three-point play by Meredith and a three-point shot by Raridon, and the advantage grew to its largest of the night at 57-45 on Clausel's jumper in the lane with 9:23 on the clock. Augustana closed to 57-51 on Simon's three-pointer with 7:35 to play, but Raridon connected on an outside jumper and fed Clausel for a layup to negate the home team's progress.
Raridon had the answer for every Viking challenge down the stretch, scoring nine points on 4 of 4 shooting in the final seven minutes of play. He finished with 23 points on 8 of 12 shooting to go along with six rebounds and eight assists. North Central had four other double-figure scorers, as Cappelletti put up 13 points, Clausel totaled 11, and Meredith and Jones both finished with 10. Meredith led the Cardinals with eight rebounds.
Micah Martin led Augustana with 23 points and 10 rebounds, while Pierson Wofford put up 14 points and Brett Benning added 10.