Pilots open nat’l tournament run with thrilling OT win

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Whew. After a rough first half, the Bethel College men's basketball team came out on top in a thrilling 85-75 victory over Cal-Maritime in the first round of the NAIA National Tournament on Wednesday night.
Ryan Benner (who recorded a double-double) drives to the basket in Bethel's 85-75 OT win over Cal-Maritime (photo from BethelHoops.com)
Ryan Benner (who recorded a double-double) drives to the basket in Bethel's 85-75 OT win over Cal-Maritime (photo from BethelHoops.com)
The Pilots sure did not make things look easy. Although, it's probably unrealistic to think that any NAIA tournament game will be easy...unless you are pretty much every Bethel team from the past 25 years, that is. The Pilots came into Wednesday night's contest against the Keelhaulers 9-0 in the first round of the tournament with an average winning margin of 22.8 points. Easy-peasy right? Not so fast. Cal-Maritime came in as the no. 15 team in the country, with high tournament aspirations of their own. They showed why in the first half. The Keelhaulers jumped out to a 14-7 lead early in the first half and stretched it as high as nine due to poor shooting and missed opportunities by the Pilots. At the 10:07 mark, Cal-Maritime held a 25-16 lead after two straight missed layups by Bethel. That's when the Pilots came alive. An and-one from star guard Zach Miller brought the Pilots within six, and another three-point play from junior guard Matt Schauss the next time down the court made it a three-point game. Another bucket put the Pilots down one. Just like that, the score was 25-24 after a quick 8-0 run from the Pilots. But just as quickly as they got back in the game, the Pilots saw their deficit balloon again. The Keelhaulers ended the half on a 13-4 run to give them a 37-28 halftime lead. The first half couldn't have gone much worse for the Pilots as they shot a paltry 33 percent from the field and even worse from long range - only 23 percent. Great shooting has been the Pilots' calling card all season, so to see it vanish in the season's most important game was difficult to say the least. But it has been the physical play of senior Pat Oetting that has carried the Pilots over the last month of the season, and he would provide the spark the Pilots needed to start the second half. Two three-point plays from Oetting cut the Keelhaulers' lead to five with 17:26 to go in the game. Oetting provided the spark, but the Pilots' two stars would carry the team like they have all season. Two long-range shots from Miller put the Pilots back in front 47-46 with 13:38 left in the game. While Miller was pouring in threes, senior Ryan Benner helped pad the Pilots' lead with his patented turnaround jump shot. The two stars helped give the Pilots a 62-58 lead with less than eight minutes to play. The game's final minutes went much as you would expect from a national tournament game - neither team pulled away from the other. The matched each other shot-for-shot, and the game was tied at 67 with 1:13 to go. The Pilots had possession, but they flirted with disaster, nearly turning the ball over. A hustle play from senior Michael Mislan kept the possession in favor of the Pilots. He kicked it out to Schauss who drove in the lane and...turned it over. A poor late-game possession from the Pilots could have brought the season to a crushing end. However, the Pilots had played strong defense the entire second half and they weren't about to stop. The Keelhaulers missed a three-pointer at the buzzer and the game went to overtime. After two quarters of basketball that was anything but easy, the Pilots made things look quite easy in overtime. Benner started things off with a three-point play. Then a bucket from Schauss pushed the lead to five. Two free throws from Miller made it a seven-point lead with just under two to play. The Pilots were not going to be denied. When the buzzer finally sounded, the Pilots had dominated the Keelhaulers by a score of 18-8 in the extra period to give them an 85-75 victory. Miller led the Pilots with 24 points, and his five three-pointers put him past Ryan Bales on the Pilots' all-time career three-pointers made list with 307. Benner had a great game, recording a double-double with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Oetting was a force once again as well with 15 points and 8 rebounds. The news got even better for the Pilots later Wednesday evening when no. 2 College of Idaho was upset by tournament host College of the Ozarks who the Pilots will face on Friday at 8:30 p.m. The Pilots were one of four teams from the Crossroads League to make the national tournament. Huntington lost to Southeastern 84-76 on Wednesday night. Indiana Wesleyan defeated Reinhardt 82-67 on Thursday to advance, and St. Francis lost 69-66 to Robert Morris on Thursday night. A win is a win, and the Pilots are advancing. Wednesday night's win comes as a reminder that nothing comes easy. With only 16 teams left in the tournament, the Pilots will have to fight for every game. And they only get tougher from here. You can watch Bethel's second round matchup against College of the Ozarks here.
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