HAWNEE — Overcoming a 14-point first-half deficit, the Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College Golden Norsemen eliminated No. 2 seed Northern Oklahoma College-Tonkawa 60-57 Friday, March 9 in the semifinals of the Men's Division I Region II Basketball.
Entering the single-elimination tournament as the No. 3 seed, the Golden Norse carries a 22-8 record into Saturday's 4 p.m. showdown with No. 1 seed and defending regional champion Connors State College.
Ranked No. 13 in the nation and riding a five-game winning streak, the Cowboys are 28-3 on the season.
Connors advanced following a come-from-behind, 79-73 victory Friday over No. 5 seed Northern Oklahoma College-Enid in the other semifinal game.
Last season the Cowboys annexed the Region II crown after defeating NOC-Tonkawa, 69-64.
"We can't come out and play the way we did against NOC-Tonkawa and expect to be in the game with Connors," Golden Norse head coach Dustin Grover said. "They are a very good basketball team and you can't afford to not rebound at either end or shoot poor from the field and stay with them."
When the two teams met during the regular season, the Golden Norsemen handed the Cowboys their first loss of the season by a 77-71 score on Nov. 28 in the NEO Field House.
Connors avenged the loss on Feb. 1 in Warner with a 73-59 victory over NEO.
"From the opening tipoff against Northern-Tonkawa we played tentative and completely out of sync," Grover said. "The only way we were able to hang around was because we fought through our dull drums and were down nine at halftime."
NEO's largest lead of the entire game was 12-8 with 13:07 left in the first half after David Thornton sank four straight free throws.
Behind two 3-point field goals by Demaree King and one trey each by Keiodre Perry, Trevion Lamar and Khobe Austin-Johnson, the Mavericks built a 27-13 cushion with 5:49 until halftime.
Three free throws by Amir Allen enabled NOC-Tonkawa to maintain a 33-24 lead at intermission.
"We just told our guys that they had to play with more concentration and intensity in the second half," Grover said. "They responded and we were able to overtake the Mavericks with 2:43 left in the game."
Freshman forward Kyle Lukasiewicz sank a 3-pointer and a layup to start NEO's comeback in the first two minutes of the second half.
Six straight points by freshman Valentin Van Putten fueled a Norse rally as they trailed 42-35 with 6:29 remaining in the game.
Veteran forward Cedric Ward scored on two consecutive driving layups and Ravel Moody added two baskets in the paint as NEO trimmed the deficit to 48-41 with 4:48 showing on the clock.
Two layups from David Thornton and one from Van Putten completed the Golden Norse comeback at 53-52 with 2:03 left.
In the final two minutes, the teams traded free throws as Tyjuan Johnson connected on two free throws with time running down to keep NEO's lead at three points.
Lukasiewicz led both teams with 17 points while Thornton added 14, Van Putten 13, Moody and Ward six each and Johnson four.
The Golden Norsemen hit 23 of 51, including 3 of 13 from 3-point range, for 45 percent from the field. NEO made 11 of 22 free throws for 50 percent.
Lamar tallied 15 points to lead the Mavericks offense while Perry added 11 and Allen had 10.
Northern-Tonkawa sank 18 of 50, including 7 of 25 from the 3-point area, for 36 percent from the field. The Mavericks hit 14 of 18 for 78 percent from the free throw line.
NEO outscored NOC-Tonkawa by a 34-24 margin in the paint and 20-15 in points off turnovers.
Van Putten produced a double-double for NEO with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
The Mavericks controlled the boards by a 39-29 margin and were led by Lamar with nine rebounds.