Players have to make plays for teams to advance in March.
For North Central's Brandon Williams, Saturday was his night to shine.
Thanks to Williams' effort off the bench, the Cardinals are headed back to the Sweet Sixteen for a second straight season.
North Central earned a hard-fought 64-60 victory against defending Division III champion Wisconsin-Whitewater in an NCAA second-round contest played at Benedictine University's Rice Center.
Throughout its postseason run to a CCIW postseason championship and through its first two NCAA Tournament wins, the Cardinals (26-3) have leaned on a different player, and Williams, a junior guard, played the role of hero against Whitewater.
Williams made all 6 field-goal attempts and finished with 13 points in 21 minutes.
"It felt good to step up for the team," Williams said. "I just tried to get in and create a lot of energy and relive some of the pressure. I was trying to attack as much as I could and open up things for my teammates."
Whitewater coach Pat Miller agreed that Williams was a difference-maker.
"Williams played well and hurt us," Miller said.
When the Cardinals needed a big basket, Williams seemed to answer.
Williams' basket and free throw tied the game at 48 and then he gave the Cardinals a 50-48 lead with 4:50 remaining as North Central would not trail again. Williams added another runner down the lane put the Cardinals up 58-55 with 1:48 left.
Vince Kmiec increased the Cardinals' lead to 61-55 when he connected on a 3-pointer, but the Warhawks (24-5) responded with five straight to cut it to 61-60 with 33.5 seconds remaining.
Kmiec made a pair of free throws to give North Central a 63-60 edge. Whitewater called a timeout and drew up a play for Darnell Harris to attempt a tying 3-poiinter, but it was short and Derek Raridon was fouled with three seconds left. He split pair free throws to close out the scoring.
"I got a good look," said Harris, who had 12 points. "It was kind of deep, but I just left it short."
Early on, the Cardinals had a difficult time adjusting to Whitewater's sticky, aggressive man-to-man defense.
"We don't see that type of pressure that often and it was a change of pace," said Raridon, whose 18 points helped him move into second on the school's all-time scoring list. "It was tough to simulate that in practice. It showed we had 13 turnovers. Fortunately we were able to make plays to come out with the victory."
North Central also outscored Whitewater 16-2 in second-chance points. The Cardinals dominated the glass 33-21 and had 10 offensive rebounds to Whitewater's five.
"They were just physical and big and we didn't do a good job of getting a body on them," Miller said. "That was the stat that turned the game in my mind."
The game started slow as both teams adjusted to each other's styles. The Warhawks eventually took a 29-20 lead late in the first half, but North Central used an 8-0 to end the half and a 7-0 run to start to the second half to open a 35-29 advantage.
Whitewater punched back and opened up a 46-41 lead with 8:19 left.
North Central coach Todd Raridon changed the pace by switching to a zone look and that stymied the Warhawks.
"We were having a tough time getting them stopped and we had to try something different defensively," Todd Raridon said.
The Cardinals will host CCIW rival Illinois Wesleyan on Saturday night back at Gregory Arena with a chance to earn school's first trip to the Elite Eight. The conference foes split during the regular season.
"It should be a classic CCIW battle," Derek Raridon said.