The Cardinals are riding high on a streak and it couldn't come at a better time.
After coming back to beat defending national champion Wisconsin-Whitewater, the North Central men's basketball team advanced to the NCAA Division III field of 16 for the second consecutive year.
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Led by Derek Raridon's 18 points, North Central overcame a halftime deficit to win 64-60 last Saturday and extended its win streak to 10 games. Waiting for the Cardinals is a familiar team, CCIW regular-season champion Illinois Wesleyan. The tournament game will serve as the ultimate winner-take-all after the teams split their regular-season meetings.
Fortunately for North Central, the school was selected as the host institution for the third-round game. While they were technically the home team last week, due to a scheduling conflict with track and field, the Cardinals played the game at Benedictine. With that no longer a problem, the Cardinals will be on their own court, where they are undefeated on the year.
"It's huge for us," Raridon said of the homecourt advantage. "We are pretty confident we can get that victory. It's going to take a lot of hard work to beat them, but we've done it once before in our building."
The schools' last meeting came on the final day of the regular season in Naperville, the Cardinals hung on to win in overtime, 87-83. In the first meeting of the year, Illinois Wesleyan won 69-61.
Raridon, a 6-foot-6 wing from Neuqua Valley, expects a low-scoring game from the two familiar teams. Despite the recognizable opponent the Cardinals will need to stick with their bread and butter, Raridon said. Throughout the season the team has had success by driving the ball inside to junior Landon Gamble which eventually opens up the outside shooting. This played a key role in the success of both Raridon and his team in their comeback. Raridon scored 11 of his 18 points in the second half and attacked the defense, forcing crucial late-game fouls. The win was sealed by a pair of Raridon free throws with less than a minute to go, which has become a comfortable position.
"Growing up I feel like I've always been calm under pressure," Raridon said. "I've played in games where I've had to hit free throws to seal the victory. It wasn't anything new, now it's just on a bigger stage. I relish the opportunity to step up for our team."
No one will be surprised if the third meeting of the year between the conference foes again comes down to the final few minutes. Even with all the obvious importance of the game, the victor wont have much time to enjoy the spoils before moving on to focus on the Elite Eight.
"It's tournament time," Raridon said. "We are focused on wining and moving on. This will be a fun battle, classic CCIW game."
The Bluejays will send five wrestlers to nationals this weekend, despite finishing in second place as a team in the Division III Midwest Regionals. The Elmhurst wrestlers head into the final round full of experience. Between the five of them, they have made four previous trips to the championships.
Ryan Earley (141 pounds) earned the regional's Most Outstanding Wrestler award on his way to a second consecutive appearance in nationals. Joe Rau (184) is ranked as the top wrestler at his weight and will be the favorite in his third career nationals visit.
Although Montini graduate Mike Benefiel (197) has no previous Division III nationals experience, he is no stranger to the big stage. Before transferring to Elmhurst he fell one match short of being named an All-America for Oklahoma State.
Dalton Bullard (133) has earned his second trip to nationals for Elmhurst and Miguel Venecia (125) will have his first shot at them. The Bluejays will step back on the mat on March 15-16 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.