SALEM, Va. -- On a night when its trademark dogged defense wasn't quite enough to surmount the task at hand, the North Central College men's basketball team closed the most successful season in the program's 111-year history with a 52-44 loss to Amherst College in the Division III NCAA Tournament semifinals.
The Cardinals limited the second-ranked Lord Jeffs to just 31.3 percent shooting in the game and held Amherst more than 30 points below its season scoring average but struggled mightily all night long to put the ball in the basket despite their defensive proficiency.
"Obviously, we're disappointed," said North Central coach Todd Raridon. "I'm proud of them for getting us here. You never know if you'll get this chance again. I was here (with Nebraska Wesleyan University) in 1997, and this is the first time I've been back. You always try to take advantage of what's in front of you, and I couldn't be prouder of this group."
Enduring significant early foul trouble and seeing several shots narrowly miss the mark, North Central fell behind by an 18-9 count midway through the opening half before a 9-2 run, sparked a putback by Aaron Tiknis and a steal and layup by Charlie Rosenberg, got the Cardinals back into contention at 20-18.
Amherst (30-2) regrouped and opened the lead back up to 27-20 on Allen Williamson's 3-pointer, and the Cardinals' Brandon Williams answered with a layup before the Lord Jeffs' Willy Workman closed the half with a spinning desperation shot that found the net as the buzzer sounded. Amherst entered halftime with a 29-22 advantage despite making just 9 of 25 shots from the floor.
North Central made its bid to take the game over as the second half began, holding the Lord Jeffs scoreless for the first nine minutes. However, the Cardinals were only able to put 10 points on the board during that time to own a slim 32-29 lead after forcing Amherst into 13 straight missed shots.
"We played really poorly and were only down 7 (at halftime)," Raridon said. "We came out and we got the lead. We knew we didn't have a 7-point play, but we knew if we stayed with it and whittled at it we had a chance to get back into it. That first five minutes was probably the best we played the whole game."
The Lord Jeffs tied the score on Aaron Toomey's 3-pointer, then got a layup from Ben Pollack to regain the lead with 9:20 left in the game. The Cardinals were never able to regain the lead despite coming within a single point on two occasions, and never got closer than four points in the final two minutes. North Central missed its last four shots from the field.
The Cardinals managed just 28.6 percent accuracy from the floor and made just 1 of 14 3-point attempts in the game. Landon Gamble was North Central's lone double-figure scorer with 20 points, while Tiknis contributed 9 points and a game-high 14 rebounds.
"When you start missing from the outside, it's contagious," Raridon mentioned. "Landon played really well and I was proud of him, but we only had one guy score in double digits when we usually have two or three.
"If you had told me before the game that they would score 52 points, I would have told you we were going to win, because they average over 80. We had some open looks, but we just missed a couple and it snowballed on us."
Amherst was led by Williamson's 17 points and 10 boards, while Toomey scored 10 points.