SALEM, Va. -- The North Central College men's basketball team took its opponents' best shots and countered with ferocity in the quarterfinals of the Division III NCAA Tournament on Friday, quickly negating an early deficit and dominating the second half of a 77-65 victory over the Middlebury College Panthers at the Salem Civic Center.
The win puts the third-ranked Cardinals (28-3) in its first national semifinal at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, taking on second-ranked Amherst College (28-2) for a trip to the national championship game in Atlanta, Ga.
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After playing to a 6-6 standstill in the first four minutes, Middlebury (25-4) put together a 7-0 run to pull ahead 13-6. The Panthers led until an 11-4 North Central surge tied the score at 27-27 on Vince Kmiec's jumper with 5:23 on the clock.
Kmiec added a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws to put the Cardinals in front for the first time since the game's initial basket, and North Central led by as many as four until Middlebury's Nolan Thompson canned a 3 to tie the game at 36 with 1:33 before halftime.
Derek Raridon scored on a putback to nudge the Cardinals back in front, and Landon Gamble scored in the post for the final bucket of the period, sending the Cardinals into the break with a 40-37 advantage.
"I thought we were not very good defensively to start the game," said North Central coach Todd Raridon. "Middlebury did a nice job offensively the first five or 10 minutes of the game. I thought once we got going defensively, we kind of created our offense out of that.
"This is a team that has to hang its hat on defense. Early on we weren't, but once we did that we played pretty well. We hit some shots to open some things up on the inside, and we were able to run them off the 3-point line, which is something we had to have."
Owning a 44-43 lead with 16:54 to go in the game, North Central constructed the game's defining run, a 16-2 surge that covered nearly five minutes and included two three-pointers from Kmiec and one each from Raridon and Pat Rourke. The Cardinals harassed Middlebury into 1-of-7 shooting in the rally.
North Central led by at least eight points the rest of the way and wound up limiting the Panthers to 35.5 percent shooting from the floor in the second period.
Kmiec led all scorers with a career-high 31 points, notching the highest single-game scoring total for a North Central player this season. He sank 10 of 15 field-goal attempts, including four 3-pointers and all 7 free throws.
"Really, it was just a product of our offense," Kmiec said of his scoring output. "When we play good defense, it always translates to our offense. We can run a little bit, get the defense scattered around and get some open looks."