Mount Mercy banking on hot shooting to advance in NAIA tournament

Men's basketball: Mustangs face top-seeded Carroll (Mont.) in opening game

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CEDAR RAPIDS — The Mount Mercy men’s basketball team loves to shoot.

Fast-paced, up-tempo basketball is the creed the Mustangs live by, and by scoring 84.7 points per game, they’ve been living up to it. In their first-round NAIA tournament game, however, they’ll be tested.

Drawing a No. 4 seed, Mount Mercy will face top-seeded Carroll (Mont.), one of the better defensive squads in the country.

“We need to get into our tempo and we’ve been working on getting into our stuff quickly,” Mount Mercy head coach Aaron Jennings said. “Pushing the basketball, pushing the pace, that’s the way we want to play.”

Transition play is a huge part of the Mustangs game, as is passing the basketball. Averaging 17.2 assists per game — ranking eighth in the country — the team is extraordinarily unselfish.

However, Carroll will present challenges in other spots. The Saints are extremely accurate from the field (53.5 percent) and hit 3s at an impressive 42.7-percent clip. A motion-based offense, Jennings was adamant that getting back on defense would be crucial.

With nine seniors on the squad, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise the group plays well together. Cedar Rapids Kennedy product Ben Struss leads Mount Mercy in scoring with 12.5 points per game, but six different players average 7.4 or more.

It’s a tight, close-knit group that Jennings feels has bought into his philosophies this season. Even so, they feel like a recent run through the Heart of America Conference tournament brought them even closer together.

Mount Mercy lost in the finals, but the experience left an impression.

“Every time something got thrown at us, we responded,” Struss said. “We were disappointed we didn’t win, but we’re playing our best basketball at the right time of the year.”

This is the Mustangs’ first season competing in the NAIA Division I tournament after years of playing in Division II. The change meant a shift in venue from Point Lookout, Mo., to Kansas City.

Struss, who has now experienced both tournaments, mentioned how the vibe simply was different. It’s certainly a step up program-wise, but joining the Heart of America Conference has left a different type of mark, as well.

Mount Mercy played 26 conference games during 2016-17, up from the nine it played last season competing independently and the 12 it used to have in the Midwest Collegiate Conference.

“The intensity of it gets you ready for the national tournament,” Jennings said. “The level of play is so high that our players had to be ready every night.”

The Mustangs will tip off against the Saints at 3 p.m. in Municipal Auditorium looking for their third first-round win of the past three years. If Mount Mercy wins, it would play again on Friday at 10:45 a.m.

l Comments: jordan.hansen@thegazette.com

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