Kirkwood men top NIACC 78-71 to begin region tournament

A Trojan run made it close, but the defending national champions managed to pull away

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CEDAR RAPIDS — The second half was not starting the way Kirkwood men’s basketball coach Bryan Peterson wanted it to.

His team led NIACC 40-29 in NJCAA regional action at the break, but a hot start to the half by the Trojans threatened to end the Eagles’ quest to defend their national title before it even really got started.

A couple 3s and a suffocating press were causing Kirkwood all sorts of trouble, and about midway through the half, the Eagles were down five.

“I was hoping we could find some composure and make some good decisions out there,” Peterson said. “We were struggling to get stops and weren’t sharing the ball the way we needed to.”

Then, Da’Rion King happened. The 6-6 sophomore forward from Racine, Wis., converted two straight old-fashioned three-point plays and tacked on another bucket to put the Eagles up for good. Kirkwood (24-6) went on to win, 78-71.

King finished with a double-double, scoring 23 points and gobbling up 11 rebounds, doing a huge part in preventing a first-round letdown. He was a terror on the glass at both ends, finishing the game with four offensive boards.

“We just had to stick with it, bring the energy up,” King said. “We were down five and I was just telling the guys that we’ve been here before, we had to keep fighting.”

After the run to start the second half, NIACC (16-15) never really went away, though after King’s last bucket, the Trojans never got closer than three points again.

Solid foul shooting down the stretch and a timely 3 from Byron Harp with 2:55 remaining were critical in keeping NIACC at bay. Kirkwood finished 20-of-27 from the free-throw line, which helped separate the teams as the clock ticked under two minutes.

King was not the only player to register a double-double, as Shakur Triplett and Miles Wentzien had huge games as well. Triplett finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds, while Wentzien had 19 points and 12 boards.

It was indicative of the Eagles’ playing style, preferring driving inside over perimeter shooting. Kirkwood only attempted 11 3-pointers throughout the game, though was able to splash in four of them.

While the general consensus around the team was that it was a little too close of a game for comfort, it’s Kirkwood that will face Iowa Lakes in Thursday night’s semifinal in Johnson Hall.

“We just have to play better,” Peterson said. “Everybody is playing for their last day, no one is going to lay over at this point in the year.”

l Comments: jordan.hansen@thegazette.com

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