116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS – As its one year as an independent athletics program winds down, Mount Mercy will host an event unique to the city of Cedar Rapids.
Friday through Sunday at the U.S. Cellular Center, eight NAIA men's and women's basketball programs will compete in the Association of Independent Institutions Division II basketball championship.
'We're very excited to be hosting it,' first-year Mount Mercy men's coach Aaron Jennings said. 'I think we're comfortable. I think we're going in very confident.'
The Mount Mercy men (22-7) – ranked 17th in the latest coaches poll – are the top seed and will play a quarterfinal at 7:30 p.m. against eighth-seeded Johnson and Wales (Colo.). The women's team is seeded fourth and will face No. 5 Clarke at 5:45 p.m.
With a win Friday, both teams would be guaranteed games on Saturday and Sunday. Two wins in three days earns an automatic bid to next month's NAIA Division II national tournament.
'It will be a good experience,' Mount Mercy junior Ben Struss said. 'I've been there to watch games before, but never got the chance to play down there. So hopefully we get three games to go down there and get wins.'
Struss is one of three former Cedar Rapids Kennedy preps (along with senior Kyle Lamaak and junior Blake Murdock) on the Mount Mercy men's roster. Struss, Lamaak, AIB transfer Chris Ford and a trio of Illinois natives – forward Alex Houston and guards Tre Wagner and CJ Parker – each average over eights point per game.
'A lot of guys are playing well,' Jennings said. 'I think we've got this year five, six, seven guys that have 20 points in a game. That's one of the fun things about coaching this team is that we can kind of get production from so many players.'
Jennings took the reins of the men's program following the resignation of longtime coach Paul Gavin, who assumed the role of Mount Mercy athletics director Nov. 1. It wasn't a difficult transition for Jennings – the former Benton Community prep was already on campus as the women's coach for the previous seven years, and before that a four-year assistant under Gavin.
'I miss the women's team because I was so connected to them and the relationships you make during recruiting and the offseason,' Jennings said. 'I think the guys have welcomed me with open arms and obviously been very successful.'
Like the men, the Mount Mercy women's team enters the tournament winners of 10 of 12 games. Former Washington prep Abby Herb averages 14.4 points per game for the Mustangs (16-13), who are coached this season on an interim basis by longtime area coach Bob Kintzel.
'We'll be there to support them, cheering them on,' Jennings said. 'They don't have a bigger cheerleader.'
Both programs, along with Clarke, will join the Heart of America Athletic Conference at the start of the next academic year. The Mustangs were a member of the Midwest Collegiate Conference from 1988 to 2015.
A.I.I. BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIPS
At U.S. Cellular Center
No. 7 Washington Adventist (Md.) vs. No. 2 Rochester (Mich.), noon
No. 6 Northern New Mexico vs. No. 3 York (Neb.), 1:45 p.m.
No. 8 Johnson & Wales (Colo.) vs. No. 1 Mount Mercy (Iowa), 7:30 p.m.
No. 5 Central Christian (Kan.) vs. No. 4 Ozarks (Mo.), 9:15 p.m.
Teams and times TBA
Consolation, 2 p.m.
Championship, 6 p.m.
No. 6 Northern New Mexico vs. No. 3 Haskell (Kan.), 8:30 a.m.
No. 8 Washington Adventist (Md.) vs. No. 1 Ozarks (Mo.), 10:15 a.m.
No. 7 Johnson & Wales (Colo.) vs. No. 2 Indiana Northwest, 4 p.m.
No. 5 Clarke (Iowa) VS. No. 4 Mount Mercy (Iowa), 5:45 p.m.
Teams and times TBA
Championship, 4 p.m.
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