By MIKE COURSON
Great Bend Post
Great Bend-native Matt Keeley's run in the NAIA National Basketball Tournament has come to an end. But not before a thrilling finish at Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium Friday evening. Ottawa University Arizona (OUZA) trailed by as many as 23 points in the final 13 minutes before whittling the deficit all the way down to a single digit twice in the final seven seconds. Top-ranked College of Idaho, winner of 35-straight games, hung on for a 73-72 win.
The Spirit run began in those final 13 minutes as OUAZ cut the gap to single figures, only to give up two offensive rebounds on the Coyote end. Keeley resorted to fouling with more than two minutes to play, and the strategy paid off. Idaho made 18 of 30 free throws in the second half, and shot 21 of 37 from the stripe in the game.
Those misses kept the door open for OUAZ, who pulled within six points in the final 30 seconds before forcing a pair of turnovers with the opportunity to make it a one-possession game. Instead, Idaho missed two more free throws and pulled down another offensive board that resulted in two free throw makes. Those would prove to be the difference.
Josiah De'leCerda hit a late three for the Spirit, then OUAZ stole the ensuing inbounds pass and scored for a 71-70 score. The Spirit fouled, and Idaho made both free throws with 5.5 ticks left on the clock. The Spirit had one final chance to tie the game. De'leCerda's 3-point attempt was blocked. He rebounded the miss and put up a shot at the buzzer. The shot went in but came from inside the arc for the final points of the night.
The College of Idaho takes a 35-1 record into the national championship game. The Coyotes lost the first game of the season in close fashion before rattling off 35-consecutive wins, including 16-straight by double figures before Friday's nailbiter against OUAZ.
Keeley's OUAZ squad closes the season at 25-10 overall. The Spirit have advanced to back-to-back national tournaments but reached the final 16 teams for the first time in school history, then advanced to the Fab Four. Keeley is the first and only coach in the program's young history.