The Emory Eagles prevailed over Texas Lutheran University 82-69 March 3 in the opening round of the NCAA DIII men’s basketball tournament in Abilene, Texas before falling to regional host Hardin-Simmons University (Texas) 85-95 in the second round March 4.
Emory’s first opponent, the Texas Lutheran Bulldogs (19-10), boasted an impressive backcourt with three seniors: guard Jordan Kouremetis, forward Zach Behr and guard Sterling Holmes.
“We knew there were three guys that could really go on their team,” Emory sophomore guard Gebereal Baitey said. “[Behr] found a way to get going, but we did such a good job [defending] the other two that it didn’t really matter.”
With a close score from the start, the X-factor in the first half was none other than freshman guard Nick Tupanjanin. With four three-pointers in the first half alone, Tupanjanin gave Emory the burst it needed, helping the team jump ahead to a 35-19 lead with four minutes remaining.
“[Tupanjanin] got great looks, knocked them in and really gave us a lift,” Head Coach Jason Zimmerman said. “Those shots kept us in the lead going into halftime.”
Jumpers from Texas’ junior forward Harris Jowell and Behr, however, helped the Bulldogs close the gap to just six points at halftime, 39-33. The Bulldogs dug down in the second half, gradually trimming down the Eagles’ lead. Clinging to a one-point lead with five minutes to play, Emory needed someone to step-up offensively and junior forward Adam Gigax delivered, taking control of the court.
The Emory forward netted 12 points in the final five minutes, including a run of nine straight in the span of two minutes, showing why he’s the UAA’s leading scorer this season. Combined with a strong Emory defensive front that allowed only six points from the Bulldogs in the last five minutes, the Eagles secured a 82-69 victory and a ticket to the second round.
Hardin-Simmons awaited Emory in the next round. Coming off of a 109-103 offensive explosion in their first round against LaGrange College (Ga.), Hardin-Simmons (24-6) was led by one of the best individual players Emory faced this season: senior forward Nathaniel Jack.
“[Jack] could jump, not only high, but with very little gather, and he got a lot of second chance points, rebounds and tip-ins because of that,” Baitey said. “They had so many other guards on the floor we had to put a big on him, which was a bit of a tough match up for us.”
The game’s pace was quick, with each team shooting well out of the gate. For the Eagles, senior forward Austin DaGue provided a lift with 15 points and seven rebounds in the first half. He finished the game with a double-double of 21 points and 10 rebounds.
Baitey, like DaGue, also stepped up throughout the season. The sophomore guard led the team in minutes played, 32, in the game against Texas Lutheran and followed that with one of his best offensive performances against Hardin-Simmons.
“It wasn’t so much that I was controlling the floor in the way that [junior guard] Whit Rapp does, but it’s the energy that I bring on both the offensive and defensive ends,” Baitey said. “That’s something that I’ve always taken pride in.”
Emory played well in the first half, but Hardin-Simmons was better. Led by senior guard Christian O’Neal’s 17 points, the Cowboys countered every time the Eagles made a move. Shooting 53 percent from the field, Hardin-Simmons took a 50-41 lead into the break.
Emory played evenly against their opponent in the second half, but failed to close the gap. Strong performances from Baitey (17 points) and senior forward Jim Gordon (20 points, seven rebounds) weren’t enough to hinder the Cowboys, who benefitted from outstanding performances from Jack (26 points, 15 rebounds) and senior guard Dashun Dixon (20 points).
In many of ways, Emory lived and died by the three this season. Unfortunately, it was the latter March 4. Shooting only 22 percent from three-point range against Hardin Simmons, Emory couldn’t quite find its touch behind the arc. Combined with 34 made free-throws for the Cowboys, the Eagles lost the chance to play in what would have been their fourth straight strip to the Sweet 16, falling 85-95.
“We had our second worst shooting night from three on the year,” Zimmerman said. “[It] led to a tough night for us.”
With the season officially at its end, Emory seniors guard Jonathan Coles, guard Jonathan Terry, DaGue and Gordon have suited up in their uniforms for the last time. They leave a four-year legacy that boasts 80 wins, three Sweet 16 appearances, two UAA Championships and kept the Eagles’ run of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances alive. Now at five in a row, Emory’s run is the second longest for an UAA team, after New York University’s seven straight appearances.
“There is a lot to be proud of with these seniors, and I’ve been blessed to coach them,” Zimmerman said. “I am really looking forward to continuing to build the program and keep it at the level that these guys have got it to.”