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March 15, 2014

NAIA DIV. II NATIONAL TOURNEY: IU Southeast’s season ends in a thriller

No. 3 Grenadiers fall to unseeded Robert Morris, 71-66

POINT LOOKOUT, Mo. — Indiana University Southeast’s Jake Simpson actually had a much better look at the basket than Robert Morris’ Jordan Hester. But Hester hit nothing but net while Simpson didn’t draw iron.

Hester’s heroics, which included a 3-pointer with 25 seconds remaining, helped Robert Morris (Ill.) to a 71-66 upset win over IU Southeast in the second round of the NAIA Division II National Championship on Friday and end the third-ranked Grenadiers’ season at 26-5.

Hester swished a 3-pointer from several feet beyond the arc just before the shot clock buzzer went off to break a 66-all tie.

“He hit a tough shot,” IU Southeast guard Kevin Mitchell said. “I contested him pretty good, but he got the ball off. It was a prayer shot and I guess God was with him.”

The Grenadiers tried to answer by going to Simpson for a 3 with three seconds to play. He was forced to take a shot-fake, look down to make sure his feet were beyond the arc and then fired away with defenders around him.

Simpson — a 51.4-percent 3-point shooter — put up an air ball.

“We ran the play for him to shoot,” IU Southeast coach Wiley Brown said. “He missed it. That’s the way the game goes.”

“He’s our best shooter,” Mitchell added. “We had to let him shoot it and he had a good opportunity.”

Robert Morris promptly clinched its win by making two free throws before Mitchell banked in a half-court trey at the buzzer for the final three of his 17 points.

What Brown lamented most was a stretch in the final few minutes in which IU Southeast relinquished control of the proceedings and a four-point lead.

“When we were up by four, we turned the ball over three times,” Brown said. “They weren’t even forced turnovers. Down the stretch, you need those opportunities.”

IU Southeast spotted Robert Morris a 12-0 lead, putting itself in comeback mode, just as the Grenadiers were a night earlier versus Tabor (Kan.) in a 77-75 victory. They overcame a five-point deficit in the final minutes on Thursday and rallied again on Friday but ran out of gas in the final minutes.

“It’s hard to come back from that,” Mitchell said of the early deficit. “We fought really hard, but we had a couple slip-ups, a couple missed rebounds and some bad defensive plays at the end.”

Vernon Payne topped the Grenadiers with 21 points. Cameron Mitchell added a dozen.

“I feel bad for our seniors,” Brown said. “We came here wanting to win the national championship. I know they’re disappointed. They could have given up in the first half when we got down big. That shows the character of this team. They kept fighting and we were in it. I’m extremely proud of them.”

The Grenadiers are among the top five seeds ousted from the tourney. Four of the five were upset on Friday.

“It was a crazy day,” Brown said. “You need some breaks here. We had some breaks to make it to the Final Four last year. We didn’t have some things go our way. But that’s the way the game goes. What a great tournament, though. We were so fortunate to be here. The guys will remember this for the rest of their lives.”

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