The North Idaho Cardinals just became big fans of expansion.
The National Junior College Athletic Association’s grand basketball extravaganza in Hutchinson, Kan., grows from 16 to 24 teams this year, with four of the berths to be assigned “at-large.”
That’s the only way the Cardinals can make it now.
Spotting Snow College an 18-point lead midway through the second half, NIC managed to make it all up but couldn’t come up with enough clutch shots – or stops – at the end to avoid a 77-72 upset loss and elimination at the NJCAA Region 18 men’s tournament at Christianson Gymnasium in Coeur d’Alene.
Snow (23-9) will play Salt Lake (an 89-73 winner over Southern Idaho in the other semifinal) in tonight’s 7:30 title game, while the Cardinals – 26-5 and ranked 10th in the latest NJCAA poll – wait and hope.
“Snow hit some tough shots – big shots,” NIC coach Jared Phay said. “A lot of them came with a hand in their face and there’s not much more we can do than that.”
The biggest was Connor Van Brocklin’s 3-pointer with 18 seconds remaining, putting the Badgers up 73-69.
Mikey Hope did get NIC back within one with a 3 barely six seconds later, but Keon Lewis missed a potential tying 3 with a couple ticks on the clock.
Hope (19 points), Lewis and Jalil Abdul-Bassit (16) were the catalysts of the comeback, though Chris Sarbaugh’s free throws were the points that pulled NIC even at 68-all with 3 minutes left.
Until then, NIC’s offense looked out of sync and the Cardinals made just 4 of 21 3-pointers against Snow’s 1-3-1 zone.
“And then they just said, ‘We’re going to the hole,’ ” Snow coach Rob Neilson said, “and they’re too quick for us when they do that.”
But NIC might have had more in the tank at the end if it hadn’t spun its wheels so much earlier.
“Just no energy the first five minutes of the second half,” Sarbaugh said, “and that’s the most important part of the game.”
No one seemed to understand that better than Van Brocklin, who scored 20 of his game-high 25 after intermission.