Top-ranked College of Idaho will meet Indiana Tech in NAIA championship game

The College of Idaho has won 35 straight games this season, but the Yotes never came this close to losing.

The top-ranked Yotes escaped with a 73-72 win over upstart Ottawa (Arizona) on Friday night in the semifinals of the 85th NAIA Men’s Basketball Championship at Municipal Auditorium.

This one wasn’t decided until Ottawa’s Josiah De’laCerda retrieved his deflected, potential game-tying three-point shot and swished a follow. But De’laCerda was actually in front of the three-point line, leaving the Spirit one point short.

The Yotes, 35-1, have not lost since their season opener against Arizona Christian, a quarterfinalist in this tournament.

The Yotes will meet Indiana Tech, like College of Idaho, a longtime member of the former Division II level, in the title game at 7 p.m. Saturday night.

“None of our games have been as tough as this one, not even our loss to Arizona Christian,” said a relieved College of Idaho coach Colby Blaine, whose team has outscored its opponents by an average margin of 24 points per game, and whose closest game during the winning streak was by 6 points at Southern Oregon on Jan. 21.

“The truth is every team in America that is good has to learn how to play with the lead, and we’ve got it as good as anyone in the country. We’ve been up 10, 20, 30 points every second half. You’ve got to knock down your free throws, and you’ve got to get stops.”

College of Idaho led by 23 points with 12 minutes, 43 seconds to play before Ottawa, behind the shooting of De’laCerda, who finished with 28, and Alex Villi, who had 17, staged a furious comeback.

The Yotes, meanwhile, didn’t make a field goal in the final 4 minutes, 33 seconds, as the Spirit kept sending them to the free-throw line.

“They were smart, they started fouling with three minutes left, and they really extended that game,” Blaine said of the Spirit.

College of Idaho missed 10 of 15 free throws at one point, including six of 12 by leading scorer Charles Elzie. But Elzie calmly drained two free throws with 5.5 seconds to play, giving the Yotes a 73-70 lead, setting the stage for the final shots by De’laCerda.

“Charles is absolutely incredible,” Blaine said. “He scored 21 points, and that’s what seniors do. He’s been with us all four years, and he’s ready for this moment.”

Indeed, a big moment awaits College of Idaho, formerly a Division II program which has appeared in 23 Division II national tournaments before divisions merged in 2021. The school, then known as Albertson, won the Division II championship in 1996, “but that’s starting to get away from us,” Blaine said.

“We’ve committed as an entire college a push to get back to there, and these guys have done it right the whole year, and they deserve a chance to play for that national championship.”

College of Idaho began its 35-game winning streak with an 83-72 victory over Ottawa in the second game of the season, so being tested by the Spirit didn’t surprise Elzie.

“There’s a lot on the line right now,” said Elizie, a 6-1 guard from Tacoma. “Either go hard or go home. That makes every team bring out the best in themselves.”

Ottawa, which sits two blocks from the Royals’ spring training site in Surprise, Arizona, finished 25-10 in the program’s sixth year of existence.

“That was a pretty resilient effort by our group,” said Ottawa coach Matt Keeley. “I wouldn’t expect anything different. That’s who they’ve been all year long. We would have liked to have had the chance to play together one more day, but I was proud of their efforts.”

Still, it was an enjoyable experience for Keeley, who was the Heart of America Conference Player of the Year in 2004 while playing at Olathe’s MidAmerica Nazarene, where he led the NAIA in assists, spent eight years as an assistant and was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2014.

“It was awesome,’’ he said. “Obviously, I’m an NAIA guy through and through and have been for several years. I’m super biased, but I love this tournament, how quickly it happens, the building, the city, the whole thing, it has a special place in my heart.”

Jayce Catchings, a product of Liberty High, played 21 minutes off the bench points and had two assists for Ottawa.

Indiana Tech 80 Georgetown (Ky.) 71

Indiana Tech, playing in its first NAIA semifinal, eliminated perennial power Georgetown, a three-time national champion making its record 41st appearance in the national tournament.

Indiana Tech trailed 40-29 at halftime, but staged a second-half rally capped by Max Perez’s three-pointer that tied the score at 50-50 with 11:25 to play. The Warriors’ bench was called for a technical foul for stepping on the floor in celebration, but after Georgetown took a 51-50 lead with a free throw, Indiana Tech’s Cory McKinney made 4 of 4 free throws and the Fort Wayne, Ind., school held off Georgetown (30-6) the rest of the way.

“We said a few things as a staff,” coach Ted Albert said of his halftime message, “but this is a player-led group, and they rallied together. “Our guys responded (to the technical). We were already on that incline, and they just stayed the course.”

The Warriors (32-4) of Fort Wayne had a balanced attack led by Josh Kline and Grant Smith, each with 15 points, and Steve Helm off the bench with 10 of his 12 points in the second half.

“I’m really proud of my guys,” Albert said. “This is about them, the experience for them. I’ve had this experience as a player and as an assistant, and our job is to help them feel the same we did, putting them in the best position possible, but it’s up to them to execute and carry out the game plan, and I’m excited they get this opportunity.”

Jake Ohmer led Georgetown with 20 points.