Playing for a top-four finish in the conference and a possible home game in the upcoming Regional XI tournament, Iowa Central men's basketball coach Dennis Pilcher joked his team had visiting North Iowa right where the Tritons wanted them - behind 13-0 early on.
Despite that inauspicious start, the Tritons bounced back in a big way, rallying for an 80-76 victory that secured a home contest in the upcoming regional tourney.
Iowa Central, which finishes 8-6 in the league and 19-12 overall, will face No. 5 seeded Ellsworth (8-6, 21-9) Tuesday inside Hodges Fieldhouse. Tip is set for 7:30 p.m.
Ellsworth dropped its season finale to Kirkwood, 81-69. North Iowa, now 7-7 in the league and 20-10 overall, had a chance at the No. 4 seed as well, but fell to the sixth spot as a result of Saturday's setback.
ICCAC champion Des Moines Area will be the No. 1 seed and hosts Southwestern in the first round Tuesday. Other first-round games include Clinton at Iowa Lakes and North Iowa at Kirkwood.
The semifinals are set for Thursday and the Regional XI title game will be next Saturday. Higher seeds will host all the games.
Iowa Central 80, North Iowa 75
Iowa Central - Winston Yergler 3-6 5-5 12, Jesse Jones 5-14 0-0 10, Ky Kramer 1-2 2-2 4, Javonte Young 6-16 2-2 15, Dylan Travis 5-13 1-2 14, Justin Lawler 0-1 2-2 2, Ben Hunt 1-1 2-2 4, Malik Brooks 6-11 4-4 19. Totals: 27-64 18-19 80.
North Iowa - Alexander Davis 2-7 3-4 7, David Humphries 7-19 4-4 19, Sam Skogen 6-10 0-0 16, Matthew Don 6-12 0-0 12, Payton Plagge 5-6 1-4 11, Connor Lang 0-3 0-0 0, Shaquille Coleman 0-0 0-0 0, Nathan Jackson 3-10 0-0 8, Mark Lowe 1-1 0-0 3, Josh Bagley 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 30-69 8-12 76.
Halftime score: Iowa Central 40, North Iowa 39. Three-point goals: Iowa Central 8-24 (Yergler 1-1, Jones 0-6, Kramer 0-1, Young 1-2, Travis 3-9, Lawler 0-1, Brooks 3-4). North Iowa 8-21 (Davis 0-2, Humphries 1-5, Skogen 4-5, Don 0-1, Lang 0-2, Jackson 2-5, Lowe 1-1). Total fouls: Iowa Central 11, North Iowa 17. Fouled out: Don.
"We took care of business," said Pilcher. "I guess we started the game right where we wanted, 13 (points)?down, but we battled back. We got a great effort from our bench. We were ready to go, but we were a little nervous. That's how you start sometimes.
"This was a sweet win. Now we've got at least one more home game."
Reserve Malik Brooks led the Tritons with 19 points. Javone Young added 15, Dylan Travis 14, Winston Yergler 12 and Jesse Jones 10.
Iowa Central's bench outscored North Iowa's 25-11.
Iowa Central was down 13-0 with just over four minutes gone in the first half. The Tritons missed their first six shots and didn't find the scoreboard until Travis nailed a three-pointer with 15:12 to play.
By then Pilcher had already called two timeouts to try to settle down his team.
"I just told them we have to settle down and keep grinding away," Pilcher said. "We were being too impatient on offense."
Iowa Central reeled off the next nine points to make it 13-9. But North Iowa used a couple of runs to push it back to 30-16 with 8:26 left in the half.
The Tritons countered with a 14-0 run of their own to take the lead for the first time, 33-32 on a three-pointer by Travis. It went back and forth from there for the rest of the half and Iowa Central led 40-39 at the break.
A 10-4 run to open the second half put the Trojans up 49-44 at the 15:35 mark, but again Iowa Central answered and regained the lead at 51-49. North Iowa led 55-53 with 10:58 to play, but that would be the final lead for the visitors.
A 15-3 spurt by Iowa Central gave the Tritons a 10-point lead at 68-58 with 5:56 to play, but North Iowa scratched back to tie at 72-all with 1:50 on a three by Nathan Jackson.
Yergler hit a three for a 75-72 lead with 1:24 remaining, and the Tritons hit five free throws down the stretch, closing on an 8-4 edge. The Tritons were 18 of 19 from the line for the game, including 14 of 15 in the second half.
David Humphries led North Iowa with 19 points.
Iowa Central honored its six sophomores before the game. Puot Kudhot, Jones, Young, Travis, Brooks and Yergler all played their final regular-season home game for Pilcher.
"This was a big win for them. Last year we won 18 games with mostly freshmen playing and this year we won 19 with a smaller squad. Our sophomores have done a great job for us. I am very proud of them," Pilcher said.
All six will graduate this spring, and their combined grade-point average is an impressive 3.4.