After notching a 78-76 home victory on Sunday night over Bellevue, the Waldorf men’s basketball team’s dream of winning the regular season North Star Athletic Association (NSAA) Conference title is becoming more and more of a reality.
“In order to win a conference title, we have to protect our home court,” Waldorf head coach Nigel Jenkins said. “This is a great bounce-back win for us against a very, very tough team.
“Our history kind of speaks for itself,” Jenkins added, “our battles with Bellevue are always close, whether they’re ranked or not.”
Waldorf (8-8 overall, 4-1 NSAA) overcame a 47-44 halftime deficit to knock off the Bellevue Bruins (7-7, 2-2) in a highly contested, back-and-forth affair.
With the win, the Warriors continue to share a first place in the NSAA with Dickinson State and Mayville State.
A barrage of 3-pointers going through the net allowed the Warriors to maintain a tie for the NSAA lead. The Warriors, led primarily by Falmata Tula, made 10 of their 16 attempts (62.5 percent) from behind the 3-point line to outlast the Bruins at Hanson Fieldhouse.
One of the senior leaders on this Waldorf team, Tula went a perfect 4-of-4 from beyond the 3-point arc to lead all scorers with 22 points. The senior guard from Minneapolis, Minn., also went a perfect 4-of-4 from the free-throw line.
Even more impressively, the 6-foot guard led all players with three offensive rebounds and eight total rebounds.
“In terms of rebounding, we’ve made some adjustments throughout the year,” Jenkins said.
“Every team is different, and we have to find our identity,” Waldorf’s coach added. “This team, it may not be a track meet every night; we got up and down the floor today, no question about it, but for the most part, we might have to play half-court basketball.
“Our players are relying on our defense and our rebounding by using our size and length to bother people.”
As good as Tula was, it was Brady Kuchinka’s clutch 3-point and free-throw shooting that helped put the Bruins away for good.
After Jaffrey Stillman’s layup cut Waldorf’s lead to 73-72 with under three minutes to go, Kuchinka made a huge 3-point jump shot with 2:21 remaining to give the Warriors an important two-possession lead.
Both teams then went scoreless for over two minutes before Bellevue’s Blake Wilder made two free-throws to make it a 76-74 deficit with 19 seconds left.
On the ensuing possession, Bellevue used a full-court press defense to try and force a steal from the Warriors.
Waldorf would have nothing of it, with the Warriors making pinpoint passes to erase 10 seconds from the game clock and forcing the Bruins to foul Kuchinka.
With nine seconds left, Waldorf’s starting point guard made the Bruins pay for fouling him. The sophomore from Lake City, Minn., delivered under pressure by swishing two baskets from the charity stripe.
Just like that, the Bruins found themselves down 78-74 with not a lot of time remaining.
Kuchinka’s clutch free-throw and 3-point shooting enabled him to drop 18 points on Bellevue’s defense. On Bellevue’s next offensive possession, Waldorf’s relentless half-court defense gave Bellevue all kinds of fits, but Jalen Hall made a jump shot inside of the painted area to make it 78-76.
Too little, too late.
It took Hall six seconds to score the deuce, and by that time, there were just 3.3 seconds on the clock.
Thanks to heads-up team defense from the Warriors, the Bruins simply ran out of time to mount a full comeback.
The Warriors are now 4-3 at Hanson Fieldhouse. Waldorf will not have another home game until Jan. 13, but they have two more road conference games, on Jan. 5 at Presentation College and on Jan. 6 at Mayville State.
“It’s good to finally figure it out; obviously, right at conference time, that’s when you want to figure it out,” Jenkins said as his Warriors have found their winning rhythm. “We’ve just got to carry it over into next semester, and we’ll see what happens.
“But I really like our chances. This is a great group to be around. I’m looking forward to the future.”