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JUCO basketball: 40 minutes from Hutch

Mar. 15—OTTUMWA — It was quite the celebration last Saturday night at the Hellyer Student Life Center.

Not just one, but both nets on the opposite ends of the Honey Creek Resort Court came down. By the time it was over, even young Indian Hills basketball fans were getting the chance to experience climbing the ladder and cutting down a piece of the net in scene that will continue to play itself out throughout the country during the rest of March.

Will that same scene play itself out again this Saturday night at the Hellyer Center? That question, along with an automatic spot in the upcoming NJCAA Division I National Men's Basketball Tournament, will be determined when the 10th-ranked Warriors welcome in the 20th-ranked North Dakota State College of Science tonight for the North Central District championship game. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.

"We've got to win it first," Indian Hills head men's basketball coach Josh Sash said when talking about participating in any more postgame celebrations. "We've spending this week focusing on what it's going to get by another great team, but we've faced a lot of great teams this year."

North Dakota State College of Science hasn't played since clinching the Region XIII championship with a 90-70 win over Dawson back on Mar. 3. Ben Fort was named the Most Valuable Player of the regional tournament for the Wildcats after scoring 28 points in the title game while Peyton Newbern added a double-double with 21 points and 10 assists.

The victory sends NDSCS into Saturday's district final with a record of 31-1, including 28 consecutive wins. The Wildcats might be hotter, but the Warriors enter more battle tested having already faced nine ranked opponents this season, going 5-4 against those top-25 foes including an 81-79 win last month at No. 17 Moberly Area and a 93-72 win over third-ranked Triton just one day before NDSCS's regional championship win over Dawson.

"If you look at the schedule we've played, we've played some really tough teams both at home and on the road," Sash said. "Fortunately, we're getting the chance to host this one. They (NDSCS) have to travel down here. Hopefully, we'll have as good of a crowd as we had last week."

That crowd watched Indian Hills move on step closer to clinching a return trip to the national tournament for the third consecutive year. The Warriors overcame an eight-point deficit in the second half, winning 76-68 over Southeastern in the Region XI finals behind a 27-point night from Braden Sparks and a solid all-around night on the floor from T.J. Morris that included 11 points, eight rebounds and five assists.

"We're in a great spot right now. We just need to focus on being at our best each day we come to the gym," Morris said. "It doesn't matter who we face from this point on. We're done losing. We're not losing to anybody from this point forward."

Sash, however, knows just how dangerous NDSCS can be as the Warriors and Wildcats meet on Saturday for the sixth time in a district final. Indian Hills has won five of the six meetings so far, but Sash was on the coaching staff back in 2016 when NDSCS knocked off IHCC in Ottumwa to clinch a national tournament berth with a 104-103 win in overtime.

The Wildcats will provide a stiff defensive test for the Warriors, ranking third in the country entering Saturday's game allowing just 62.5 points a game. Peyton Newbern earned Mon-Dak Conference Player of the Year honors after leading NDSCS with 14.7 points a game while 7-2 sophomore center Calvin Sisk will challenge Warrior post players like Chris Mpaka and David Hermes throughout the contest.

Indian Hills, however, may have an ace in the hole to play for Saturday's district final. Trevion LaBeaux, IHCC's scoring leader averaging 13.6 points a game, may be set to return from a leg injury suffered during a home win over Southeastern back on Feb. 24.

"Hopefully, we'll be continuing to get healthier with Trev," Sash said. "We're hoping for a significant home-court advantage for this one. We feed off our crowd. We feed off their energy. I know our guys will be juiced up."

— Scott Jackson can be reached at sjackson@ottumwacourier.com. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.