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JUCO basketball: Headed to Hutch!

Mar. 18—OTTUMWA — He came back home just over 10 months ago, becoming the 17th head coach in the history of the Indian Hills men's basketball program.

Josh Sash wouldn't make any predictions at that time. Sash did have a goal for the Warriors to compete at the highest level against the best teams in the country.

Indian Hills will get that chance to compete at the highest level next week in the NJCAA Division I Men's Basketball National Tournament. The 10th-ranked Warriors never trailed in Saturday's North Central District championship game against the 20th-ranked North Dakota State College of Science, snapping the 28-game winning streak of the visiting Wildcats with a 90-74 victory in the final game of the season at the Hellyer Student Life Center.

"When you're at a place like Indian Hills, this is kind of the standard to win at the highest level," Sash said. "You want to make sure you're at the national tournament and trying to compete to win national championships."

Indian Hills advances for the 17th time in program history to compete in the national tournament. The Warriors, now 27-5 on the season with six wins over ranked opponents, earned the fifth-seed in the 24-team field and will open their quest for the program's fourth national title in a second round contest against either 12th-seeded Lee College or 21st-seeded Wallace State on Tuesday, Mar. 26.

Sash has been part of national tournaments with Indian Hills as an assistant coach under Hank Plona, helping the Warriors qualify in 2016 and 2017. As a head coach, Sash guided DMACC to the NJCAA Division II National Tournament in 2020 before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the tournament.

Now, finally, Sash will lead a team to a national tournament as a head coach.

"I've never really had this opportunity," Sash said. "Every team is unique and special. I'm really happy for these guys that get to experience this. I know the guys that were here last year have the taste in their mouth from last year of it not ending the way they wanted it to end. They're hungry for more.

"We talk all the time, even in recruiting, about having the opportunity to play at the national tournament and play for something late into the season. It's very special for our group."

Indian Hills extended its current winning streak to 11 straight game, maintaining a perfect record in March after going unbeaten in the month of February. Either than 93 seconds spent in a 2-2 tie following a lay-up by Calvin Sisk, the Warriors spent the rest of the district final playing with the lead.

T.J. Morris put Indian Hills in front for good, scoring on a drive to the basket while being fouled converting an early 3-point play that put the Warriors up 5-2. Morris, after serving more as a facilitator in last weekend's regional championship game win over Southeastern, would lead the Warriors in scoring on Saturday pouring in a game-high 19 points including a perfect 7-7 effort from the free throw line.

"They couldn't guard us downhill, so we just kept attacking them," Morris said. "Every time we got the chance, we just kept attacking."

That attack kept the Wildcats from getting in front after the Warriors jumped out to an 11-4 lead in the opening six minutes. Indian Hills had its lead cut to a single point three times in the first half only to respond each time with a 3-pointer by William Beugre-Kassi sparking a 9-0 run by the Warriors late in the half, giving Indian Hills a 31-21 lead.

"It was like a game of runs in the first half. We just had to find a way to pull away," Morris said. "We had to play harder defense. We noticed they didn't like being pressured, so we tried to put more pressure on them.

"We don't feel any pressure. We don't believe in it. We knew we could get the job done. Once we locked in and came together, we got it done."

Facing a Wildcat team that entered Saturday night with the third-best defensive scoring average this season, allowing just 62.5 points a game, Indian Hills played with the confidence of a team aiming for their sixth win over a ranked opponent this season. The Warriors nearly shot 50 percent from the field in the contest with five different players reaching double figures, keeping the Wildcats at arm's length throughout the contest.

Trevion LaBeaux, making his return to the court for the first time since injuring his knee in a Feb. 24 win over Southeastern, sank a pair of 3-pointers in the second half reaching double figures with 10 points. Unsure how many minutes he would play, LaBeaux logged 28 minutes on the floor in his final IHCC home game.

"I've been putting in constant hours of recovery just to be able to return," LaBeaux said. "It's still kind of early, but I was excited to play. The plan was to have me out there for a couple of minutes just to see how it would go. It felt good, so coach rode with me and I ended up playing a lot of minutes."

LaBeaux had one of several field goals for the Warriors that seemed to stymie any potential run the Wildcats attempted to make, sinking a 3-pointer just over three minutes into the second half to give IHCC a 48-36 lead. The Wildcats (31-2) never got closer than eight the entire second half with a jumper by Peyton Newbern cutting the Warrior lead to 68-60 with 4:41 left.

Once again, Indian Hills had an immediate answer. Braden Sparks found Davontae Hall for a 3-pointer on the very next possession, leading to a game-clinching 7-0 run that put the Warriors up by 15 with 3:27 to go.

"I still don't think that was our best game, but we figured out a way to win," Sash said. "That's what good teams do at this time of the year."

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