IUK head coach Eric Echelbarger talks to the Cougars during a timeout at the NAIA Division II National Basketball Championship. (SJ photo/IUK Collin Yeager)

KOKOMO, Ind. – While the end may not have been what the squad wanted, the 2018-2019 version of the Indiana University Kokomo men’s basketball team was one for the record books. Playing in its first NAIA Division II Men’s Basketball Championship, the Cougars finished in the Sweet Sixteen before being knocked out of the single-elimination tournament.

No. 22-ranked IU Kokomo opened with an 89-83 upset victory over No. 9 Union College before falling to No. 8 Oregon Tech 84-72 in the second round of the tournament held at The Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

“What an amazing group of young men I had the chance to coach this season,” said IUK head coach Eric Echelbarger. “A team that came together quickly, worked hard and overcame adversity to become one of the top teams in the NAIA. This team will forever hold a special place in my heart.”

Against Oregon Tech, IU Kokomo (26-8) took an early lead and maintained it throughout the first half and into the second. But the Hustlin’ Owls took the lead with 10 minutes left in the second half and never looked back, outscoring the Cougars 46-27 in the final 20 minutes.

Kokomo’s hot shooting cooled off in the second half. In the first half, the Cougars shot 16 of 28 (57.1-percent) from the floor on their way to 45 points and a seven-point halftime lead. IU Kokomo finished the game 25 of 60 (41.7-percent). Kokomo won the rebound battle, picking up 42 boards (16 offensive, 26 defensive) compared to Oregon Tech’s 36. The Owls took advantage of offensive rebounds more efficiently, scoring 20 second chance points while IU Kokomo had 11 points.

Akil McClain led the IU Kokomo offense in scoring with 17 points, taking eight shots from the charity stripe. Ending the regular season in second place in NAIA Division II in total blocks, Desean Hampton collected six blocks in the game while scoring 14 points. Trequan Spivey and Antoin Cifton each ended the game with double digit points; Spivey had 14 points and Clifton finished with 10.

In the opening round win over Union, the Cougars held on as the contest saw seven lead changes before IUK took control down the stretch. By the 4:38 mark of the second half, the Cougars held its largest lead at nine points.

Spivey led IU Kokomo with a game-high 28 points on 11 for 17 shooting. Hampton had a double-double of 15 points and 14 rebounds as did Clifton with 15 points and 11 rebounds. Darian Porch added 12 points and six rebounds while freshman Ditwan Gary finished with five points and led the Cougars with five assists.

IU Kokomo was one of three River States Conference teams and one of six Indiana teams in the 32-team national tournament field.

All three RSC squads delivered with at least one victory. WVU Tech earned a No. 1 seed and won its first game 90-79 over College of the Ozarks before falling to Briar Cliff 99-72. IU East downed fellow Hoosier squad Bethel 83-81 in overtime and St. Francis (Illinois) 77-61 before falling to Spring Arbor 89-77 in the Elite Eight.

The Final Four included Oregon Tech, College of Idaho, Spring Arbor (Michigan) and Marian (Indiana); the championship game is scheduled for March 12.

IU Kokomo loses just two seniors from the squad – Toby Vanliew and Dante Butler – with core of the River States Conference West Division champs returning.

As a whole, the season was extremely successful for the Cougars, which registered a team record 26 wins. Four of the victories were over Top 25 squads: No. 25 IU Southeast on Jan. 8, No. 9 WVU Tech on Jan. 26, No. 14 IU East on Feb. 12 and Union in the national tournament. The No. 22 ranking was the highest-ever for the Cougars and this year marked the first time IUK was ranked in the Top 25 (No. 24 on Feb. 5).

In addition, three Cougars were ranked in the Top 50 for individual stats. As of March 10:

Hampton was No. 1 in Blocks per Game (2.676), No. 2 in Total Blocks (91), No. 26 in Total Rebounds (266), No. 42 in Offensive Rebounds per Game (2.471) and No. 48 in Total Rebounds per Game (7.824).

McClain was No. 11 in 3-Pointers Made (104), No. 20 in 3-Point Percentage (.452), No. 22 in 3-Pointers Made per Game (3.059) and No. 42 in Total Scoring (572).

Spivey was No. 26 in Total Scoring (633) and No. 40 in Points per Game (18.618).

Courtesy of IUK and Sports Journal staffs

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