By Matt Green
WINONA LAKE, Ind. – The Shorter University men's basketball team will play for a national championship on Saturday afternoon.
They earned the right to play for a title with a national championship caliber effort.
Shorter placed all five starters in double figures, led by 28 points from Anthony Banks and a double-double from Kenny Leverette, and the fifth-seeded Hawks upset top-seeded Fresno Pacific, 104-95, in the first of two semifinals at the NCCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship in Winona Lake, Ind.
Shorter (20-11), now in possession of a third straight 20-win season, will take on the winner of the Cedarville-Oklahoma Baptist matchup in Saturday's national final at 2 pm ET.
"I am so happy to see this team gel and play this type of basketball at this point of the year," said Shorter head coach Chad Warner, who guided his Hawks to the NAIA Fab Four last year. "This is as disciplined as we have played and our guys really bought in to what we had to do to be successful."
This was a semifinal billed to be one of highest scoring, most physical and fast paced contests in recent history at the NCCAA Men's Basketball Championship. The game lived up to the hype.
More importantly, Shorter lived up to its potential, getting a complete effort to both outscore one of the nation's most explosive teams and contain one of the nation's most explosive scorers.
For the second straight night, Banks anchored Shorter offensively, shooting 11-for-20 for his 28 points while adding nine rebounds. Dedric Ware scored 25, dished out seven assists and went 12 of 14 from the foul line and Marquise King had a career day, going for 21 points and not turning the ball over in 37 minutes.
Walter Hill chipped in with 16 points and seven rebounds and Leverette never came out of the game, playing all 40 minutes and finishing with 14 points and 12 boards.
But Leverette's most important contribution wasn't offensively.
After drawing the assignment of the Sooner Athletic Conference Player of the Year in the quarterfinals, Leverette was asked to guard Fresno Pacific gunner John Taylor, who torched Roberts Wesleyan for 50 points on 16-for-23 shooting on Wednesday night.
Taylor was nowhere near as efficient against Leverette and the Hawks, ending the game with his season average of 27 points, but on 8-for-24 shooting. He also turned the ball over six times and was whistled for two offensive fouls in the first half.
Taylor had only 10 points in the opening period as Shorter built a 15-point halftime lead.
Shorter used a big first half run punctuated by a Hill breakaway dunk and a Banks traditional 3-point play to go up 28-12 at the 11:35 mark. Shorter led by as much as 17 in the first half when Hill drained a 3 to make it 48-31 with 3:15 until the break and the Hawks went into the locker room ahead 54-39.
Fresno Pacific scored the first 11 points of the second half to trim Shorter's lead to 54-50 with 16:55 remaining in the game, but the Hawks slowly regained control with a stretch of suffocating defense and surgical offensive execution, highlighted by an alley-oop slam from Ware to Hill that put Shorter up 15 with 9:11 to play.
"When they made that run, our guys never panicked," Warner said. "We felt that if we could continue to execute, we would be able to recover. And we did."
Shorter continued to pour it on in the latter stages, extending its lead to 89-67 with 5:39 to go on four straight points from Banks.
The Sunbirds never recovered.
Malcolm Griffin led Fresno Pacific with 29 points and 10 rebounds and Matt Samuels was the third Sunbird in double figures with 16. Fresno Pacific surpassed its season average of 90 points per game, but turned the ball over 18 times and made just 8 of 23 from beyond the arc, most of which came in the game's waning minutes.
Shorter shot 46 percent and took only 13 treys, electing to attack the rim against FPU's extended pressure. The Hawks also excelled sharing the basketball, assisting on 19 of 33 made field goals.
The tactics worked and secured Shorter a shot at its first men's basketball national championship.
Continue to check www.goshorterhawks.com for a preview of Saturday's championship game.