RIO GRANDE, Ohio — There’s an oft-used phrase in life which says, “It’s not how you start, but how you finish.”
With the hopes of extending their season for at least two more games hanging in the balance, it was an adage that the University of Rio Grande men’s basketball team took to heart.
The RedStorm scored 27 of the game’s final 34 points to erase a seven-point deficit and knock off Point Park University, 74-61, in the semifinal round of the River States Conference Men’s Basketball Championship, Saturday evening, at the Newt Oliver Arena.
Rio Grande, which was seeded fifth in the tourney based on a double-blind draw, won a season-high sixth game and improved to 16-8.
The victory sends the RedStorm into Tuesday night’s championship game against West Virginia University-Tech, which ousted Alice Lloyd College, 82-68, in Saturday’s other semifinal round tilt.
The win also advances first-year head coach Ryan Arrowood’s club to the NAIA National Tournament, which begins on March 12 with opening round play at either Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Ind. or at Thomas More University in Crestview Hills, Ky. The River States Conference is sending its tournament champion and runner-up to the national tourney, meaning the RedStorm are in regardless of Tuesday night’s outcome.
The national tournament appearance will be Rio’s first since 2003.
Things didn’t look so good for the RedStorm after Point Park’s Sherron Schifino scored all of his team’s points in a 7-2 run which produced a 54-47 lead with 7:35 remaining.
But after a timeout to reassess the situation and to regroup, the RedStorm were magical.
Rio reeled off the next 13 points, with three-point goals by freshman Cooper Donaldson (Jackson, OH) and sophomore Shiloah Blevins (South Webster, OH) serving as book ends, to take a 60-54 lead with 3:39 left to play.
Blevins, who was back in the lineup — although less than 100 percent — for the first time since suffering an ankle injury in Monday’s win over IU-Southeast, canned another three-pointer on the RedStorm’s ensuing possession before hitting one of two free throws when the Pioneers were hit with a technical foul on the same sequence to make it 64-56.
Freshman Andrew Shull (Milton, WV) scored on a layup once Rio got the ball back after the technical and the RedStorm had a 10-point lead with 2:50 remaining.
Shull, who was also injured in Monday’s win, gutted out a second straight performance despite playing with his ankle heavily wrapped.
Point Park, the tourney’s No. 1 seed, managed to get back within seven, 68-61, after a bucket by Jesse Calloway with 1:57 left, but got no closer as Rio scored the final six points to set the final score.
Blevins and freshman Caleb Wallis (Jackson, OH) had 20 points each to lead the RedStorm, while freshman Redeetris Richardson (Atlanta, GA) added 14 points and sophomore Taylor Mack (Akron, OH) yanked down a game-high 14 rebounds.
Rio Grande, which was already playing without its leading scorer, sophomore Miki Tadic (Hilversum, The Netherlands), also lost senior Cam Schreiter to a concussion-like injury just 56 seconds into the contest. The Mason, Ohio native had led the injury-riddled lineup with a season-high 18 points in Wednesday’s quarterfinal round win at Midway.
Schifino had 20 points to lead PPU in a losing cause, while Calloway and Eddie Flohr finished with 11 points each. Tony James chipped in with a team-best 10 rebounds.
The Pioneers shot just 29 percent in the second half (10-for-34) after going 15-for-28 (53.6%) in the opening 20 minutes.
Tuesday night’s championship game, which will be played at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center in Beckley, W.Va., is scheduled for a 7:30 p.m. tipoff.
Live video will be available on a pay-per-view basis at http://portal.stretchinternet.com/rsc.
Rio Grande won the lone regular season meeting between the two teams, posting a 69-68 triumph on Feb. 3 in Rio Grande. Blevins scored the winning points on a buzzer-beating dunk off an offensive rebound.
The regular season meeting in Beckley, which was scheduled for early January, was canceled due to COVID-19.
Randy Payton is the Sports Information Director at the University of Rio Grande.