BECKLEY, W.Va. — Given that two of its starters weren’t in uniform and a third wasn’t even in the building, the University of Rio Grande men’s basketball team already had their collective backs against the wall heading into Tuesday night’s championship game of the River States Conference Tournament against rival West Virginia University-Tech.
Whatever damage the RedStorm’s outstanding injury woes didn’t inflict, an eight-minute scoreless stretch in the opening half did.
The host Golden Bears built a 21-point first half lead and never looked back, cruising to a 75-60 win at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center.
WVU-Tech improved to 12-6 with a third straight win, while avenging a buzzer-beating regular season loss to Rio in the process.
The RedStorm, who had a six-game winning streak snapped, slipped to 16-9 with the loss.
Both teams will represent the conference as its tourney champion and runner-up in the upcoming NAIA National Tournament, which begins March 12 at various opening round sites across the country.
Rio Grande played Tuesday’s title game without sophomore Miki Tadic (Hilversum, The Netherlands), freshman Andrew Shull (Milton, WV) and senior Cam Schreiter (Mason, OH) as a result of injuries suffered during the course of the RedStorm’s run to the championship contest.
Still, despite their physical issues, head coach Ryan Arrowood’s squad trailed just 12-8 after a jumper by freshman Redeetris Richardson (Atlanta, GA) with 13:28 left in the first half.
But, by the time Rio scored its next points — just over eight minutes later — the Golden Bears had run off 15 consecutive points and built a 19-point advantage.
The RedStorm managed to close the deficit to 12 points on three occasions in the second half, but never got any closer the rest of the night.
Adding insult to injury for Rio was, yes, yet another injury to a starter.
Freshman Caleb Wallis (Jackson, OH) was helped off the court with 2:45 remaining in the contest after twisting an ankle while being fouled going after a rebound by WVU-Tech’s Juvante’ Hayes.
Wallis was expected to be examined on Wednesday to determine the extent of the injury.
Rio Grande shot just 32.8 percent from the floor (19-for-58), including an 8-for-28 showing (28.6%) in the first half.
Sophomore Shiloah Blevins (South Webster, OH), who was named the league’s Player of the Year on Monday, led the RedStorm with a game-high 24 points and two blocked shots despite playing with a badly injured ankle of his own.
Richardson added 10 points in a losing cause, while sophomore Taylor Mack (Akron, OH) had a game-high eight rebounds and Wallis handed out a game-high seven assists.
Andrew Work led WVU-Tech with a team-best 17 points and seven rebounds, while Tamon Scruggs had 15 points and three blocked shots.
Andreas Jonsson added 12 points and a game-high three steals for the Golden Bears, while Hayes had 11 points and team-high four assists in the winning effort.
Tech shot 42.4 percent overall (25-of-59) and out rebounded the RedStorm, 41-36.
Both teams will learn their opening round foes in the NAIA tourney on Thursday during an online selection show scheduled for 8 p.m.
Randy Payton is the Sports Information Director at the University of Rio Grande.