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Eagles on to finals following historical comeback

By Keith Norem
On March 20, 2016

It looked like the Kirkwood Community College Eagles had run out of steam at the NJCAA Division II national basketball tournament Friday night when they trailed by 24 points at the half but the team had other ideas. As it turns out, they were just getting started.

The sixth-ranked Eagles staged an historical comeback and stunned third-ranked Essex County of New Jersey, 77-66, in the Final Four matchup of the national tournament in Danville, Ill.

Kirkwood (30-4) will face top-ranked Triton (34-2), an 82-77 winner over second-ranked South Suburban, in the NJCAA finals Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. The Eagles won the national title in 1998 and are seeking the second crown in school history.

Kirkwood fell behind by 24 points in the first half and trailed by 23 points at 53-30 in the second half when they began their surge to victory. Incredibly, the Eagles outscored Essex 45-7 from that point to turn a 23-point deficit into a 15-point lead at 75-60 with 20.4 seconds left in the game.

For the second straight game, Byron Harp came off the bench to ignite the Eagles with his scoring and leadership as he did in the overtime victory against Louisburg in the quarterfinals Wednesday night. Harp, a 6’ 2” freshman, has played his two best games of the season in the national tournament.

Harp poured in a career-high 22 points, including a 13-for-14 showing at the free throw line. He produced six rebounds, three assists and two steals in a strong stat stuffer performance.

Cristen Wilson hit a 3-pointer to make it 61-58 and Nick Richards cashed two free throws to make it 63-58.

Essex pulled within 63-60, but the Eagles quickly went back to work.

Jacob Olson, of Cedar Rapids, rained in a 3-pointer to make it 66-60. Harp hit two free throws to make it 68-60 with 51.2 seconds left then Olson cashed two foul shots to make it 70-60 with 42.6 seconds remaining.

Wilson made one free throw for a 71-60 lead then Harp made four straight free throws with 20.4 seconds left after he was fouled and the Essex County coach was called for a technical foul. That made it 75-60 and the celebration was about to begin.

Richards finished with 15 points and eight rebounds for Kirkwood. Wilson came off the bench to provide a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Olson hit three triples and scored 13 points. Wilson also made three 3-pointers.

Kirkwood finished 9-for-18 on 3-pointers and won the game at the foul line. The Eagles hit 26-of-34 free throws for 76.5 percent, compared to just 3-of-6 foul shots for Essex County.

The Eagles won three straight games in the nationals, including two victories over top-10 teams. Petersen said, “We have not played a full 40-minute game so far.”

This team has only lost two games this season and has steam rolled its way into the finals.  Game time is 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 19.

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