Arkansas Tech Wonder Boys Take GAC Tournament


BARTLESVILLE, Okla. – Mike Balogun scored a career-high 33 points, Jay Murphy turned in a 16-point effort, Clarence Willardscored 15 points with five boards while D.J. Jethroe added a 11-point, eight-rebound performance as the Arkansas Tech Wonder Boys basketball team (18-13) captured the Great American Conference championship with an 80-77 win over East Central (21-10) on Sunday at the Bruin Fieldhouse.

By virtue of their conference title, the Wonder Boys have earned the Great American Conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

The Tigers seized the momentum early and opened up a 17-7 lead six minutes into the contest. However, the Wonder Boys rallied, outscoring ECU 14-3 over the next four minutes to claim a 21-20 lead at the 10:03 mark.

ECU again pushed ahead, using a 11-1 run to take a nine-point (31-22) lead with 8:32 remaining until halftime. Arkansas Tech again rallied, chipping away at the ECU lead until Balogun’s 3-pointer with four seconds remaining in the half brought the Wonder Boys to within one point (40-39) at the half.

The Tigers held the momentum through the first few minutes of the second half, pulling ahead by as many as six (45-39) after a 3-pointer by Thomas Stirling, but again the Wonder Boys rallied, using an 8-0 run to claim a two-point (47-45) lead with 15:18 remaining in the contest.

The Wonder Boys would never trail again, as ECU was able to tie the game twice on the subsequent possessions, but Tech broke a 49-49 tie with 14:16 to play by using a 14-2 run to push the lead to 12 points (63-51) with 7:29 remaining.

The Tigers would not go quietly, however, cutting the Tech lead to single digits and narrowing the gap to one point (76-75) with 16 seconds to play after a 3-pointer by Donovan Halsel. Murphy buried a pair of 3-pointers to stretch the Tech lead to three, and on the next possession, the Wonder Boys fouled rather than allow ECU to take a potential game-tying 3-pointer.

ECU hit both freebies with eight seconds to play, and were forced to foul on the next possession.  Again, Murphy went to the line and calmly hit both shots to stretch the Tech lead back to three (80-77) with four seconds to play. On the ensuing possession, ECU attempted another potential game-tying 3-pointer, but the shot was well off target, sealing the conference title for the Wonder Boys.

Just hours after claiming the Great American Conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, sealing the seventh consecutive postseason trip for the Arkansas Tech basketball programs, the Wonder Boys learned that they will enter the tournament as the No. 8 seed and play the championship’s host, top seeded and No. 6 Augustana in the opening round.

The Wonder Boys (18-13) will face Augustana (30-2), the NSIC tournament champion, on Saturday, March 14, at 5:30 p.m., with semifinal games set for Sunday, March 15 and Tuesday, March 17.

Arkansas Tech is the lone Great American Conference representative in the field. Joining Tech and Augustana will be fourth-seeded and No. 25 Northwest Missouri State (23-6) and fifth-seeded Minnesota State (24-7).

In the other half of the bracket, MIAA champion Pittsburg State (20-11) earns the No. 7 seed and will face second seeded and No. 5 Minnesota State-Moorhead (32-3), while Northern State (23-6) will earn the sixth seed and square off against defending national champion Central Missouri (24-6), coached by former Arkansas Tech coach Doug Karleskint, who enters tournament play as the third seed and is ranked No. 18 nationally.

MSU Moorhead and Pitt State will open play at Noon Friday, with UCM and Northern State following at 2:30. After the Wonder Boys play Augustana at 5:30, the opening round will close with the NWMSU/MSU matchup at 8 p.m.

The winner of the first two regional quarterfinal matchups will play at 5 p.m. Sunday, while the second semifinal will be held at 7:30 p.m.

The championship game will be held on Tuesday, March 17 at 7 p.m.

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