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William Jessup wins Cal Pac tourney, heads to NAIA

Warriors top Menlo for conference crown
By: Brett Ransford, Special to The Press Tribune
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Bring on the national tournament. The William Jessup University men’s basketball team defeated Menlo College 83-76, winning the California Pacific Conference championship outright and earning a trip to the NAIA Division II National Tournament. Jessup jumped out early, forcing the Oaks to figure a way to keep up. Led by its only senior, Tim Kees, Menlo ended the first half on an 11-3 run tying the game at 36-36. Jessup’s Kadeem Kirsten picked up two early fouls and sat out the rest of the first half. Kirsten however made his presence known returning in the second with on a three-point play and the first of 12 lead changes in the stanza. When Damal Neil picked up a technical foul for the Warriors with more than 14 minutes left to play, WJU coach Aaron Muhic felt it was a turning point in his team’s play. “Our guys toughened up a little bit, got to the ball and the rim a little bit better. We weren’t letting them push us,” Muhic said. “Our whole game plan was to attack and keep that physical play. We’re going to take a day off, practice a day and then take another day off. We’ve never experienced a national tournament so we’re going to do the best we can and try to represent Jessup and Rocklin.” Jessup was great down the stretch, limiting Menlo to just one point in the final two minutes of play. A little fortune on some missed 3-pointers and solid rebounding allowed them to hold Menlo at bay. With less than two minutes to play the score was tied at 75-75. Free throws by Kirsten and Eleazer Jones helped the Warriors build a four-point lead. Up 80-76 after Menlo scored its last point on a free throw Coach Muhic took his first of two final timeouts in the last minute. Following missed free throws by Austin Nelson the Oaks couldn’t hold onto the ball and Washington forced a jump ball that went the other way to Jessup. Jason Washington and Kirsten added free throws on Menlo intentional fouls along with more missed three’s and the game ended on a missed layup by Keen and Kirsten’s miss of his second free throw with just 1.4 seconds left. “I definitely wanted to come out aggressive [in the second half] and make a statement knowing it was the championship,” Kirsten said. “This is such a big deal for us. All of us joke because no one really knows William Jessup, so to make it to the national tournament hopefully we can get more recruits and people will finally hear about us.” Kirsten finished the night with 20 points, most of which came in the second half. Team and game-high scoring honors go to Neil with 21 points. Often the energizer bunny to the Warriors spurts Neil had a handful of three-point plays frustrating Menlo’s defense into consistent foul trouble. “I just tried to bring energy and get stops on defense,” Neil said. “My goal is to bring energy and do whatever I can to win. After the loss to Menlo we all took it hard and decided it was a feeling we never wanted to feel again. I have to go and study for class tonight, but Coach Muhic will have some good stuff for us to go over before the tournament so we just have to keep out mind set on the next game.” Washington has played in the three Cal Pac Championship games and lost the first two. Sitting on top of his first crown he finessed his way through Menlo proving third time really is a charm. “Especially as a senior it feels really good,” Washington said. “It’s good getting these guys experience for next year. I’m here to help anyway I can - defense, distributing and help these guys learn. I’ve been here a while and when something goes wrong coach puts it on me so I have to step up. We’ve never been to the national tournament so we’re going to focus on winning that first game.” The NAIA Division II National Tournament begins next week in Branson, Missouri. William Jessup is one of four teams appearing in its first national tournament. WJU (17-13) opens the 32-team tournament against the overall No. 4 seed, Bellevue from Nebraska (25-7) at noon next Thursday (March 10). The Midlands Collegiate Athletic Tournament Champion is making its 11th NAIA tournament appearance.