KANSAS CITY — For nearly 39 minutes, free throws plagued the Montana Western men’s basketball team. Ironic, then, that the Bulldogs rally past Campbellsville with four free throws in the final 30 seconds in Friday’s 75-72 victory over Campbellsville in the second round of the NAIA men’s national tournament.
Trailing 72-69 entering the final minute, Kooper Kidgell hit a floater in the lane to pull the Bulldogs within one, then forced a Campbellsville missed 3-pointer on the other end. Dom Robinson was fouled on the other end and calmly sank two free throws with 23.3 seconds remaining, giving Wester a 73-72 lead.
Campbellsville elected not to call a timeout, using a high screen-and-pop for Andrew Smith, but his 3-pointer was off the mark and fell into the hands of Western’s Marcus Payne, who was immediately fouled with 4.3 seconds remaining. Payne knocked down the first free throw, boosting the Bulldogs ahead 74-72, leading to a Campbellsville timeout. After the break, Payne again swished the free throw for a 75-72 lead.
It was a pleasant surprise for Western fans, who had witnessed a 10-27 performance from the charity stripe to that point.
With a foul to give, Keller elected to foul the Tigers from Kentucky, allowing his defense to set up one final stand. Campbellsville’s heave at the horn never hit the rim, advancing Western to the NAIA quarterfinals on Saturday.
One day after lighting up the scoreboard for more than 100 points, the Bulldogs struggled to find their offensive footing in the opening half. Western missed its first eight shots and fell into a 9-0 hole in the first five minutes. Zaccheus Darko-Kelly, who scored a team-high 24 points on Thursday, ended the drought with a jump shot at the 14:46 mark, stopping the 9-0 Tigers’ run.
Darko-Kelly finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds in Friday’s win.
Brandon Jones carried Western throughout most of the first half, scoring 14 points in the first half. His fast-break layup, which resulted in a goaltending call on the Tigers, tied the game at 28 with 3:23 left in the half. After a Jacob King 3-pointer put Campbellsville back in front by three, Robinson hit a free throw, then Jones scored again in transition to knot the game at 33-all.
Jones, whose biggest struggles came at the free throw line, a 5-14 performance, hit one of two from the charity stripe to give the Bulldogs their first lead at 34-33 with under a minute to play in the half. Jalen Coates knocked down two free throws moments later to give the Tigers a 35-34 halftime advantage.
Western’s first half struggles carried over to the opening minutes of the second half, as Campbellsville jumped out to a 42-34 lead after a pair of offensive rebounds and put-back field goals. The Tigers had 12 offensive rebounds and 51 overall in the game, while Western was held to 39 rebounds.
But the Bulldogs found their groove moments later, with Jones burying a 3, then Kidgell driving and spinning in the lane for two more points, trimming the lead to 42-39. Darko-Kelly’s 3-pointer with 17:33 to play tied the game at 42, an 8-0 run for Western during the 1:05 span.
The teams traded blows for much of the second half, but Kidgell’s shot in the lane gave Western a 47-46 advantage with 14:34 to go. Robinson buried a 3-pointer the next trip down the floor, hitting the shot against a defender who had lost a shoe, for a 50-46 lead.
But the Tigers stayed consistent, taking a 66-60 lead into the final six minutes of play. Western sparked a quick 7-0 run, opening with a Warren Helligar field goal in the post, before Darko-Kelly connected from downtown. Robinson drilled a baseline jump shot to put Western ahead 67-66 with 3:50 to go.
After the teams traded field goals, Andrew Smith hit a jumper to put Campbellsville ahead 72-69 with 2:03 remaining. Kidgell responded with a floater in the post, then Western forced a Tigers’ missed 3-pointer, setting up the Bulldogs’ heroics from the free throw line.
Jones finished with a team-high 22 points to go with seven rebounds. Robinson fell one assist shy of a triple-double, finishing with 13 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists. Kidgell chipped in with 12 points and four rebounds for the Bulldogs.
Hagen Tyler had a game-high 23 points for the Tigers.
With the win, Western improved its single-season wins mark to 27, while advancing to Saturday’s quarterfinal game against Graceland (Iowa). Tip-off is slated for 5:30 p.m. Central time in Municipal Auditorium.