For the third time in five seasons, the Wildcats advanced to the NAIA National Championship Game, defeating No. 1 IU East 75-72 on Monday night.
With the win, IWU snapped IU East’s 28-game win streak dating back to November 27, 2017, and improved to 28-8 all time at the national championship.
IWU got off to a fast start, building a 23-9 lead midway through the first half, but the Red Wolves responded with a 24-8 surge to turn a 14-point deficit into a two-point lead.
The game remained close throughout the second half, and with eight minutes left in the contest, the Red Wolves led 60-56.
Over the next four minutes, however, the Wildcats used a huge 13-4 run to take a 69-64 lead – the largest lead for either team in the second half.
The Red Wolves scored the next five points to tie the game at 69, but Mangas answered with a bucket in the post to give the Wildcats the lead for good with 1:24 to play.
IWU’s defense locked in on the Red Wolves’ next possession, blocking a shot before forcing a turnover.
IU East had another chance on their next trip down the court, but Johnson grabbed the rebound, was fouled, and hit both of his free throws to give the Wildcats a four-point advantage.
The Red Wolves hit a three-pointer with 8.9 seconds left to trail by one point, but Okafor, who had a career game, hit both of his shots from the charity stripe to send the Wildcats to the championship game.
“I didn’t want to take him out,” Tonagel said. “He was so special tonight. He did it on both ends of the floor. He came up big and made those free throws.”
The junior finished with a career-high 18 points on six-of-six shooting from the floor to go along with three rebounds, three assists, and two steals.
“The only think I can feel right now is joy,” Okafor said after the game. “It is always fun when you get a big win like this on a big stage with your teammates. We did it as a team and for our seniors. This is what this program is all about. The culture of this program is such a pure joy for me today.”
Kyle Mangas continued to add on to his single-season scoring record, finishing with 20 points, while Maxwell added 15 points in the Wildcats’ victory.
“It was very physical,” Tonagel said. “Extremely physical. But at the end we made one more play. Before the free throws we were up one and that is what these games come down to. This is our fourth game in five days and our guys are absolutely exhausted. It wasn’t the prettiest basketball but when you win and move on you sure feel pretty good.”
The Wildcats will face a familiar foe on Tuesday night, as they will face the University of Saint Francis Cougars in the NAIA DII National Championship Game. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.