When it comes to the NAIA National Tournament, every program selected to participate has a chance to win it all.
Sometimes, teams catch fire and ride a wave of momentum, and no matter what their opponents do to slow them down, all of their efforts prove to be fruitless.
And on Saturday afternoon in the NAIA National Tournament Quarterfinals, the IWU Wildcats, looking to return to the semifinal round for the fifth consecutive season, were thwarted in their pursuit, as the Oregon Tech Owls rode a tremendous second half effort, and a strong performance from point guard Mitchell Fink, to a 107-93 triumph.
IWU failed to make the Final Four for the first time since 2015, and the 107 points allowed were the most they had given up since December 12, 1998, when they gave up 108 against Berea.
IWU played well in the game’s opening seven minutes, shooting seven-for-11 from the field to take a 19-9 lead.
But Fink, who averaged 13 points a game coming into the tournament, found his offensive flow.
And once he found it, he never let it go.
Over the final 11 plus minutes of the opening stanza, the Owls’ point guard knocked down shot after shot, helping to turn that 10-point deficit into a three-point lead at halftime. Over that time frame, Fink scored 20 points, including a buzzer-beating triple that gave Oregon Tech a lead they would not relinquish.
“It was their day,” IWU Head Coach Greg Tonagel said. “They weren’t going to be denied today. Sometimes that happens when you’re in the tournament – you run into a team like that.”
While the Wildcats shot well in the first half, knocking down 53 percent of their shots, they struggled on the glass and at the free throw line. Oregon Tech outrebounded IWU 24-15, which included nine offensive rebounds, while the Wildcats hit just 12 of their 18 free throw attempts in the opening 20 minutes.
“You [have] to be playing your best basketball every game,” Tonagel said. “We found ways to get by, and tonight, we played a team that was just plain better than us.”
OIT connected on their first four shots of the second half to grab a 53-44 advantage early in the frame, and from that moment on, the Owls’ lead never dipped below nine points.
Throughout the second half, the Wildcats battled, and on multiple occasions, it looked as if they would go on a run to get back into the contest.
But each time the Wildcats pressed, the Owls had the answer.
After falling behind 62-49, Kyle Mangas and Joel Okafor combined for five quick points to cut the Owls’ lead back down to single digits, but a trey from forward Matt Van Tassell halted the Wildcats’ brief momentum.
Later in the frame, IWU cut the lead back down to nine at 75-64, but the Owls scored six quick points to increase their advantage back to 13.
The Wildcats made one final push in the final five minutes of the contest, as Mangas’ field goal with 4:38 remaining once again made it a three-possession game.
And one final time, the Owls responded, knocking down three consecutive triples to go up 99-84. The Wildcats never threated again, as Oregon Tech held on down the stretch to secure the victory and send the Wildcats home far sooner than many had anticipated.
Fink ended the game with 34 points on 10-of-18 shooting to go along with 11 assists, leading an Owls’ offense that shot 63 percent from the field in the second half (19-for-30) and 70 percent from beyond the arc (7-for-10). Garrett Albrecht came away with 16 points, while Van Tassell added 12.
IWU’s difficulties at the charity stripe and on the boards continued throughout the second half. All in all, the Wildcats missed 11 free throws over the course of the contest, while being outrebounded 44-25.
In the final game of their collegiate careers, Okafor and Evan Maxwell went out like champions. Okafor was aggressive all afternoon, leading the Wildcats with 25 points on eight-of-13 shooting from the floor, while Maxwell scored 16 points, shooting six-for-12.
“I love those guys,” Tonagel said. “They mean the world to this program. They left a legacy that is going to impact recruiting classes to come. I couldn’t thank them more for what they’ve done for us.”
Okafor came from Nigeria three seasons ago, and since he arrived at IWU, Tonagel has helped him not only grow as a basketball player, but as a man as well.
“There’s no way I can put it to words,” Okafor said. “I’m going to miss these guys. I’m going to miss Coach T. He’s a great dude. He’s given me the opportunity to play the game of basketball, get an education, and also get to know the Lord. He’s definitely a great guy, and I’m so blessed to play in a program like this.”
Maxwell transferred from D-1 powerhouse Kansas to come play for IWU, and after two years, he has not regretted that choice.
“I mean, I gotta say [it] was one of the best decisions I’ve made – to come here,” Maxwell said. “He’s a terrific man of God, and he puts faith over everything. He really has been an example of what it means to put God first in your life and not just rely on basketball. Obviously, he’s a great basketball coach, great basketball mind, [and a] great leader. What he’s done for me – teaching me to put God first and others second – it’s changed my life forever.”
Trevor Waite has been in Tonagel’s system for four years, and over that time period, multiple players have come and gone.
But the one constant has been Tonagel, who has built a consistent winner through hard work, dedication to the game of basketball, and a strong faith in God.
“It’s been awesome,” Waite said. “I’ve transformed as a person. And I don’t credit that all to Coach T. I credit that a lot to Coach Clark and the assistant coaches and the kind of guys they bring into the program. They don’t always look for talent, they look for the people – people that love Christ. Coach T is an awesome coach, and anyone that gets to play for him is lucky.
While this special group will never again share the same floor with one another, the memories that they will share with one another will last a lifetime.
“It’s been extremely special,” Maxwell said. “There are so many special guys here on and off the court. Kyle is obviously an amazing basketball player. Grant Smith is an amazing basketball player. My younger brother [Seth] has so much potential. I could go down the line…but it’s the same thing. Our guys care about their teammates before anything. The brotherhood that I’m a part of, and will continue to have throughout my life is something I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
In their Wildcat tenures, Maxwell, Okafor, and Waite combined for 2,613 points, 1,059 rebounds, 590 assists, while helping IWU win 123 games, 56 Crossroads League contests, two Crossroads League championships, and two D-II national championships.