MARYVILLE, Mo. -- Playing in its first NCAA Tournament game in its program's history, East Central knew the perfect player to find against Minnesota State-Moorhead when the Central Region quarterfinal game went into overtime.
Senior Braxton Reeves, the Great American Conference player of the year, delivered for East Central. He got the Tigers off to a hot start in overtime by nailing a three-pointer.
After Moorhead’s sharp-shooting junior Tanner Kretchman drilled a three-pointer, Reeves slipped a pass inside to senior KD Moore. A minute later, Reeves hit another three-pointer that gave the Tigers a seven-point lead.
“I was just trying to make the right basketball play,” Reeves said. “A lot of times when a guy hits a certain amount of shots, you pay more attention to him. Their big stepped up the floor and our big did a good job separating.”
East Central rode that offensive execution in overtime to a 115-106 victory over Moorhead Saturday afternoon at Bearcat Arena.
“What a game,” said East Central coach Ja Havens. “I am really proud of our team. I give a lot of credit to Moorhead, their coaching staff and their players. They are really good and really difficult to defend.”
The Tigers, 25-7, move on to the semifinals and will play at 5 p.m. CT Sunday.
As nice as it was for this group of Tigers to make history Saturday, the players are following the mantra of their coach.
“The attitude we need to take into our next game is next play,” said senior forward Ishmael Donzo. “We will enjoy this game, but later tonight we will focus on tomorrow.”
Dedication and hard work were the ingredients that has propelled Reeves’ steady improvement over the years at East Central. He went from averaging four points as a freshman to 22 points this season.
“He is one of the best players I ever had the opportunity to coach and one of the hardest workers,” Havens said. “I am not surprised he goes from averaging four points as a freshman to conference player of the year because I see him work. He brings it every day.
“If you watched the game today, you saw what he means. He stepped up with a big shot.”
Against Moorhead, Reeves, who will get his business degree this semester, scored 35 points, going 11-for-19 from the field. He also had five assists. The Tigers, the No. 3 seed in the Central Region, needed his contributions to defeat Moorhead.
Moorhead, behind the 35 points from Kretchman, jumped to a 17-7 lead.
“We got off to a little bit of a slow start and found out how good they are,” Havens said. “They spread you out and hit shots. I told our guys after the game I was really proud of how they responded. We were eventually able to hit some shots and got back in the game.”
East Central tasted its first lead on a basket by Cameron Talley, giving them the 27-26 edge. The lead changed seven more times with Moorhead holding a 43-41 advantage at halftime.
Midway through the second half, East Central took control, building a 76-67 lead.
“I thought our guys did a great job midway through the second half,” Havens said. “We started stringing together some stops, and we started to get some shots to go down.”The Dragons roared back and closed to 79-77. It stayed tight the rest of the way.
Kretchman tied the game 92-92 on a driving layup with 49 seconds left. Moorhead stopped East Central and had the ball with a chance to win in regulation. Kretchman, though, was unsuccessful on another driving layup with a second left.
“When they had the ball with 11 seconds to go to make the last shot, that was obviously very big for us to come out and get the stop," Havens said. “It was a positive to get a stop. One of our mantras is next play. We focused on the next play. They are probably tired of me saying that. We have it hanging on our wall in our locker room. It is so important to play in the moment.”
Reeves showed he was ready for that moment in overtime and the rest of the Tigers followed his lead. East Central scored 23 points in the 5-minute overtime period.
“Braxton starts overtime hitting the big three for us, and that was a big momentum swing for us,” Havens said.
Now it is on to the next game. The Tigers want to make some more history. For Reeves, the final stretch of his college basketball career couldn’t be better.
“This is amazing for me and for the rest of our guys as well, just making history getting here,” Reeves said. “I chose to go to East Central because of the home atmosphere. You are away from your family, but this is like your second family. It means a lot to me.”