By Denny Weller
Special to The Free Press
Bethany Lutheran’s early transition burst set up an attacking-the-basket presence the rest of the way on Wednesday in an 83-67 Upper Midwest Athletic Conference Tournament semifinal men’s basketball win over North Central at the Sports and Fitness Center.
Senior wing Alex Weldon’s eight-point flurry — a pair of 3-pointers and an 8-foot turnaround — ignited an early surge that saw the Vikings (12-13) build an 18-9 lead on Garet Tucker’s 10-footer with 11:53 left in the half. Senior guard Garrett Benson then buried two transition 3-pointers off the right baseline before Tucker spun in a head-on 8-footer to boost the cushion to 28-10.
“The first five minutes of both halves are very crucial in setting the tone for the game,” said Weldon, who finished with 21 points and five rebounds. “I just wanted to hit those open shots and try to create some things for my teammates.
“If you don’t do the little things on every possession it could cost you. With our depth we need to run teams into the ground. We just kept pushing the ball up the floor and knocking down open shots.”
Senior forward Gavin Groehler hit a couple of medium-range jumpers and two foul shots as the Vikings extended their advantage to 38-17 at the break. Senior guard Derek Peterson scored seven of his 16 points in the first half for the winners, who put through 15 of 28 shots for 53.6 percent compared to a chilly 6 of 27 for 22.2 percent for North Central (14-11).
“Tonight was a battle of wills,” Bethany coach David Balza said. “They’re tied with Northwestern as the highest scoring team in the league and we’re the top team in fewest points allowed. We have really good depth so we wanted to take advantage of that by playing up-tempo and running nine guys in there against them.”
North Central, who turned the ball over only seven times compared to the Vikings’ 14, trimmed the deficit to 43-29 behind two 3-pointers and a 10-foot runner from senior guard Nathan Roeder. After Kroehler’s three-point play and right-wing 3-pointer helped Bethany push its lead back to 64-41, the Rams went on a 14-3 run to close within 67-55 on Roeder’s two foul shots with 5:45 remaining.
Peterson’s three-point play of a nifty show-and-go drive to the cup, along with baskets from Weldon and Patrick Garvin, extinguished the Rams’ rally and enabled Bethany to close things out down the stretch.
Peterson also collected five rebounds and five assists for the Vikings, who received 19 points and five boards from Kroehler. Benson ended up with 10 points, nailing 3 of 4 from beyond the arc.
“We knew this would be a battle and we were able to shut them down,” Kroehler said. “It feels great to get back to the championship game because we’ve got some unfinished business left.”
Roeder led the Rams with 21 points and six assists while Jordan Harrell totaled 16 points and 11 rebounds.
Bethany faces three-time UMAC tournament champion and regular-season champ Northwestern Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in St. Paul.