KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Rogers State survived a late rally by Tougaloo (Miss.) Wednesday morning and the Hillcats registered a 62-57 win in the opening game of the 75th Buffalo Funds-NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball National Championship at Municipal Auditorium.
RSU (22-8) will return to action at 9 a.m. Friday against the winner of Evangel (Mo.) (23-9) and eighth-seeded Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) (21-9).
The Hillcats are making their third appearance in college basketball’s oldest postseason tournament.
The Hillcats took their largest lead of 11 points as senior Larry Cox hit a layup with three minutes to play.
The Bulldogs used an 8-0 run, capped off with a 3-pointer by Horace Whitehead, to cut the deficit to 58-55 at 1:22.
With 15 seconds remaining, Juystin Hammond came in off the RSU bench and was immediately fouled when he caught the ball on the inbound. The junior guard converted a pair of free throws to push the lead to five points.
Whitehead pulled in an offensive rebounded and scored on the other end with two seconds to play. The Bulldogs fouled Donald Williams who hit two free throws to secure the win.
“The game got away from us at the end from up 11 points to leading by just three.” Hillcat coach Justin Barkley said.
“That’s really been our Achilles heel all season and we didn’t close out the game the way we should. But we didn’t hit the panic button and our conference play has prepared us for this type of game. At this point in the year it’s win and advance.”
The Hillcats never trailed in the second half. However, the Bulldogs cut the deficit to one with 10 minutes to play on Donteeno Todd’s 3-pointer.
Williams answered with his first trey, leading to a 10-2 run, giving RSU a nine-point advantage with seven minutes to play.
RSU clung to a single-digit lead for most of the contest.
Williams scored15 second-half points to lead the Hillcats with 17. He also had seven rebounds. Larry Cox added 12 points and Kendrell Thompson tallied 11 points. Kenny Edwards had eight rebounds.
“Donald has been in big games and comes from good programs,” Barkley said. “We ride with him and die with him.
“Larry is a gamer. The bigger the game, the better he plays. I expect a lot of him and the four other seniors. They played with a lot of heart and energy and focus. There was no question; they were ready to play today. Kudos to the team. They wanted it.”
The Hillcats shot 41 percent from the field — 19-of-46 — and 75 percent for the free-throw line — 18-of-24. The Hillcats won the battle of the boards, 46-36, while committing 19 turnovers.
The Bulldogs shot just 29 percent from the field — 22-of-75. And that included 9-of-41 on 3-pointers.
Tougaloo is out with a 25-8 record.