Peru State felt a little snakebit in February.
The Bobcat men’s basketball team started the season 17-5 and was ranked 11th in the NAIA Division I poll before Culver-Stockton hit a jumper at the buzzer to stun the Bobcats 77-75. Four days later, Peru led by 17 in the first half before Missouri Valley rallied and won on another buzzer-beater.
That was the start of a stretch in which Peru lost five of six, losing those games by an average of five points.
“We were worried as a staff about how that would affect our guys mentally,” Peru State coach Bob Ludwig said, “but they bounced back really well.”
Have they ever. The Bobcats have answered by winning five straight, capped by a 74-65 win over Benedictine, which was ranked No. 1 nationally and had a 29-game win streak, in the Heart of America Conference tournament final. That gave Peru its first men’s basketball tournament title and was the second title the Bobcats ever won as a member of the Heart — the only other title was won by the baseball team in 2015.
Now the Bobcats will travel to Kansas City for the national tournament, which begins Wednesday at Municipal Auditorium. Peru State’s first game will be against William Carey (Miss.) on Thursday at 5:45 p.m.
“To be the first team in the league to knock (Benedictine) off and do it on the road, I hope it gives our guys a lot of confidence,” Ludwig said.
Peru is no stranger to the national tournament. The Bobcats have qualified three of the past four years, and last year they pulled off a stunning first-round upset in their opener, eliminating top-ranked The Master’s (Cailf.).
But Peru heads to nationals with a new lineup as it has four new starters — the only returner is guard Terry Moore. Leading the way are a pair of senior forwards, 6-foot-8 Lyle Hexom and 6-6 Brandon Jones.
Hexom, an Omaha South grad, is fifth in the nation in scoring (20.6), seventh in rebounding (10.3) and third in blocked shots (2.4). Jones is averaging 16.2 points and 8.8 rebounds.
“Lyle Hexom and Brandon Jones are among the better forwards at our level in the country,” Ludwig said. “Our guys are doing a great job of sharing the ball, of moving it when double teams come.”
While Hexom has been dynamic all season — he’s hit 106 3s while shooting 43.4 percent from behind the arc, has 19 double-doubles and set a single-season school record for blocks with 80 — Ludwig said Jones has fit in well playing a point forward position during the second half of the season.
“He’s been fantastic,” Ludwig said of Jones, who transferred to Peru from Montana Western. “He’s been awesome for us as a one-year guy.”
The Bobcats also get contributions elsewhere as they are among the top 3-point shooting teams in NAIA Division I, averaging 10.3 made 3s a game. KeShawn Wilson, who has hit 71 3s, is Peru’s third double-digit scorer, averaging 10.5.
With its 23-10 record, Peru has its most single-season wins since the 1996-97 season when it finished 25-9.
“It’s a pretty tight-knit group,” Ludwig said of his squad. “They’re pretty close.”
NAIA Tournament: Peru State vs. William Carey
When: 5:45 p.m. Thursday
Where: Municipal Auditorium, Kansas City
Radio: 103.1 FM, b103.fm and ncnsportsnow.com
In other Midlands notes:
» Northwest Missouri State, the top-ranked men’s basketball team in NCAA Division II, defeated Missouri Southern 82-70 in the Central Region final on Tuesday night. The Bearcats advance to the Elite Eight, which starts March 27 in Evansville, Indiana.
» Western Nebraska Community College’s women’s basketball team saw its season end Monday with an 81-60 loss to Hutchinson (Kan.) in the first round of the NJCAA Division I tournament. The Cougars end their season at 29-4. North Platte lost to top-seeded Illinois Central 76-55 on Tuesday night in the opening round of the NJCAA Division II tournament.
» Nebraska Wesleyan men’s basketball senior Ryan Garver was named an NCAA Division III first-team All-American on Monday. Garver, who is the fifth player in Wesleyan history to be named a first-team All-American, averaged 15.9 points, 7.7 assists and 2.9 steals per game. He shot 62.9 percent from the field. Wesleyan, which went 27-2, finished seventh in the final D-III poll.
» Concordia senior golfer Nolan Zikas received the 2018 David Toms Overcoming Adversity Award. The award, given to one athlete across all levels of collegiate golf, is presented to the men’s collegiate golfer who has overcome obstacles to excel on and off the course. Zikas, a Papillion-La Vista graduate, dealt with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer that spread from his leg to his lungs. Zikas was interviewed about the award on the Golf Channel’s “Morning Drive” program on Tuesday.
» Doane hired Dana Vote as its wrestling coach. Vote previously coached at Concordia and spent the past two seasons as coach at Midland.