By Kenton Brooks
Phoenix Sports Writer
SHAWNEE – If Friday’s game is any indication, Connors State’s Willie Atwood thrives in nail-biter playoff situations.
He dropped in a layup and later sank two free throws in the game’s last minute and 49 seconds to help the Cowboys nip the Northern-Enid Jets 54-50 in the NJCAA Region II men’s semifinal at Oklahoma Baptist University’s The Noble Complex.
Atwood was playing with four fouls when he took a pass from Hakeem Harris and made the layup at the front of the basket with 1: 49 left. He was then fouled by Jeremy Espinoza with 13.2 seconds remaining and his free throws padded the Cowboys’ lead to 53-50.
“I just had to go out and play hard because the first half (he scored just one point) wasn’t good for me,” Atwood said. “My coaches and teammates looked at me said they really needed me for us to win. I just had to step up and make plays. I made them at the right moments.”
Atwood finished with just nine points, but it was enough for a win that sends the Cowboys, now 24-7 for the season, to the Region II finals against Eastern at 6 tonight at Shawnee. Eastern dumped Northeastern A&M 92-68 in the other semifinal.
Getting to the finals qualified Connors for the national tournament for the first time since 2010. The NJCAA is playing under a new format this season as 24 teams qualify for the March 18-23 single-elimination tourney at Hutchinson, Kan. The national tourney had been double-elimination and 16 teams.
“We’re going to Hutch,” Connors coach Bill Muse said as soon as he came out of the locker room after the win, his team’s third this season against NOC-Enid.
And, it’s largely because of Atwood, a 6-foot-8 freshman from Memphis, Tenn.
“He’s played big all year,” Muse said. “He hung in there and played really well in the last couple of minutes.”
The Jets led 48-45 after Connor Brooks’ basket with 3:38 left in the game. The Cowboys took a 49-48 lead with 2:57 remaining on a layup by Atwood.
“I thought our team grinded it out in those last three minutes,” Muse said.
Josh Cameron’s free throw with 3.2 seconds left finished out the game.
NOC-Enid (22-10) led 50-49 with 2:06 left on Dalen Qualls’ basket. Qualls, hitting 5-of-19 shots from the field including 3-of-9 3-pointers, led all scorers with 17 points. Espinoza added 15 on 5-of-12 shooting.
Jamarcus Weatherspoon, a 6-5 freshman from Baton Rouge, La., led the Cowboys with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Denell Henderson, a 6-7 sophomore from Demascus, Ark., added 10 points.
Now, the Cowboys’ attention turns to Eastern (18-15), which won a play-in game Monday. Connors has already beaten the Mountaineers twice this season, 100-96 on Jan. 24 in Wilburton and 95-89 on Jan. 28 at Warner.