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Wildcats count on experience to survive NAIA tourney

NATIONALS: Indiana Wesleyan’s Kyle Mangas puts up a shot against Huntingtonduring the Crossroads League Tourney. Mangas and the No.4 Wildcats meet Antelope Valley (Calif.) at 1 p.m. today in the opening round of the NAIA Division II national tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D.

By CHUCK LANDIS - clandis@chronicle-tribune.com

In terms of postseason experience, there is no comparison between the Indiana Wesleyan University and University of Antelope Valley men's basketball teams.

The Wildcats stand 24-8 in 10 NAIA Division II national tournaments under coach Greg Tonagel and won the championship in 2014 and '16, while the Pioneers from Lancaster, Calif., are making their first ever appearance.

Don't be fooled, though. Tonagel knows the unranked Pioneers (20-7) won't be a walkover for the No. 4 Wildcats (26-7) in the 1 p.m. opening round game in the Sanford Pentagon, Sioux Falls, S.D. Only once (2012) has the 'Cats failed to advance out of the first round.

While Antelope Valley might be unranked, the Pioneers own a victory over NAIA Division I top-ranked The Masters (Calif.) at home 87-84 on Nov. 3. The Masters won two other contests, 83-62 and 105-86 over the Pioneers, but the loss was one of only two it absorbed this season.

"They've got some talent and beat the No. 1 team in NAIA Division I. They are certainly capable and have our guys' full attention," Tonagel said Wednesday afternoon. "Their overall athleticism is impressive and they can really come at you with speed and a burst."

Both teams qualified for the nationals after winning regular season and postseason tournament championships. IWU swept through the Crossroads League for the third time (also 2010 and '15), and Antelope Valley claimed both California Pacific Conference titles to gain an automatic bid.

Antelope Valley is coached by Darwin Cook, an eight-year NBA veteran, who is completing his first season with the Pioneers. Cook's coaching experiences include a stint as an assistant under the legendary Rollie Massimino at Nevada-Las Vegas.

Tonagel said teams in the CalPac are generally athletic and noted for playing good defense. In its last experiences against CalPac teams, IWU defeated Menlo Park (Calif.) 88-64 and Cal State-Maritime 67-65 in 2016-17 while on a West Coast-Hawaii trip.

Antelope Valley had never qualified for the CalPac postseason tournament until 2017, but a five-member senior class has helped turn around their fortunes. Sheldon Blackwell, a 6-foot-6 point guard, is one of the seniors and leads the Pioneers with a 15.1-point average and also contributes a team-best 7.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists.

"(Blackwell) is a 6-6 guard who is very versatile inside and out and is going to be a matchup problem," Tonagel said.

Hayden Hall is a 6-7 junior guard who averages 11.0 points and connects on 41 percent of his 3-point attempts (69-of-169), and the Pioneers also have 7-foot sophomore Deividas Mockaitis from Lithuania who averages 7.0 points and 4.0 rebounds.

Tonagel said the experience factor could work to IWU's benefit where a team must navigate through a five-game gauntlet over six days to win the championship. IWU had advanced to the Elite Eight in four of its first six appearances before it won the 2014 tournament.

"For years we made it to the Elite Eight and then had that breakthrough and a lot of that was mental," Tonagel said. "That's learning how to play three games in three days, and that's a coach learing to dumb down information to players, and there's a lot going into it.

"You want to be playing your best basketball right now, and I like what this team is doing," he added. "There's been a lot of guys making a lot of contributions, and that's what you need this time of year."

The winner plays the winner between No. 15-ranked IU-Southeast (23-8) and No. 17 Stillman (Ala.) (27-4) at 5 p.m. Friday in the round of 16. IWU last played IU-Southeast in the 2014-15 season (a 107-68 victory) and has no recent record against Stillman.

IWU brings to the tournament a team with a nice blend of experience and talented newcomers who have been the driving force behind the 'Cats success. Seniors Jacob Johnson and Ben Carlson are holdovers from the 2016 championship team and have provided leadership, while freshman Kyle Mangas and junior transfer Evan Maxwell offer points and rebounds.

"This team is pretty different from last year's team in that we've got a lot of new faces," said Carlson, who is the 'Cats' top frontline reserve. "Me and J.J. have been speaking to them all year, paving the road for them, and we've got coaches who've been there before.

"Experience isn't a problem, and the excitement of the new players in the national tournament will be good for us," Carlson added.

Mangas, the Crossroads League Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year, leads IWU with a 21.8-point average, and the 6-10 Maxwell follows at 16.9 points and a team-best 6.6 rebounds. Johnson adds 11.7 points and 5.3 rebounds, while Grant Smith is another talented freshman who provides 9.2 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists coming off the bench.

"We've got the Crossroads League regular season and tournament titles out of the way," Mangas said, "but our main goal is the national tournament, and we're excited to go to South Dakota and go five games and win them all."