BLUFFTON — The Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference preseason poll had the Bluffton University men’s basketball team picked to finish ninth in 2016-17.
Now, after Bluffton’s 70-56 victory over visiting Earlham College on Wednesday night at the Sommer Center, Bluffton has guaranteed itself a winning season, and possibly a chance to play in the upcoming HCAC Tournament.
Heading into Wednesday’s contest with Earlham, Bluffton was one of three teams in the conference vying for the sixth and final spot to get into the conference tournament. The other two teams in the hunt for the final spot are Manchester College and Defiance College.
After its win over Earlham on Wednesday, Bluffton will need to defeat Hanover College on Saturday and also get some help from the other two teams.
“Going into this week, we had to win two this week to have a chance,” longtime Bluffton men’s coach Guy Neal said. “We had to win tonight and we have to win Saturday (against Hanover), and then we have to get a little help.
“It was our 13th win (Wednesday) and it guarantees a winning season. It’s our ninth (winning season) in 13 years, I believe. That was a good accomplishment tonight, to nail down that 13th win. Obviously, the win, more importantly, keeps us in contention and in the fight (to get into the HCAC tournament).”
Austin Rohde led Bluffton (13-11, 6-11 HCAC) and all scorers on Wednesday with 27 points, including four 3-pointers. Rohde came into Wednesday’s game, second in the HCAC in scoring, averaging 20.1 points per game. Kevin Christie scored 16 points, including three 3-pointers. Jared Wentling added 10 points and had a game-high 13 rebounds. Former Lincolnview standout Justis Dowdy scored seven points and pulled down five rebounds for the Beavers.
Elijah Wilson-Thomas led Earlham (6-18, 2-15 HCAC) with 17 points, including four treys.
Bluffton jumped out quickly against Earlham on Wednesday, pushing out to a 38-23 lead by the end of the first half. Rohde led the way for the Beavers, scoring 14 points. The 5-foot-10 Rohde hit two 3-pointers in the first four minutes of the game.
“It always helps when you knock down the first couple (shots),” Rohde said. “It got the confidence up and my teammates found me twice for wide open threes. I just got into a good rhythm.”
In the second half, Bluffton’s largest lead was 19 points.
However, with less than a minute left to play, Earlham cut the deficit to 8, 64-56, on an inside move by Mitchell Parker.
The Beavers were able to make enough free throws down the stretch to record the win.
For the game, Bluffton was 12-of-17 shooting from the free throw line. In the second half, the Beavers were 10-of-14 from the stripe. Earlham, however, was just 4-of-6 from the free throw line.
From the field, Bluffton shot 43 percent, while Earlham shot 41 percent from the floor.
Bluffton won the battle on the boards, 38-31.
“I thought we did a pretty good job of getting out of the gate,” Neal said. “We finished the first half pretty strong. I thought we started the second half OK. They made a little run, but we hung in there. So, I thought we did a lot of good things. The important thing tonight was that we got a ‘W’, somehow. While doing that, I thought we also did some pretty good things.”
The Lima News sports department can be reached at 567-242-0468.