Charleston cruises to second straight tournament championship

Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Charleston's Kewain Gant played out a Christmas tradition Monday night in the seMissourian Christmas Tournament.

Gant, the 6-foot-8 Charleston center, did the honors as he toted the championship trophy out the front doors of the arena to the waiting bus. He did so like 14 other Bluejay players wearing blue sweats before him.

Charleston held a firm grip on the trophy throughout the title game, but had to await a formal presentation at game's end.

The top-seeded Bluejays built a 20-point lead by halftime en route to a decisive 66-52 victory over second-seeded Notre Dame.

"We wanted to go into this tournament and show people we were legit," Charleston coach Danny Farmer said.

The defending champions came into the tournament with a 6-2 record and eased to the title with four uncontested victories.

Farmer said his team came into the tournament with a chip on its shoulder after being snubbed in the first state poll earlier this month. The two Bluejay losses came by a combined six points, including a four-point loss to Little Rock Mills, the top-ranked team in Arkansas.

"It really motivated us," Farmer said. "We really had something to prove."

After defeating Chaffee by 42 points in the opening round, Charleston rolled into the finals with a 25-point win over Kelly and a 28-point semifinal win over Oran.

While Charleston won by its smallest margin of the tournament in the final, Notre Dame's substitutes did late cosmetic work on earlier damage.

"We made it this far, and that was a positive, but we know with this last game we need to come into practice and work harder," Notre Dame center Cory Beussink said.

Beussink scored a team-high 15 points, but he was the only Bulldog to finish in double figures.

Needing a near-perfect game, the Bulldogs were haunted by poor shooting most the night and committed 18 turnovers.

"I didn't think we were good, but they were very good tonight," Notre Dame coach Darrin Scott said. "They shot it well, played hard, guarded well and rebounded. You combine that with us not playing well -- it got ugly quick."

Deshaundry Hamilton hit a 3-pointer to break a 4-4 tie at the 5:25 mark of the first quarter, giving the Bluejays the lead for good.

Although the Bulldogs never led, they nearly got off to an ideal start when Gant and 6-foot-6 forward Ashton Farmer each picked up their second foul less than six minutes into the game.

Both players were on the bench with Charleston leading 12-6, but Notre Dame (6-3) failed to take advantage of the situation. With Dramel Jones and Dadrian Jones replacing the two tall stars, Charleston pulled away to a 19-10 lead by the close of the quarter.

"They came in and filled the role, and the team just kept on going," Gant said. "They play well every day in practice, and they played well in all this tournament. When they came in we felt as confident as with us in the game."

Gant and Farmer combined for just 13 points, but point guard Marcus Biles finished with 17 points and Hamilton had 12.

"It was looking up for a while," Beussink said. "I don't know what happened. Our defense let up and our intensity went down, and that's when they got us. We should have been capitalizing, and we let down our guard."

Beussink said it was part of a bigger overall problem

"We came out tentative, and that's not what we needed to do," he said.

Notre Dame hit just five field goals in the first half on 19 shots and committed 11 turnovers. Several of the Bulldog misses came from point-blank range. Charleston, taking 29 shots, shot nearly 50 percent from the field in the half, committing just four turnovers.

Gant and Farmer returned in the second quarter when Charleston outscored Notre Dame 17-6 for a commanding 36-16 halftime lead.

"We thought it would be a lot closer game than it was, but even though we had a big lead we just wanted to come out the second half and continue to play," Gant said.

Notre Dame trimmed the lead to 38-24 on a Wayne Essner 3-pointer at the 6:10 mark of the third quarter, but it would be as close as the Bulldogs would get until the closing minutes.

"Our biggest concern is we wanted to come out in the second half and compete, and play better," Scott said. "At that point you want to cut into the lead, and if you get a chance to win that's great, but we were most concerned with how we were going to respond to the adversity of how we played in the first half.

"We tried to come back, but they just did a great job of stopping us."

Charleston opened a 59-33 advantage by the close of the third quarter. The lead grew to 63-37 in the fourth quarter before Notre Dame's substitutes went on a 15-0 run to help the final score.

"We should be proud of the fact we made it to the finals, but still we're disappointed we didn't win and didn't have a better showing," Scott said. "The important thing is we take this experience and learn something from it. Hopefully it can help us down the road."

Gant, Farmer and Biles were all picked for the 11-member all-tournament team. Matt Wulfers of Notre Dame also made the squad. Also selected to the team were Eric Henry and Dominitrix Johnson (Bell City), Nathan Seyer (Oran), Tyler Boyd (Jackson), Joey Bell (Meadow Heights), Major Burger (Kelly) and Jared Ritter (Advance).

jbreer@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 124

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