WALLA WALLA, Wash. Josh Hays scored 20 of his game-high 26 points in the second half as Montana State University-Northern pulled away from a two-point halftime lead and rolled to an 85-69 victory over host Whitman College in the championship game of the Wildhorse Resort Classic Saturday night in Sherwood Center.
Hays, who was 8-of-10 from the floor and 10-of-11 from the free throw line, walked away with the tournament's Most Valuable Player award. In his first tourney game against Walla Walla College on Friday, the 6-foot-6 senior center hit 9-of-10 field goal attempts in scoring 22 points.
The Lights improved to 8-1 on the season, while the Missionaries saw their record drop to 2-3.
Whitman, which held its only lead at 8-7 early in the game, fell behind by as many as eight points in the first half. But the Missionaries rallied to twice tie the score, first at 29 and then at 31, before Northern slipped away to a 35-33 halftime lead.
The Lights took charge after the break, outscoring Whitman 18-6 with an outburst that included 10 points from Hays. The Northern Lights extended their lead to 60-44 with 8:17 left to play, but the Missionaries cut the deficit to 10 points, 61-51, on Rob Bell's three-point play at the 6:45 mark.
After another surge by the Northern Lights, Whitman could draw no closer than 11 points the rest of the way. Missionary freshman Nick Parker, a graduate of Malta High School, hit a 3-pointer with 3:20 remaining to cut Whitman's deficit to 68-57. Thirty seconds later, sophomore Cale Will, a graduate of Conrad High, hit a hoop and the Missionaries still trailed by 11, 70-59.
Hays helped seal the Northern Lights victory by canning nine consecutive free throws in the closing minutes. His three-point play in the paint with 11 seconds on the clock completed the scoring.
Bell, Whitman's 6-foot-8 senior center, paced his team with 16 points and six rebounds. Bell was named to the all-tournament squad along with senior teammate Kevin Justice.
Others named to the all-tourney team were K.C. Moultrie, who scored 32 points for the Northern Lights in his two games, and two players from Walla Walla College, Landon Libby and Richie Gilliland.
Whitman's Mark Bouma, also a graduate of Conrad High School, had 15 points and five boards in Saturday's championship game. Will, who hit a trio of 3-pointers, finished with 11 points and four boards.
The Missionaries outhustled the much taller Northern Lights for a 36-34 advantage on the backboards. Bell and sophomore Bryan Erlebach topped Whitman with six rebounds apiece. Erlebach also contributed eight points, five assists and two steals.
E.J. Little, a 6-foot-6 forward, was a force for the Northern Lights with 14 points and 14 rebounds. Point guard Jermaine Walton added 15 points and four assists.
Whitman played its second straight game without starter Rich Harris, who has been sidelined at times the past two seasons with an irregular heartbeat. Another of Whitman's starters, Ben Fuller, played just 16 minutes, scoring eights and nabbing four rebounds. Fuller took a nasty fall in Whitman's first tournament game against Walla Walla College, playing just three minutes in that contest.
Scott Erickson, Whitman's starting point guard, sprained an ankle against Walla Walla College and managed just six points and four assists against Montana State University-Northern.
Whitman College 33 36
Northern Jermaine Walton 15, Uros Mirkovic 3, K.C. Moultrie 14, E.J. Little 14, Josh Hays 26, Jeff Graham 3, Jared Moultrie 5, Faheem Nelson 5.
Whitman Scott Erickson 6, Bryan Erlebach 8, Kevin Justice 2, Mark Bouma 15, Rob Bell 16, Cale Will 11, Ben Fuller 8, Nick Parker 3.
Notes: The Lights also won their first game of the tournament against Walla Walla College 110-93.
Josh Hays scored 22 points to lead the way. Four other players were also in double figures, including Jeff Graham (19), K.C. Moultrie (18), E.J. Little (14) and Jared Moultrie (12). Jermaine Walton added nine points, Uros Mirkovic eight and Faheem Nelson six.
The Lights are in action this week Saturday in Bozeman to take on the Bobcats. Northern will leave after the Bozeman game to fly to Hawaii to participate in a tournament Dec. 11-15.