CANTON, Mo. -- The main objective in Saturday's game for the Culver-Stockton College men's basketball team was to secure a spot in the Heart of America Athletic Conference Tournament with a victory.
Holding Graceland to four points in the final 5:53 helped make that a reality as the Wildcats won 87-78 in their final regular season game at Charles Field House.
A loss would have put C-SC (15-15) in jeopardy of making the Heart tournament, but instead it earned the seventh seed in the 10-team field. Four teams finished tied for seventh, and C-SC had the best record in head-to-head competition among those four teams.
MidAmerica Nazarene, the 10th seed, will visit Canton on Tuesday for a 7 p.m. play-in game, with the winner advancing to play at No. 2 seed Peru State in the quarterfinals on Thursday.
"Essentially, today was the start of the postseason for us," first-year C-SC coach Aaron Hill said. "We did what we could."
Mike Johnson made four 3-pointers in the first eight minutes to help C-SC lead for most of the first half, but Ramon Franklin's 3-pointer with seven seconds left gave the Yellowjackets a 46-43 halftime lead.
"You have to have that sense of urgency, and I wanted to get going from the get-go," Johnson said of his 18-point first half.
C-SC's defense improved dramatically in the second half with the return of Troy Green, who sat out all but the first 2:21 of the game with two fouls. Graceland scored just 32 points and shot just 38.9 percent in the final 20 minutes.
"He's as good as anybody in our league defensively," Hill said. "He can switch defenders and alter shots and get rebounds. Having him out there makes a big difference."
The Wildcats took their biggest lead at 69-61 with 9:46 to play on two free throws by Johnson, but the Yellowjackets needed about four minutes to erase that deficit and tie the score at 74 with 5:53 remaining on a layup by Alec Pena. Two baskets in that run were on offensive rebounds, and Graceland had 13 of them in the game.
A basket by Green, two free throws by Green and a bank shot from the lane by Johnson put C-SC back in from 80-74, and the Yellowjackets never got closer than four points again.
Mason Vires made two critical plays in the final minutes to seal the victory. First, with the shot clock at 5, the game clock under 40 seconds and an offensive set that was falling apart, Vires made a 3-pointer from the top of the key to put the Wildcats ahead 85-78.
"I saw Cullen (Smith) come set a screen. They were fading off, my man went under (the screen), and I saw the shot," he said. "Luckily it went in."
Vires then stole a pass on Graceland's next possession and went the length of the floor for a layup.
"Late in games, it's about which side makes the most plays, and (Vires) made two big ones," Hill said.
Johnson finished with 30 points, reaching that plateau for the sixth time this season. Thaddeus Newby had 17 points, Vires had 12 and Green had 10.
C-SC has four victories over teams that were ranked in the NAIA national poll, and Saturday's victory avenges a 32-point loss at Graceland in November. After winning just 20 games in the past three seasons, the Wildcats believe they aren't finished.
"Nobody expects Culver-Stockton, and that works to our advantage," Vires said. "Our record doesn't really show what we're capable of, but we've proven we can beat ranked teams, and we've proven we can go on the road and win big games."
"We can accomplish anything we put our minds to," Johnson said. "Last year (winning seven games) was a tough year, and to end this year with us winning like this, it just pushes us into the next tournament and gives us the momentum we need to win four games to go to the national tournament."
Culver-Stockton 87, Graceland 78
GRACELAND (15-14, 11-13 Heart)
Harley 6-9 3-4 16, Nelson 5-15 2-2 12, Butler 0-1 0-0 0, Coleman 3-12 0-0 8, M. Jackson 3-10 0-0 8, Franklin 3-5 0-0 7, Meier 2-4 0-0 6, Schweighauser 5-8 0-0 10, Leedom 2-3 0-0 4, Pena 2-4 2-2 7. Totals 31-71 7-8 78.
CULVER-STOCKTON (15-15, 11-13 Heart)
Smith 4-6 1-3 9, Green 3-3 4-5 10, Vires 4-11 2-2 12, Johnson 11-24 3-4 30, Newby 7-12 0-0 17, London 1-4 0-0 2, J. Jackson 2-2 0-1 6, Fischer 0-1 1-2 1, Happel 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 32-63 11-17 87.
Halftime--Graceland 46, Culver-Stockton 43. 3-point field goals--Graceland 9-31 (Coleman 2-6, M. Jackson 2-6, Meier 2-2, Harley 1-4, Pena 1-1, Franklin 1-3, Butler 0-1, Leedom 0-1, Schweighauser 0-2, Nelson 0-5), Culver-Stockton 12-29 (Johnson 5-13, Newby 3-7, Vires 2-3, J. Jackson 2-2, Smith 0-1, Fischer 0-1, London 0-2). Rebounds--Graceland 41 (Harley, Nelson, Butler 7), Culver-Stockton 33 (Newby 8). Assists--Graceland 16 (Coleman 5), Culver-Stockton 15 (Vires, Johnson 5). Steals--Culver-Stockton 7 (Vires, Green, Newby 2), Graceland 4 (M. Jackson 2). Blocked shots--Graceland 4 (Harley 3), Culver-Stockton 2 (Smith, Newby 1). Turnovers--Graceland 12, Culver-Stockton 8. Fouls--Graceland 18, Culver-Stockton 10. Fouled out--none. Officials--Jim Kiwala, Brad Carrell, Mike Hackmann.