DANVILLE, Ill. -- The will to win trumped all else.
It had to with weary legs and an off-kilter offense making it difficult for the John Wood Community College men's basketball team to put a stamp on Friday's NJCAA Division II national tournament victory.
The Trail Blazers led Lakeland (Ohio) 67-60 with a minute to play in regulation when the Lakers choose not to foul and allowed the Trail Blazers to work nearly 30 seconds off the clock. It seemingly worked as Cory Miller Jr. missed a jumper with 37 seconds left, but that was before JWCC sophomore forward Eric Easter sprung into action.
Easter soared to grab the offensive rebound and recycle the possession, allowing Miller to get to the free-throw line and help seal a 72-63 victory at Mary Miller Gym.
"You could tell it just took all the energy away from their players," Miller said. "There was still hope left and that rebound just sealed it. That was clutch."
It was the first time the Trail Blazers could actually breathe easy.
"You're just grinding and playing the clock at that point," Miller said. "Everybody is so tired and you don't want to force anything or force yourself into more possessions than need be. So we tried to play the clock and get the best shot we could late in the shot clock and have it work out in our favor."
It ultimately did, which means the Trail Blazers will play on the final day of the season.
JWCC (21-14) faces Milwaukee Area Tech (30-6) at 2 p.m. Saturday in the fifth-place game. This will be the Trail Blazers' third top-six finish in five national tournament appearances in program history.
"The neat thing is we get to go through everything for the last time," JWCC coach Brad Hoyt said. "It's the last time in pre-game, the last time in those conversations, the last time we go through warm-ups.
"There's such a cool thing about being in control of that. You can do this for a long time and never be in the situation where you can control that, so we feel pretty fortunate."
The Trail Blazers are in that position despite struggling offensively most of the game.
JWCC shot 38.2 percent from the field and 26.3 percent from 3-point range. It committed 20 turnovers against only 11 assists and didn't capitalize on 12 offensive rebounds the way it would want, collecting just three second-chance points.
"We had trouble finding a flow," said sophomore guard Carter Cramsey, who finished with nine points and three rebounds. "We just had to grind it out really. None of us wanted our season to end today. That would have been a big disappointment.
"We worked hard and worked together to find a way to make good things happen when we didn't have a flow."
Down 51-47 with 7:43 remaining, the Trail Blazers went on a 12-4 run started by Evan Morrison making a pair of free throws and highlighted by five consecutive defensive stops. JWCC also scored on three consecutive possessions twice in that span.
"We had some moments in that second half where our guys really, really beared down and showed some resiliency and put together two or three really good possessions," Hoyt said. "We did that a couple of times when it mattered most."
Miller came to life in the second half, too.
Held scoreless in the first half, the sophomore guard who scored 55 points in the first two tournament games combined finally got back in rhythm over the final 20 minutes. He went 13 of 17 from the free-throw line and finished with 19 points, eight rebounds, three assists and three steals before fouling out with 22 seconds remaining.
At that point, the Trail Blazers knew they had survived to play one more day.
"It was mind over matter and staying together to bounce back," Miller said. "It was a real grind. It was an ugly performance, but we figured out a way to get it done."
NJCAA Division II Tournament
John Wood 72, Lakeland 63
JOHN WOOD (21-14)
Easter 2-5 2-4 6, Whiteman 3-12 0-0 8, Cramsey 3-4 3-5 9, Miller 3-11 13-17 19, Jefferson 2-5 0-2 4, Rumbo 2-7 2-5 8, Jackson 1-3 3-5 5, Morrison 0-0 2-2 2, Bevans 3-5 0-0 6, Bottorff 2-3 0-0 5. Totals 21-55 25-40 72.
Brown 4-8 3-4 11, Fointno 2-7 2-2 7, Dawson 5-18 5-6 17, Bowers 2-6 0-0 4, Johnson 5-15 1-1 11, Fulton 2-3 1-4 5, Washington 3-6 0-0 6, Vann 0-0 2-2 2, Musselman 0-0 0-0 0, Austin-Pitts 0-0 0-0 0, Sims 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-63 14-19 63.
Halftime score--JWCC 29, Lakeland 24. 3-point field goals--JWCC 5-19 (Whiteman 2-8, Rumbo 2-7, Bottorff 1-2, Miller 0-2), Lakeland 3-20 (Dawson 2-11, Fointno 1-3, Johnson 0-4, Bowers 0-1, Washington 0-1). Rebounds--JWCC 49 (Miller, Bevans 8), Lakeland 36 (Johnson 11). Assists--JWCC 11 (Miller, Jackson 3), Laakeland 5 (Dawson, Johnson 2). Steals--JWCC 7 (Miller 3), Lakeland 5 (Fulton 3). Blocked shots--None. Turnovers--JWCC 20, Lakeland 15. Fouls--JWCC 15, Lakeland 26. Fouled out--Miller, Fointno. Technical fouls--Lakeland bench.