IRONWOOD - A lot of people are going to Florida and Arizona this time of year. The Samsons are going to North Dakota and are thrilled about it.
The Gogebic Community College Samsons beat Dakota County Technical College 85-78 in a NJCAA Division II Region 13 semifinal at the Lindquist Center Wednesday. That sets up a region final Sunday at 2 p.m. at Dakota College at Bottineau.
The Samsons finished a perfect 11-0 at home and look to complete back-to-back region championships this weekend by winning a tough matchup on the road.
"A lot of people are lucky to get one regional championship," GCC sophomore Jordan LaPlant said. "It's another chance, back-to-back. It's incredible."
It won't be easy on Bottineau's home court.
"Once you get in that game, you never know what can happen," GCC coach Dennis Mackey said. "Last year, we had (United) Tribes here and we had them on the ropes, but a last-second shot could have beat us. We're hoping we get that opportunity. All we need is a chance. We're the defending champs. Like I told the guys, even though we're not the greatest team in the world or nobody expected us to be here at this point, we're here. We're 20-10. We're proud of what we accomplished."
After two tight finishes between GCC and DCTC, most everyone expected more of the same Wednesday. DCTC got hot at the end and made the Samsons work to close it out. But for the most part, Gogebic had a comfortable lead, as big as 20 points, 70-50, in the second half and 15 points, 33-18, in the first half.
"We took a big lead and maybe that's a benefit of playing at home," Mackey said. "Yes, they made a comeback, but it was never really, really in doubt."
A putback by Cliff Gatonye pulled DCTC within four, 22-18, late in the first half. Gogebic scored the next 11 points to take that 15-point lead with great energy fighting for loose balls and pressuring DCTC on defense.
Gogebic led 42-30 at the half.
"We turned the ball over a bunch in the first half and made some silly defensive mistakes to dig us into a hole," DCTC coach Ben Smith said.
GCC sophomore Bryce Bilski said, "We shared the ball really well. We got a lot of passes, a lot of rebounds."
The Samsons continued to dominate in the first part of the second half.
Bilski scored four points in a row to put GCC up 70-50, its biggest of the game, with under 10 minutes to go.
DCTC finally started hitting shots after that, coming as close seven points several times down the stretch. Gogebic had an answer. Gatonye scored to cut the deficit to 78-71 with 1:36 to go. LaDell Hickman drained two free throws.
The Blue Knights scored again. Tarius Hagood made both free throws.
After DCTC scored at the free throw, Miller split his foul shots and followed it up with a runout layup to put GCC up 85-75.
"We did a great job of fighting back," Smith said. "We turned it on the last 10, 12 minutes, but it was too little, too late. I thought Gogebic played extremely well. They've got better every time we've seen them play. We just didn't bring it in the first half tonight."
Bilski led Gogebic with 20 points. LaPlant had 16 and Miller scored 13, all in the second half.
"First half, I was struggling," Miller said. "Coach Nik (Patrick) pulled me to the side at halftime and told me, 'We need a big half from you. Go out there, play tough, play strong, play as a team, basically let the game come to you.' First half I was too aggressive. Teammates did a good job taking care of the ball, rebounding. We just played as one."
Mackey said he wanted to save Miller for the second half after he picked up those early fouls.
"Because I know he's got the energy and he just brings something to us," Mackey said. "Second half, he was outstanding. I thought Tarius had a great game, just a bear on the boards."
Gogebic built up its lead in the first half with a small lineup that brought a lot of energy.
"I thought Alex Dietrich did a great job getting his hands on balls," Mackey said. "Marcus Bain, he made some great plays on both ends of the floor, hustled on the defensive end, got his hands in there. We're getting contributions from so many guys now."
Hagood and Kohegyi both had 11 points to make it five guys in double figures for the Samsons.
Gatonye led DCTC with 22 points.
The Samsons have exceeded expectations this season. Miller said he believed the team would be here since the the season started.
"We play with our hearts every game," he said. "Every game. Coach always tells us don't stop believing and that's what we do."
Mackey said he was a bit concerned when the team lost six straight in January, all without Bilski. But they haven't lost since, winning eight games in a row. Coming back after a big deficit to Silver Lake College, a four-year school, on Feb. 8 was an encouraging sign for him.
"We were dead in the water and we pulled it out," Mackey said. "That's when I started thinking, 'We do have something here.' We're on a roll. We have won eight in row, nine in a row with the coin flip."
Last year's team was undefeated at home until losing the national play-in game by six points.
"This is outstanding," Mackey said. "It's exciting to do this in front of the home crowds."
DCTC - Cole Piepkorn 7, Scott Darrion 14, Andrew Aakre 18, Kelly Jamar 3, Blake LaFonntaine 3, Phil Rholl 4, Tim Lott 7, Cliff Gatonye 22. FTs: 12-20. Fouls: 22. Fouled out: Jamar. 3-pointers: Aakre 6, LaFonntaine 1, Piepkorn 1.
GCC - LaDell Hickman 7, Alex Dietrich 2, Marcus Bain 3, Jordan LaPlant 16, Collin Miller 13, Bryce Bilski 20, Michael Cretens 2, Tarius Hagood 11, Gordy Kohegyi 11. FTs: 19-25. Fouls: 19. Fouled out: Bilski. 3-pointers: LaPlant 2, Bilski 2, Kohegyi 1, Hickman 1.
Half: GCC 42-30.