PELLA — Defense has carried the surprising Central College men’s basketball team into first place in the American Rivers Conference and it was a suffocating defense that delivered again in a 73-64 victory over Simpson College Wednesday.
The Dutch completed the first half of the conference round-robin with a 7-1 mark and a 12-4 overall record after being tabbed for eighth place in the preseason. Simpson (11-5 overall, 4-4 conference) entered the game averaging more than 80 points a game but was limited to 36.4% shooting and Central came away with 10 blocked shots. Center Joshua Van Gorp (junior, Pella, Pella Christian HS) had five blocks while forward Grant Johnson (senior, Waukee, Van Meter HS) had four.
“It really was our defense tonight,” coach Joe Steinkamp said. “We really had a great game plan going in and give (assistant coach) Conor Riordan a lot of credit for that because he had the scout. I thought our guys played with a ton of intensity and a lot of attention to detail. Simpson is a really good offensive team so to hold them to 64 says a lot.”
Simpson’s defense was stout as well, as Central shot only 43.3% from the field and just 23.1% from three-point range. The Dutch held a 45-39 rebounding advantage.
Johnson had 22 points, nine rebounds and six assists while guard Kade Terrell (5th-year, Montrose, Colo.) had 13 points with seven boards and two steals. Forward Kole Tupa (junior, Center Point, Center Point-Urbana HS) had 11 points, seven rebounds and four assists while Van Gorp finished with 10 points.
Johnson’s performance was needed because Van Gorp drew a crowd of defenders.
“It really allowed Grant to get going and other guys as well,” Steinkamp said. “We kind of have some things ready for however different teams will defend us. Grant’s versatility is huge. His ability to pass the ball from the low post and the high post is really fun to watch.”
Steinkamp said Tupa was another player who stepped up.
“I thought Kole Tupa had an unbelievable all-around game,” he said. “He had some great cuts where he was able to free himself and he had to guard their leading scorer. Kole is a great player and a great teammate, too.”
It was a hard-earned win. Simpson jumped to a 21-10 lead with 11 minutes left in the first half. But Central responded with a 16-0 game-changing run and was up 36-30 at halftime, leading the rest of the way. Simpson drew as close as five points with 5:16 left but Tupa answered with a three and the Dutch grinded out the win.
“I thought Kole’s three, in some ways, sealed it,” Steinkamp said. “There was still a lot of game left, but it was a really big shot and a big momentum lift.”
Saturday the Dutch are at the University of Dubuque for a women’s-men’s conference doubleheader with the men’s game starting at 4 p.m. Dubuque, the preseason favorite, is 11-5 overall and 4-3 in the conference after 70-60 win at home against Luther College Wednesday. Central was a 68-58 winner over the Spartans at Pella Dec. 3. The games will be broadcast on KRLS-FM (92.1) with Tyler Crabb calling the action. The broadcast can also be accessed at kniakrls.com.
Playing on the road will be a far stiffer challenge for Central.
“It starts with defense again, I think that’s going to be the key up there,” Steinkamp said. “They had a great win Saturday (86-74 at Simpson) and they’re really rounding into form. They’re an excellent defensive team as well.”