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Kansas City — After defeating arch-rival Xavier on their home floor to claim the 2016 Gulf Coast Athletic Conference tournament championship, the Dillard Bleu Devils earned an automatic berth to the Buffalo Funds - NAIA Division I Men's Basketball Championship. It's a place that Dillard hadn't visited since 2003. The Bleu Devils, winners of four in a row overall, find themselves surprisingly unranked after sitting at 25th in the nation heading into the GCAC tourney. It was an especially tough pill for the team to swallow after winning their three tournament games by an average of more than 18 points per game in a GCAC that put three teams in the Championship field.
Now, as the 32 team tournament tips off tomorrow, March 16, the Bleu Devils (21-10) find themselves as a No. 7 seed preparing to face second-seeded and eighth ranked Hope International (26-6) on Thursday, March 17 at 12:30 p.m. The winner will advance to face the winner of Texas Wesleyan and Campbellsville (Ky.) on Friday, March 18 at 4:30 p.m.
This season marks Dillard's sixth trip to postseason while while the Royals have four tournament appearances, each coming over the last four seasons. The Bleu Devils are 2-5 in tourney play while Hope is 5-3 overall.
|No. 7 Dillard Bleu Devils (21-10)||No. 2 Hope International Royals (26-6)|
|Points||Demetric Austin (JR/Washington, D.C.), 20.6||Points||Tuff Barnes, 12.6|
|Rebounds||Demetric Austin, 9.3||Rebounds||Liam Hunt, 9.0|
|Assists||Dennis Hightower (JR/Chicago, Ill.), 5.8||Assists||Dominique Lanier, 2.9|
|Steals||Dennis Hightower, 2.2||Steals||Garrett Neilan, 1.45|
|Blocks||Kristian Clark (JR/Ocean Springs, Miss.), 0.5||Blocks||Liam Hunt, 1.5|
The Bleu Devils are 4-1 in neutral site games this season and are 2-4 against ranked opponents. Dillard has a 4-6 record against teams in this season's tournament. Those six losses came by an average of eight points, including a pair of two-point defeats.
Hope International enters the game as the nation's second best scoring defense, allowing just 62 points per game and holding their opponents to 39 percent shooting from the floor. It should make for an interesting matchup of styles as the Royals try to slow down a Bleu Devil attack that scores nearly 85 points each night. Offensive rebounding should be a huge factor as Dillard is second in the nation with 16.2 offensive boards per contest and Hope International ranks 13th on the defensive glass, grabbing 29.7 defensive rebounds per game.
The Royals are led offensively by 6-8 forward Tuff Barnes. He posted career-highs in scoring (12.5) and rebounding (6.5) this season and led the nation in field goal percentage, making nearly 68 percent of his shots. Guard Ramon Mejia provides the outside shooting for Hope International. He made 79 three pointers this season, shooting 37 percent from long distance and averaged 12.4 points per game. Liam Hunt, a 6-6 center, was the only other Royal in double figures, posting 11.1 points per game while grabbing nine rebounds (both career highs).
Dillard, of course, is led by First Team All-GCAC selection and conference Newcomer of the Year Austin. He averages just under 21 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, and is joined by Second Team All-GCAC choice Hightower and Freshman of the Year Montrey Thomas (FR/Shreveport, La.) in a potent Bleu Devils lineup.
The first 20 games of the national championship will be video-streamed live at www.NAIAnetwork.com. The championship final will air on ESPN3 for the third-straight season on Tuesday, March 22 at 7:00 p.m. The video platform, powered by Stretch Internet, allows users access to live video, statistics, and social interaction on a number of devices, including mobile. Single day passes can be purchased for $9.95 while an all-tournament package is available at $29.95. For more information and the pre-register, click here.
For more information on the NAIA tournament, click here.