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Basketball: Raiders embrace underdog role for nationals

Central Lakes College's Brandon Burggraff takes a shot at the basket during a regular season game. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Central Lakes Central Raiders head coach Jim Russell always embraces the role of the underdog and will get that opportunity as the No. 8 Raiders will face No. 1 Suffolk County in the NJCAA Division III National Tournament Quarterfinals Thursday, March 14, at the Rochester Regional Sports Center.

The Raiders enter the tournament with a 25-5 record, winners of 15 in a row and a Region XIII championship after an 88-81 win over Riverland.

CLC will face its biggest challenge against Suffolk County (25-0), who was ranked No. 1 in the latest NJCAA Division III poll.

"I always use the underdog role," Russell said. "They (Suffolk County) are a very good team. You don't go 25-0 and not have a good team, and I see that. They return a number of Sophomores. Include an all-american point guard and I know the ball goes through his hands quite a bit. But I don't see anything that makes me say I am scared. It will be a fun competitive game and we are looking forward to it."

A victory Thursday sets up a championship semifinal match up against either Bunker Hills or Rock Valley, teams ranked No. 8 and No. 9 nationally.

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NJCAA Division III National Championship

  • Who: No. 8 Central Lakes College (25-5) vs. No. 1 Suffolk County, N.J. (25-0)
  • When: 7 p.m. Thursday, March 14
  • Where: Rochester Regional Sports Center
  • Other quarterfinals: No. 6 Middlesex County vs. No. 3 Richland, Noon
  • No. 7 Sandhills vs. No. 2 Herkimer, 2 p.m.
  • No. 4 Bunker Hill vs. No. 5 Rock Valley 5 p.m.
  • Consolation Semifinals: Friday, March 15 noon and 2 p.m.
  • Championship Semifinals: Friday, March 15 5 and 7 p.m.
  • 7th-place game: Noon, Saturday, March 16
  • 5th-place game: 2 p.m. Saturday, March 16
  • 3rd-place game: 5 p.m. Saturday, March 16
  • Championship: 7 p.m. Saturday, March 16

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The Raiders didn't crack the top 10 poll this year, but bring confidence from a core group of three sophomores, led by Chris Buckley who won the NJCAA Division III Player of the Week, along with tournament MVP honors last week.

Malik Kelly and AJ Ray are the other parts of the big three and coach Russell credits their leadership for the team's success.

Russell said the season turned around for the Raiders Jan. 16 after a 93-85 loss at Vermilion. It was the team's last loss. In the post-game locker room, CLC rededicated itself to its preseason goal—a Northern Division championship, a championship at the state tournament and a birth in the national tournament.

"It all starts with the players and the commitment they made at the beginning of the season," Russell said. "They wanted to win the division, then the regional, then the national title. One of our captains came to me the other day and said it is easy to write it down, but two out of three is pretty good and now we get that opportunity and we are looking forward to it."

This week is CLC's spring break, but Russell said focus isn't an issue in preparation for Suffolk County. And with an underdog mentality, the Raiders will embrace the challenge.

"Their success isn't just on the basketball court, of our five starters I believe four of them are on the dean's list so it is not just being on the court, it is off the court as well," Russell said.

The Raiders average 88 points a game, while allowing 72.5. As a team they shoot 46.6 percent from the field and 35.6 percent from 3-point.

On average they out rebound opponents by 6.7 per game and hold opponents to 39.8 percent shooting from the field and 32.5 percent from 3-point.

Chris Buckley leads the Raiders with 21.6 points and 2.5 steals per game. Tyree'on Johnson averages 16.1 points and 7y.3 rebounds per game followed by Al-Jureau Ray's 11.3 points and JaQuavius Hayes' 9.4 points and 4.5 rebounds. Malik Kelly is dishing out 3.5 assists per game to go with 5.7 rebounds and 6.2 points.