As his team’s offense struggled and a one-time 13-point lead slipped away in a critical College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin game at Tarble Arena on Wednesday night, Carthage freshman forward Kienan Baltimore kept finding ways to score.
Free throws, 3-pointers, post moves and bank shots, the 6-foot-5, 223-pound Baltimore —who played 33 minutes off the bench — did everything in the book to get the Red Men to overtime against North Central.
And once there, it seems like Carthage can’t lose.
Baltimore scored a career-high 31 points — including 16 straight for Carthage at one point in the second half — and sophomore guard Jordan Thomas drained a game-tying 3 with 30 seconds left in regulation to send it to overtime, where the Red Men did their thing for a 78-74 victory.
Carthage (16-7 overall, 9-5 CCIW) has won five of six, with the last four of those wins coming in overtime.
“Four overtime wins in the CCIW, almost unheard of,” said Carthage coach Bosko Djurickovic, who’s been a head coach in the conference since 1984. “We put ourselves in positions to not be successful, and yet we’re able to persevere. This is one of the toughest teams that I’ve ever coached.
“Not one of the smartest teams, but one of the toughest teams that I’ve ever coached.”
Baltimore went 7-of-14 from the field, including 4-of-7 from 3-point range, and 13-of-14 at the free-throw line.
“I knew coming in that this was one of the top D-III conferences in the nation, so I expected it to be tough,” said the Zion-Benton (Ill.) product. “But I didn’t expect us to go into four overtimes (in five games) and win them all. I’m just trying to appreciate it while I’m here, because (we) might not see that again.”
But no matter how unorthodox the Red Men are doing this, they’ve put themselves in great position with two regular-season games left.
They remain tied for second in the CCIW with North Park — which beat Carroll on Wednesday — at 9-5, two games back of 11-3 Augustana, which was idle. Illinois Wesleyan lost to Wheaton, so those teams are now tied for fourth at 8-6.
North Central (14-10 overall) is a half-game behind them at 8-7 in league play. The top four teams earn a berth into the CCIW Tournament.
“This is one of those seasons that’s been as enjoyable as most, because nobody thought we had anything,” Djurickovic said. “Everybody thought this was a middle-of-the-pack, lower-end-of-the-pack team. But they didn’t know our freshmen.”
Baltimore had help, though, as senior forward and Wilmot graduate Mike Stevenson scored 11 points and junior forward Brad Kruse — who Djurickovic called “the silent warrior” — totaled seven points, eight rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal.
Thomas chipped in nine points, five boards and two steals, while senior point guard Kevin Kozil had eight points, three assists and two steals.
North Central junior forward Alex Sorenson had a big night with 24 points, eight rebounds and six blocks.
The Red Men used a lengthy 26-6 spurt to take a 35-22 lead late in the first half, and it was 35-25 at halftime.
After starting a miserable 2-of-15 from beyond the arc against Carthage’s zone, the Cardinals drilled five straight 3s, the fifth from the left corner by Aiden Chang (19 points) to tie it at 54-54 with 6 minutes, 35 seconds left.
Despite Baltimore’s heroics, North Central led 62-58 after Sorenson sank two free throws with 1:02 remaining, and it looked like the Red Men might suffer an agonizing loss.
“We’ve been in that position before, so it was nothing new,” Baltimore said. “We knew we could pull it out. We never get too low or too high, we just try to keep going.
“... It was more about getting stops than scoring, because we can score. We just had to get stops, and we did.”
Indeed, after Baltimore banked one in with his right hand off a nifty post spin, North Central’s Jagger Anderson split a pair of free throws to make it 63-60 with 40 seconds to play.
Carthage moved quickly, and Kruse found Thomas open on the right wing. His 3 circled the rim and dropped in to tie it, then Thomas played terrific on-the-ball defense to force a wild airball from Anderson just before the buzzer to force overtime.
North Central led for the last time, 69-68, on Chang’s free throws with 2:56 left. Stevenson gave Carthage the lead for good with a three-point play, Baltimore grabbed a steal and found a streaking Kruse for a layup and Stevenson made one of two freebies for a 74-69 advantage with 1:40 remaining.
The Cardinals got it to 74-71 and 76-74, but Thomas calmly nailed two free throws on each occasion to seal the win.