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SOU men to lean on defense in NAIA opener

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The numbers indicate that it’s been 15 years since Southern Oregon’s ability to get defensive stops was as good as it is now.

In the first round of the NAIA Division II Championships against Montreat (N.C.), those numbers will be tested.

The eighth-ranked Raiders (23-7) are the No. 2 seed in the Liston quadrant of the 32-team bracket, where the Cavaliers (24-8) represent the most explosive No. 7 seed in the field.

Headed by Appalachian Athletic Conference MVP Austin Butler, who in two weeks will compete in the NABC-NAIA 3-Point Contest, they’re the seventh-highest scoring team in the country (88.2 points per game) with five players averaging double figures.

The matchup is second on today’s first-round docket, scheduled for an 8:15 a.m. Pacific tipoff at the Sanford Pentagon, which is hosting the tournament for the third year in a row.

“They’ll play really fast but everything is designed to get the ball inside, and off of that they have a few of shooters who can really spread the floor,” SOU head coach Brian McDermott said of Montreat. “They present some difficult matchups so we’ll have to execute to get them stopped.”

SOU’s defensive rating of 96 (points allowed per 100 possessions) is the team’s best since 2005-06. Sophomores Tez Allen and Teron Bradford have been catalysts on that end while regularly slowing down top backcourt foes and combining for 10.5 rebounds and 2.4 steals per contest.

SOU is back in the field for the first time since 2016, meaning every player on the roster will be getting their first taste of tournament action.

Montreat earned an automatic bid to Sioux Falls as the Appalachian runner-up in both the regular season and playoffs to Union (Ky.). It never cracked the Top 25 coaches’ poll but lingered throughout the year after advancing to the 2019 tournament and falling in the first round against Mount Vernon Nazarene (Ohio).

This is the Cavaliers’ fourth overall appearance, and they got their lone NAIA postseason win in 2006.

A big game from Butler — who posts 21.9 points and four 3-point makes per game on 43-percent accuracy — is their best chance to change that, but the 6-foot-5 senior guard is far from their only weapon.

A physical frontcourt tandem of JaJa Davis (15.7 points, 8.2 rebounds), a 6-5, 240-pound junior, and Victor Tshiona (10.8 points, 8.6 rebounds), a 6-8 junior, shoots a combined 55 percent and has pushed the Cavs to No. 9 on the national leaderboard for offensive rebounds (13.3).

In the backcourt, Butler has company in Eric Reed (10.3 points) and Terrell Sheffey (9.9), who have combined for 100 more 3-point makes.

The SOU-Montreat winner will have the first game of Friday’s Round of 16, scheduled for 6:30 a.m. PDT, against No. 3 seed Holy Cross (Ind.) (26-6) or No. 6 seed Indiana Tech (21-11).

The top seed in the Liston quadrant is Morningside (Iowa) (26-3), which spent most of the season ranked No. 1 before dropping three of its last six games.

In their last appearance in the national bracket, the Raiders lost a first-round overtime affair to 14th-ranked Mount Mercy (Iowa) in 2016, 98-97.

They pulled off first-round upsets in their two preceding appearances, and as the No. 21-ranked team in 2015 advanced to the national quarterfinals for the second time in program history — the other occasion being 2005.

SOU is making its ninth overall tournament appearance and fourth in the last eight years.

Raider forwards Tate Hoffman and Jordan Hunt, playing alongside each other for the fourth year, have produced nearly identical career numbers that put them in elite company at SOU.

For Hoffman: 1,476 points, 737 rebounds and 101 blocks; and for Hunt: 1,460 points, 735 rebounds and 160 blocks.

Hoffman’s 17.6-point average made him an All-CCC selection for the first time, and he’s scored 20 or more in 11 outings. Hunt — who is nine blocks short of Shea Washington’s SOU career record — ranks 13th nationally in field-goal percentage (59.0) and is SOU’s second-leading scorer at 12.9 per game.

Senior guard Aaron Borich, SOU’s other All-CCC selection, slumped from beyond the arc during the Cascade Conference Tournament but is still 37th in NAIA DII 3-point makes (80) and 17th in assists per game (4.8).

With him, Bradford (3.7/game; No. 1 CCC in assist-to-turnover ratio) and Allen (3.6/game) leading the way, the Raiders enter the tourney at No. 2 in the nation in assists (20.3) and No. 3 in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.7-to-1).

Conor Carroll is SOU’s top bench scorer at 7.1 per game and is coming off a 10-point outing against Oregon Tech. Over his four-year Raider career, he’s a 40-percent shooter from 3 (134-of-333).

This will be the last year of the NAIA Division II tournament as all schools prepare to merge into one division and a 64-team playoff next season.

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