Branson lifts Westmont into Byron Classic final

Sophomore guard Preston Branson drove the lane and scored the last of his team-high 18 points with 1.8 seconds left on the game clock to give Westmont a 79-78 win over the Vikings of Bethany Lutheran (Minn.) on Wednesday night in the first round of the 35th annual Tom Byron Classic.
 
With the win, Westmont (9-3) advances to take on British Columbia (15-2) in the championship game at 7:30 p.m. in Murchison Gymnasium on Thursday night. Bethany Lutheran (3-7) will match up with Valley City State of North Dakota (5-9) beginning at 3 o’clock.
 
“Any time you can win a game like this, it really does help you down the road,” said Westmont head coach John Moore. “Last time we were in a tight game like this, we lost to Cal State San Bernardino. To be able to come back home and win a game like this is nice.”
 
The Warriors held a 10-point lead at the intermission (40-30), but the Vikings proved to be tenacious. Bethany followed a layup by Garrett Benson (10 points, 5 assist) with four three-pointers – one by Benson, two by Alex Weldon (27 points) and one by Gavin Kroehler (25 points). The onslaught from beyond the arc whittled the Warrior advantage to just three points (47-44) before the Warriors restored a double-digit margin with a 7-0 run.
 
But the Vikings were not done. Again Benson and Weldon struck from three-point range in an 8-1 run that narrowed the lead to three (61-58).
 
With 8:23 left in regulation, Bethany caught the Warriors at 63-all on a layup by Weldon. Two free throws by Westmont’s Blake Bender (16 points, 9 rebounds) briefly restored a Warrior lead, but the Vikings responded with a layup and free throws by Derek Peterson and a layup by Gavin Kroehler to go up 69-65 with 6:24 to play.
 
Westmont went back on top with two free throws from Branson and a three from Jordan Sachs (15 points, 5 rebounds), making it a 70-69 game. After a layup by Benson and two free throws by Kroehler, Sachs nailed another from downtown to tie the game at 73 with 3:55 showing on the clock.
 
With just over three minutes remaining in regulation, TJ Lipold drained two free throws and the Warriors went up by two (75-73). However, Weldon made the fifth of his long-range bombs on the Vikings next possession and followed that with a layup to give Bethany a three-point lead with 1:55 to go.
 
Just over a minute later, Bender sank another pair of free throws, making it a one point game but giving possession to the Vikings. Bethany brought the ball down the court, but could not find an open shot. With the shot clock about to expire, Weldon launched a ball from 23 feet that failed to find the rim.
 
Westmont brought the ball up the court and called timeout with 13 seconds to play. The Warriors tried to find Dan Rasp (12 points) open inside, but could not get the ball to him. With the game clock about to expire, Branson charged the rim and got the bounce that gave the Warriors the win.
 
“I was very proud of how our guys kept focus and kept fighting back,” said Moore.

In the earlier game, British Columbia posted a 75-65 win over Valley City State.

British Columbia was led in scoring by Josh Whyte who tallied 25 points. Brent Malish added another 14 and Kamar Burke tallied 10.

Valley City State had five players in double figures, led by Aaron Duke with 16 points and eight rebounds.
 

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