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JUCO basketball: IHCC prepares for national tournament opener

Mar. 25—OTTUMWA — Josh Sash has been here before

As an assistant coach at State Fair 10 years ago. As an assistant coach for two seasons at Indian Hills in 2016 and 2017. Sash has made the journey multiple times to the NJCAA Division I Men's Basketball National Tournament.

There's certainly something special about this trip to Hutchinson, Kansas for Sash. For the first time, Sash will be leading a team into a national tournament as a head coach as Indian Hills will close out the season competing for a national title at the Hutchinson Sports Arena for the 19th time in program history.

"I feel blessed to be the steward of this program," Sash said. "To be the guy that was fortunate enough to be selected to guide this program, I'm just trying to uphold a standard that was set long before I got here."

Sash and Warriors embarked on the team's most recent 438-mile March trip to central Kansas on Sunday morning, leaving Ottumwa from the Hellyer Student Life Center on a cold, windy Sunday morning. As the Warriors were traveling through the cold conditions outside on Sunday, action was heating up inside the Hutchinson Sports Arena as the first six games of this year's national tournament tipped off the final week of junior college basketball season.

The final game on a long Sunday produced an opponent for Indian Hills to prepare for heading into the second of the national tournament. The Warriors, seeded fifth in this year's 24-team field, will face 21st-seeded Wallace State on Tuesday afternoon at 2:15 p.m.

The Lions improved to 26-8, winning their sixth straight game with a 76-64 win over 12th-seeded Lee College on Sunday night shortly after 11 p.m. Jimmie Williams led a balanced scoring attack for Wallace State with 22 points as the Lions shot over 57 percent from the field, hitting 28 of 49 shots from the field while outscoring Lee 38-24 in the second half pulling off the day's largest upset.

For the Warriors, it will be the second meeting of the year with a team from Alabama. Indian Hills won 62-60 at Coastal Alabama-North back on Nov. 15, highlighted by a 26-point, 19-rebound double-double from Trevion LaBeaux who will get a chance to play in his second national tournament after returning from injury just over a week ago in a 90-74 NJCAA North Central District championship win over 20th-ranked North Dakota State College of Science.

"I feel like I'll be even healthier and even better by the time we step on the floor at Hutch," LaBeaux said. "From the beginning of the year, we always had an end goal. We wanted to not only make it to Hutch, but to make a big run down there. When we beat teams, even if we're way ahead, Coach Sash is still looking for things that we can correct to be able to win the games at Hutch.

"We've been focused on playing our best basketball in the postseason. We can still play a lot more together. We can still lock in on the defensive end even more. We can beat everyone on the glass. It gives us more confidence going in with a long winning streak of our own. We want to keep that going and keep playing together with the guys we have in that locker room."

While Wallace State has won six straight games going into Tuesday's second round contest, Indian Hills is even hotter. The 27-5 Warriors haven't lost since the final day of January at Triton, a loss that IHCC avenged in their final regular season contest as part of an 11-game winning streak that Indian Hills hopes to extend to 15 straight games by the end of the week with four wins in five days needed to bring home the program's fourth national championship.

"This is a community and an institution that cares about winning and invests in this program," Sash said. "We have everything we need to be successful. Now, it's up to us to push this thing forward and hold up our end of the bargain."

— Scott Jackson can be reached at sjackson@ottumwacourier.com. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.