Dawson men's basketball

The Dawson men's basketball team celebrates its North Central District championship victory over Indian Hills (Iowa) on April 10 in Glendive.

BILLINGS — It was a watershed moment for the Dawson Community College men’s basketball program, and the Buccaneers still haven’t come down from that high.

A 68-67 home victory over Indian Hills (Iowa) last Saturday in Glendive secured the NJCAA North Central District championship for the Bucs and sends them on to their first-ever appearance in the Division I junior college national tournament, where they’ll face Indian River State College (Florida) in a first-round game Tuesday in Hutchinson, Kansas.

They’ve been playing men’s basketball at DCC for 63 years, and this experience is bound to produce some nervous energy for the Bucs. But the team has every intention of being focused on its task when it hits the court at the Hutchinson Sports Arena.

Region XIII champion Dawson, with a 23-2 record, is the tournament’s No. 19 seed. Indian River, 18-3 and an at-large selection from Region VIII, is the No. 14 seed.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Bucs coach Joe Peterson said this week. “There’s a buzz around town, a buzz around campus. I think everybody’s pretty excited that we get to represent DCC and Glendive and Montana on a national stage, and I don’t think that will wear off.

“But I don’t think it’ll be hard for us to get ready and be ready to play at the national tournament. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I think our guys get it. We’re going to keep it just like we have for every other game this year, with the same kind of scouting and preparation, the same kind of practice. I think that will help our guys. I think there will be some jitters and things like that, but I think we’ll handle it pretty well.”

In the district title game, Dawson led by as many as 17 points but had to fend off a late Indian Hills run to prevail by one point. Big men Kennedy Brown and Charles Lampten combined for 21 points, 12 rebounds and six blocked shots, while Michael Jok and Cordell Stinson scored 14 and 10, respectively.

In the days leading up to that game, Peterson acknowledged that his team would be the underdog against a program with a rich history of national tournament appearances and championship victories.

That won’t change this time against Indian River, a team that averages just under 89 points and boasts the Region VIII player of the year in guard Linton Brown, who scores 18.4 points per game and shoots 52% from the arc.

But defense will again but the Buccaneers’ focus.

“I think teams really struggle with our pressure and struggle with the way that we rotate in the half court. People just don’t get easy shots against us very often,” Peterson said. “Our guys can really fly around and run people off the line, and if they do get beat they know they have some size behind them protecting the rim.”

Peterson described Indian River as “really tough, hard-nosed, rebound well, defend you hard. I think probably their biggest strength is they’ve got some really good shooters that can shoot it deep. So we’ve got to make sure we don’t give up any open 3s and easy 3s, and make them drive that ball.”

Tuesday’s game tips off at 9 a.m. Mountain time, and can be streamed online at www.njcaatv.com for a $5 pay-per-view fee. The winner will advance to play the No. 3 seed College of Southern Idaho in the second round on Wednesday.

Peterson has said that making the national tournament is the ultimate goal for any junior college coach. Now that he and the Buccaneers have finally arrived, they must find a way to survive and advance.

They hope what’s worked for them this season — defending, rebounding, playing loose and within a team concept — will continue to pay dividends on the biggest stage.

“We're kind of the underdog again,” Peterson said. “We’re a 19 seed out of 24 teams, and we’re one of the lowest-seeded teams there. So there’s really not a lot of pressure on us.

“I don’t think a lot of people expect us, in our first national tournament, to go in there and win. We expect to win, but I don’t think anybody else expects us to win, and that’s kind of a good place to be.”

Email Greg Rachac at Greg.Rachac@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @gregrachac

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