KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Earning the program’s first-ever national tournament berth, and a trip to Kansas City last season, E.J. Onu was as disappointed as anybody to learn that the opportunity had been snatched from his grasp.
With the chance to finally play in the heart of the NAIA’s realm a year and six days later, the senior big man and Mid-South Conference Player of the Year made sure to make his first appearance count.
Held without a field goal over the first 2:07 of the contest, Shawnee State got eight consecutive points from Onu, then saw its 6-11 center from Cleveland dominate the defensive end of the floor — as his 10 points and eight blocks led the Bears to a 25-22 halftime lead.
SSU continued to extend its lead behind the dominating efforts of Onu, who ultimately matched his career-high with 29 points and notched 10 rebounds and 10 blocks to go along with that mark for his second triple-double of the 2020-21 campaign in a 69-59 victory over Bethel (Kan.) on Thursday.
The fifth-seeded Bears, which snapped 12th-seeded Bethel’s (21-6) five-game winning streak, appeared in the NAIA National Championship Round of 16 presented by Ballogy — which is being held at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City.
Having been efficient throughout the season offensively, Shawnee State was held to a 38.2-percent shooting clip by Bethel, but gave the Threshers much more significant troubles with their work defensively, holding Bethel to just 28.2-percent shooting and a 20.7-percent mark from three-point range.
The Bears also owned a plus-three edge on the glass (49-46), and posted 15 assists on their 26 made baskets offensively, while holding the Threshers to just eight assists on their 20 makes in the 10-point win.
Onu posts performance
for the ages
With his triple-double and a career-high 29 points coming on an 11-of-21 clip from the field, Onu certainly posted arguably his best career performance — in Shawnee State’s most important game.
Along with scoring Shawnee State’s first eight opening-half points, Onu blocked four shots in the game’s first seven minutes, and added in four additional blocks over the final five first-half minutes — helping SSU overcome 8-3 and 20-17 deficits.
In the second half, the Bears’ offense heated up behind the excellent work of Onu, who again scored eight consecutive Shawnee State points — this time over a three-minute span (11:51 to 8:51 in the second half) that put the Bears up by a 48-41 margin.
When Bethel rallied with an 8-0 spurt to put the Threshers up by a 49-48 tally, Onu, again, took over — scoring seven straight points in the middle of a 14-5 Shawnee State run that put SSU back in front by a 62-54 score.
The Bears then kept the lead for good — with Onu’s seven straight points from the 4:24 to 2:22 marks of the second half being immensely critical in the outcome.
For his career, Onu now has 1,556 points, 843 rebounds and 509 blocks — with his 10 denials on Thusday allowing him to eclipse the 500-career block plateau.
He joined Tyler Morgan (1,779) and Terrence Davison (1,689) as the only players in SSU men’s basketball history to exceed 1,550 career points, and his 843 rebounds are just eight behind Mark Bryant’s 851 for third on that all-time list.
big down stretch
Following Onu, Shawnee State also got huge efforts from James Jones and Donoven Carlisle, who also put together critical numbers in the 10-point SSU win.
Down the stretch, Jones was big time as the senior, who finished 7-of-14 from the field, scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half — including nine of Shawnee State’s first 12.
Jones posted four of his six rebounds in the first half — aiding Onu and company on the glass.
Carlisle, meanwhile, continued his productive work off the bench — supplying a huge 12 points and eight rebounds in 21 minutes.
The 6-8 senior from Indianapolis also posted three assists — just one off of Jones and Miles Thomas for the team lead.
Shawnee State (28-2) — winners of 24 in a row — were also aided greatly by Jakiel Wells’ six rebounds, while Kobie Johnson, Issac Abergut and Amier Gilmore combined for 11 boards.
Thomas posted his four assists to just one turnover, leading the Bears in the assist-to-turnover ratio.
The Bears will now take on 13-seeded Jamestown (N.D.) on Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. (12 p.m. CT) in Kansas City in the Round of 8 — with the winner going to Monday’s Fab Four contest at 7 p.m. (6 p.m. CT).
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