A week ago Saturday, the Central Lakes College Raiders scored their signature victory of the season.
Ranked No. 4 at the time in NJCAA Division III, the Raiders beat No. 2 Rochester in front of a frenzied crowd. One could understand if the Raiders would have had an emotional letdown since then.
CLC's response has been anything but. All the Raiders have done since that emotional win is to sweep their two division games, and outscore their opponents 198-123.
On Saturday, before a crowd that was far less frenzied than last week, the Raiders outscored Riverland by 38 in the first half and emptied their bench in the second on their way to a 120-74 win in a Southern Division game.
The Raiders also moved up one spot and are now No. 3 in the Division III poll.
Marcus Ayala took his game to another level as he dropped 22 points on the Blue Devils in just 18 minutes and went 6-for-7 from behind the arc. Maurice Hernandez came off the bench to score 16 points and ignited the crowd with a long 3-pointer at the buzzer to end the first half.
CLC coach Jim Russell explained the approach that his team has been taking.
"We are trying to take one game at a time and have fun every game," he said. "Let's not make it at the end of the game, lets enjoy the 40 minutes.
"These guys have been very good at just having fun. They are making the extra pass. They are doing all the little things that it takes to win, and if we continue to do that we should be in pretty good shape."
To find the reason for the Raiders' dominance Saturday you only have to look at one stat. CLC's bench outscored the Blue Devils' bench 59-4. CLC had 12 players in the scoring column.
Russell said the minutes that his bench is now getting is providing valuable experience for the postseason.
"When you get to the tournament you play three games in a row, and when you do that and have the intensity that you want, you have to have a bench," he said.
"Maurice could pretty much be a starter for us, but he has accepted his role coming off the bench and has done a great job. Most teams don't realize that when you go to your bench you normally lose ground. We don't do that. We gain some because Maurice is such a scoring threat."
Hernandez is happy to be part of this team and talked about the bond that he has with teammates.
"I love this team," he said. "We are all like brothers here and part of a big family. It is a lot of fun around the locker room and practice. Our bench goes really deep and we all get each other the ball."
CLC started the game with a 24-16 run in the first 8:30. After a Riverland timeout, the Raiders went on a 10-3 run to lead 34-19 with 8:33 left in the half. After another Blue Devils timeout, CLC finished the half on a 35-12 tear to take a 69-31 lead.
Ayala was 5-for-5 on his 3-point attempts in the first and was followed by Hernandez with 13. The Raiders also won the turnover battle 13-5.
"I was feeling pretty good tonight and my shot was coming back," Hernandez said. "These games now are a little easier than Rochester, and I think we are doing really good."
CLC built its lead in the second, and Russell was able to unload his bench halfway through the second. The Raiders didn't skip a beat when the second team was on the floor, and Russell gives much of that credit to the return of John Hicks.
"John is back with us now and he is really a good floor general," Russell said. "He makes sure people are doing what they are supposed to do. He's another great player who has accepted his role as a bench player.
"The reason that we have had success is that players have excepted what they are supposed to do, and they are doing it with a little bit extra."
Riverland 31 43 - 74
Central Lakes 69 51 - 120
DeAaron Hearn 24, Josh Davis 12, Chris Jahr 4, Densel Smith 9, Nicco Montomery 17, Richard Burch 8. FG 23-76 (30 percent), FT 20-27 (74 percent). Rebounds: 45. Turnovers: 25.
Marcus Ayala 22, John Hicks 11, Nash Faulk 13, Ronnie Kornbaum 8, Maurice Hernandez 16, Kendall Brown 9, Kwamaine Johnson 10, Nick Grewe 7, Anthony Kelley 7, Justin Doyle 9, Steven Halwood 6, Ryan Mills 2. FG 46-93 (50 percent). FT 11-22 (50 percent). Rebounds: 60. Turnovers: 18.