HANOVER, IND. -- Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology will host the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference men's basketball tournament and claimed the league's regular season title with a 59-57 win at Hanover College on Saturday.
Junior Julian Strickland (Indianapolis/Pike) scored a game-high 26 points on 9-9 from the field and 4-4 from three-point range to lead the Engineer offense.
Senior Austin Weatherford (Cicero/Hamilton Heights) added 13 points, five rebounds and four assists.
Senior Nate Gissentanner (Conyers, Ga./Rockdale County) contributed eight points and eight rebounds, and senior Jon Gerken (Defiance, Ohio/Tinora) had eight points and seven boards for the Fightin' Engineers.
Ryan Nowicki led three Hanover players in double figures with 18 points. Desmond Marks added 12 points, and Drake Hendricks scored 10.
With the victory, Rose-Hulman earned hosting rights for the HCAC Tournament and secured its first outright regular season men's basketball conference championship since 1999.
Rose-Hulman will open the HCAC Tournament at Hulbert Arena on Friday at 8 p.m. and will face the winner of Tuesday's game between Franklin and Defiance. Hanover receives the second bye for the tournament, and will square off with either Transylvania or Mount St. Joseph at 6 p.m. on Friday.
The championship game between Friday's winner will take place at 7 p.m. on Saturday. The winner of the HCAC Tournament will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament that begins March 2.
Rose-Hulman started quickly by gaining a 17-9 advantage at the 11:43 mark of the first half after a free throw by Weatherford. Hanover answered with eight straight points to tie the score at 17-17, before two field goals by Gissentanner gave Rose-Hulman a 23-21 lead at the half.
In the second half, Hanover started quickly and gained a 43-32 lead with 11:33 left on a three-pointer by Brian Gunter. Rose-Hulman showcased its No. 1 nationally ranked scoring defense, however, answering with a 17-2 run over the next minutes to move ahead 49-45 at the 5:04 after two straight scores by Weatherford.
Rose-Hulman maintained the lead the rest of the way, although Hanover threatened on numerous occasions. A conventional three-point play by Ryan Nowicki at the 2:31 mark brought the Panthers to within 53-52.
The Engineers pushed the lead back to five points at 57-52 on a Weatherford driving score at the 1:38 mark. Hanover closed to within 57-54 on another Nowicki basket, but one free throw each from Strickland and Gerken pushed Rose-Hulman's edge to 59-54 with 16 seconds left.
Hanover's Drake Hendricks buried a three-pointer with four seconds left to move Hanover within 59-57. After a missed free throw, Kyle James had a desperation halfcourt shot attempt at the buzzer to win the game that fell short, securing the win for the Fightin' Engineers.
Rose-Hulman improved to 22-3 on the season, while Hanover stands 17-8 and 14-4 in conference play. The Fightin' Engineers will host a conference tournament on campus for the first time since 1997.