For 12 minutes tonight, Morningside College of Iowa and its fans were flying as high as the plane that brought them here. The little school from Sioux City had a nine-point lead and was threatening to run away from defending NCAA Division II champion University of the District of Columbia.
But then Morningside came back to earth. In the last eight minutes of the first half, UDC's tenacious defense started a 32-11 run and the Firebirds cruised to a 92-77 semifinal victory before 3,862 at the Civic Center.
Earlier, Wright State had rallied from an eight-point deficit in the first half to stun California State-Bakersfield, 57-50. UDC (29-2) will play Wright State (27-4) for the title Saturday at 8 p.m.
In the Division II women's championship game at 6, defending champion Cal-Poly Pomona (29-2) faces Virginia Union (26-2).
To no one's surprise, UDC's Earl Jones, named the Division II player of the year, scored 29 points and teammate Micheal Britt 26. What was surprising was that Morningside held a 14-3 lead with the game seven minutes old. The Firebirds made only one of their first 11 shots, were outrebounded by the shorter Chiefs and were shaky on defense.
"We weren't flat at all," said Coach Wil Jones. "Morningside just shot the ball very well. We missed ours."
UDC, which hasn't lost in 1983, has now gone 24 without defeat.
The Firebirids trailed, 23-14, with 9:02 to play in the first half before three scoring runs all but did in the Chiefs.
Using a full-court press throughout, the Firebirds began to force turnovers and fatigue. Reserve guards Hawkeye Daniels and Neal Robertson teamed for four steals and disrupted the Chiefs' offense. Robertson, who had eight points, scored back-to-back baskets following steals and Jones made two 10-footers during an 11-0 run that sent the Firebirds charging ahead, 25-24.
"They had great quickness at the guard position," said Morningside Coach Dan Callahan. "Jones and Britt just stay down low and the other three players put a lot of pressure on you out front. I probably should have rotated my guards some more because they got a little too much pressure handling the ball."
Four more forced errors, three by Robertson, resulted in a 17-4 streak and a 44-31 lead with 1:20 left before intermission. Jones, who had 21 points that half, had no problem scoring over his shorter defenders and got eight of those 17 points.
"We used that run and jump defense on their guards and that did it," said Britt, who also had 14 rebounds, seven assists, five steals and three blocked shots. "I'm glad Slim (Jones) was hot early. When he got in foul trouble, I was able to get more involved in the offense."
Jones was called for his fourth foul early in the second half and Morningside scored 10 straight points to cut UDC's 16-point lead to 67-61 with 8:48 to play. Coach Jones rushed his 7-foot center back into the game and the Firebirds retook command.
"They didn't have anyone inside who could stop me from getting the shot I wanted," said Jones, who made 11 of 18. "Once we calmed down and played good defense, we could do what we wanted."
Jones got only one basket in the final seven minutes, but Britt scored 10 points on a variety of shots, the last a bank shot while falling under the press table. That put the Firebirds up, 82-67, with four minutes to play.
"We got a good effort from our reserves again," said Jones. "Hawkeye, Neal, James Neal all played very well. But we've gotten play from them all year. Morningside played well."
The Firebirds were outrebounded, 43-41, but they forced 22 turnovers and kept the Chiefs off the free throw line, limiting them to seven of 10.
Britt and Jones also had plenty of help. Johnny Jones had 10 points, Daniels and Robertson eight each.
In the other game, Wright State trailed, 24-16, before rallying on the shooting of Gary Monroe, formerly of the District's Theodore Roosevelt High School, who had 13 points, and Fred Moore, who got 20. The Raiders, ahead by three at halftime, led by seven with 11 minutes to play before going to a delay game.
Bakersfield closed to 51-48 with 1:03 to play but Moore and Mike Grote each made two free throws to assure Wright State a berth in the final.