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Aurora faces daunting first test in D-III tournament

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Updated: February 28, 2013 11:41PM

As the regular season wound down, Aurora men’s basketball coach James Lancaster handled a few questions from the website

“They asked if there was any place I preferred to go if we made the NCAA tournament,” Lancaster said, laughing at the turn of events since. “I joked and I said, no, there’s just one place I don’t want to go and that’s St. Thomas.”

Naturally enough, the Northern Athletics Conference champion Spartans (22-6) find themselves opening the NCAA Division III tournament with a trip to St. Paul, Minn., on Saturday to play St. Thomas (26-1), the No. 1 team in the poll.

Two other Chicago-area teams made the field and open at home on Saturday. No. 3 North Central (24-3), who beat Augustana 70-63 for the CCIW tournament title, plays Centre (21-5). No. 22 Wheaton (20-6), who fell to North Central 59-50 in the CCIW semifinals, takes on St. Norbert (20-5).

A third CCIW team, No. 10 Illinois Wesleyan (21-5) opens at home in Bloomington against Transylvania (20-7).

Aurora, champions of the NAC South Division, earned the league’s automatic berth with a 95-71 thrashing at North Division champ Lakeland. Seniors Mark Adams and Mike Bumber stepped up with 21 points apiece. Point guard Esteban Vega, whose three tournament starts were his first of the season, had 10 points and 13 assists against Lakeland, following a 25-point game in the semifinal against Dominican.

“He really played well,” Lancaster said of Vega, who was named NAC men’s student-athlete of the week. “For the week he was awful, awful good for us. He was key.”

St. Thomas led the nation in scoring margin (82.1-61-.2) and outrebound opponents by 8.1 a game, 12th in the nation. Aurora is sixth in the nation in scoring at 84.9 ppg.

“I really think the two things that will allow us to be competitive is if we can handle their pressure, and we’ve got to be able to rebound with them,” Lancaster said. “They’re a pressing team, 40 minutes of suffocating defense, and they bring a lot of guys at you.”

St. Xavier in

The NAIA Division II tournament will be March 6-12 in Point Lookout, Mo., at the College of the Ozarks, and No. 7 St. Xavier (28-5) will be making its first appearance. The Cougars, runners-up in the CCAC, will play St. Mary (22-8) of Kansas in the first round.

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