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Little Giants heading to Final Four with 81-75 win

Wabash will take on Elmhurst College in the National Semi-Finals on Friday at 7:30 at the Allen War Memorial Coliseum in Ft. Wayne for a chance to play in the National Championship game on Saturday night. Photo Courtesy of Wabash College Athletics

BLOOMINGTON, Illinois — Wabash College freshman Vinny Buccilla hit a three-point basket with 40 seconds left to put his team up by nine points and seal the NCAA Division III Men’s Tournament Sectional Championship for the Little Giants.

The 81-75 victory over Illinois Wesleyan sends Wabash to the tournament semifinals for the first time since the Little Giants won the national title in 1982.

Wabash (28-3) trailed the host Titans (24-6) by two points at 62-60 with 7:33 left in the game before outscoring Illinois Wesleyan 19-13. Buccilla’s dagger capped a six-point run by the Little Giants after the Titans has closed the gap to three points on a pair of Matthew Leritz free throws.

“An incredible game,” Wabash head coach Kyle Brumett said. “Starting with the atmosphere, our crowd, our following. And then you come here. There were some flashbacks. I played here, sitting on the bench when Dave Benner came here and played a really tough Illinois Wesleyan team that went on to win the national championship. We have used Illinois Wesleyan as the barometer for what we’re trying to become The game lived up to what it was advertised. I was just proud of how we gritted our teeth when we needed to and now after tonight, I think we’re about as battle tested as anyone.”

Tyler Watson joined Jack Davidson and Brumett at the post-game press conference and wanted nothing more than to sing the praises of the rest of his teammates especially Buccilla.

“That’s the good thing about playing with great teammates like this because you know they’ll either knock it down or give it right back to you” Watson said. “I’m really proud of Vinny. He was huge for us today and he’s only a freshman. Some days you just don’t know with us who is going to take the big shot, but we have a ton of guys who are willing and that speaks to our confidence and togetherness.”

Wabash jumped out quickly to a 10-0 lead in the first three minutes of the game. Illinois Wesleyan quickly recovered and drew even at 14-14 with 11:04 remaining in the first period. The Little Giants regained a six-point lead with five minutes left in the half only to see IWU pull in front by as many as eight points at 37-29. Jack Davidson nailed a three-point shot to make it a five-point game with 1:31 on the first-half clock. The Titans scored with 34 seconds remaining but Ahmoni Jones answered with a fall-away basket from the left baseline just before the halftime buzzer sounded to keep the game at five points at 39-34.

The Little Giants got off to another good start in the second half, tying the score at 45-45 three minutes into the final period. The two teams traded leads until the midway point of the period when a two-pointer from Luke Yoder and a basket by Ryan Sroka pushed IWU back in front 60-55. Jones hit a free throw ahead of two free throws from Kellen Schreiber and a layup from Schreiber after a flagrant foul call against IWU. That series evened the score at 60-60 with eight minutes left to play.

Yoder scored a pair of free throws before Davidson answered with four straight free throws to put Wabash back in front 62-64. Buccilla made it a five-point lead for the Little Giants with the first of his two three-point baskets in the game. Wabash maintained the 5- to 6-point margin until Buccilla’s shot in the final minute to put the Little Giants up nine.

Davidson led all scorers with 29 points, scoring 18 in the second half. He also grabbed seven rebounds. Tyler Watson finished with 18 points, five assists, and eight rebounds. Schreiber scored 13 second-half points as part of a 15-point effort for the game. Jones added 11 points and Buccilla chipped in eight points.

“Kellen is a beast,” Brumett said of Schreiiber who finished with a plus-minus of +16. “They really presented a lot of problems for us, but Kellen is the answer to most of those problems because we can hit him in the middle and we know it’s very likely he’s going to finish. We were able to have him out there the entire second half, and he was a huge difference for us.”

Lentz led Illinois Wesleyan with 21 points. Yoder added 20 points for the Titans.

Wabash plays Elmhurst College in the second semifinal game of the DIII Men’s Tournament at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne. Randolph-Macon College and Marietta College play in the first semifinal game at 5 p.m. The two winning teams will play for the 2022 Division III Men’s Championship at 6 p.m. Saturday.

“This is what we’ve been working for and it makes it that much more special that we get to do it in Fort Wayne,” Davidson said. “It just really means the world to us.”

Watson added while the hard work on the court has paid off with this Final Four run, it’s all the hours put it away from the games that make this run even more special.

“Friday night’s when we might want to go out, we’re trying to get 10-12 guys to go work out and run open gym,” Watson said. “We all love each other and talk with one another about how we’re going to get this thing done. We had to lose before we learned how to win. I’m just proud of these guys and proud of this team.”

Brumett ended the press conference by praising the entire Wabash team which included his coaching staff, players and everyone who has helped put this magical season together for the Little Giants.

“When Tyler joined us after Jack’s freshman year, we knew that we knew that we were going to have something special,” Brumett said. “It was hard figuring out how to put all of the pieces of the puzzle together, but we have a beautiful puzzle. Coach Pat Sullivan has stuck with me because he believed that we can get to the final four. You get where we are because of guys like we have who want to work. They have laid it all on the line and deserve this and it’s an amazing feeling.”

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