For the 2nd straight season the Wabash College Little Giants are the North Coast Athletic Conference champions. They edged out Wooster 81-80 and punched their ticket to the Division III Tournament which begins the first weekend of March. PHOTO COURTESY OF WABASH COLLEGE ATHLETICS
WOOSTER – Twelve lead changes. Eight ties down the stretch. Outcome riding on a last-second shot.
That’s part of how No. 1 seed Wooster and No. 2 seed Wabash battled it out for the NCAC tournament championship and automatic bid to the NCAA Division III national tournament on Saturday. When the final buzzer sounded, the Little Giants emerged victorious 81-80. But it took every last ounce of effort to win it.
“We got out of here (Wooster) just short a week ago,” said Wabash Head Coach Kyle Brumett after the triumph. “They (the team) really wanted to get this game back.”
In many respects, the NCAC championship tilt was a flipped image of last Saturday’s regular season conference showdown, where Wooster won 75-74 with a last-second three-point shot. Wooster led by as much as 13 points in that contest. The Little Giants came clawing back to take a two-point lead with two seconds remaining, only to lose on the final shot.
This time it was Wabash starting quickly out of the gate. Red-hot offensively, the visitors hit on 6 of 7 field goals, including 5-5 from beyond the three-point arc, to take an early 12-point lead at the 16:11 mark in the first half. Freshman center Gavin Schippert led the way, scoring 17 points early. The Little Giants extended their advantage to 17 (34—17) on an Edreece Redmond 3-pointer with 8:24 in the first.
But Wooster fought back, time and time again. The Scots closed the gap to 6 points at halftime, down 48-42.
Coming out of intermission, at first the battle was like the game’s opening in reverse. Turner Kurt, Elijah Meredith and Jamir Billings all hit baskets and the game was tied 50-all at the 17:56 mark. Wabash responded with a 15-3 spurt, with key baskets coming from Ahmoni Jones, Champ McCorkle, and Edreece Redmond.
“Edreece played great,” Brumett said. “He was incredible defensively.” The coach credited Redmond’s aggressive defense in contributing to 13 Wooster turnovers in the contest.
Wabash had a 65-53 lead with 13:28 remaining. Again, Wooster battled from behind to catch the Little Giants. Kurt, Meredith, Billings and Nick Everett all contributed to a 13-0 Fighting Scots streak that propelled the home team to its first-ever lead, 66-65, with 10:02 to go. Then the contest turned into a back-and-forth tussle which saw neither team ahead by more than 3 points approaching the final stretch.
Like two heavyweight boxers still slugging it out approaching Round 15, Wabash and Wooster took turns hitting shots, making free throws, and stopping their opponent with good defense. Baskets from Josh Whack, Styles McCorkle, and pairs of successful free throws from Jones and Vinny Buccilla. Gave Wabash a 76-75 advantage with 6:21 remaining.
From there defense took over. Both teams missed consecutive shots, and defensive rebounds ruled the floor. No one scored for more than three minutes, until Billings landed a 3-pointer to give Wooster a 78-76 edge with 1:46 remaining.
Redmond grabbed an offensive rebound on a Sam Comer miss, converted it into two points on a lay-up as Wooster fouled him, and made it a three-point play by nailing the free throw. Trailing 79-78, Meredith hit two charity tosses to give the home team an 80-79 lead with 21 seconds remaining.
That was more than enough time for the Little Giants. Jones connected on a turnaround jumper in the paint to put Wabash on top 81-80 with just 10 clicks remaining on the clock.
But Wabash had been at this point against Wooster before, just a week earlier. Lockdown defense from Edmonds led to a Billings miss, the ball sailing out of bounds, with less than a second remaining. The Little Giants successfully in-bounded from their own end to seal the triumph.
“This team has a much WAF (Wabash Always Fights) in them as I’ve ever seen,” Brumett said after the game. “We got 23 points off of turnovers, but we still knew we had to get that last stop.”
Wabash ended the game shooting 51% from the field, 48% from three-point territory, and 86% from the free throw line. Wooster had 14 3-pointers – ten of them from a red-hot Billings –but only 18 points in the paint compared to 24 for the Little Giants, despite the Fighting Scots’ height advantage.
The victory puts Wabash basketball into the NCAA Division III playoffs for the second consecutive season. The last time that happened was in 1996-97 and 1997-98, in the era of Chad Tabor and when Wabash was in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference.
While thrilled with the automatic qualifying bit to the playoffs, Brumett believes Wooster deserved to be in the DIII dance as well “Two teams from the NCAC should be in every year,” he said. “This conference is a basketball power conference. You see it in our records. DePauw finished 6th in the conference, but had 18 wins on the season.”
NCAC CHAMPIONSHIP TOURNAMENT HONORS
Al Van Wie Award (Most Outstanding Player):
Ahmoni Jones (Wabash) - 31 points between semifinal and championship game. Double-double in semifinal with 12 rebounds. Nineteen rebounds between semifinal and championship game.
Edreece Redmond (Wabash) - 27 points between semifinal and championship game. Seven assists and four steals.
Jamir Billings (Wooster) - Career-high 30 points in championship game, broke program's 26-year-old single-game record for three-pointers with 10, 120th 30-point game in program history, and became first Fighting Scot with two seasons with 140+ assists over the weekend.
Nick Everett (Wooster) -- 19 points in the championship game.
Ricky Radtke - led Denison with 21 points in the semifinals.