WOOSTER, OH – The road to another Wabash trip to the NCAA Tournament will be on the road, and at a familiar place, as the Little Giants lost a 75-74 thriller to Wooster in a battle for a share of the league championship and home court advantage.
A three-point field goal by the Scots Turner Kurt at the buzzer gave Wooster the win, the outright NCAC championship, and home court for the final two rounds of the conference tournament next week.
The Little Giants erased a 13-point deficit in the final seven minutes. A Josh Whack field goal in the lane with 2.4 seconds left gave Wabash a 74-72 lead, the first time they had been in front since 24-22 in the first half.
The Scots had the length of the floor to travel, and had to get a shot. A long pass was tipped out of bounds at the Wooster offensive end, and with that out of bounds, the Scots had time to set for a play to either tie or shoot for the win.
Kurt, a minimal three-point shooter, but accurate, took the inbounds pass, faked in one direction, lost his defensive man for a second, and let it fly.
The ball went through the net as the buzzer sounded, and the Wooster fans stormed the floor, while the Wooster coaches let out a deeply held breath.
“We had a chance to win a championship,” Wabash coach Kyle Brumett said. “We put ourselves with a two-point lead with two seconds left, and that’s what we’ve built this program to be, to be a championship program. We’ve modeled ourselves to be like these guys (Wooster). There is no one we have tried to be more like than the Wooster Scots.”
Three Final Four banners in less than 20 years for the Scots, and now hosting yet another NCAC tournament, testifies to their success.
“We have worked really hard to be in a (championship) position, and I’m really proud of the unbelievable effort that our guys gave,” Brumett continued. “When you say ‘Wabash always fights,’ we definitely did that today.”
That fight was especially tough in those last seven minutes.
The game had not gone the Little Giants way for most of the afternoon.
The visitors jumped out to an early lead, but chilled shooting and 11 points off of nine Wabash turnovers spelled a 34-30 halftime lead for Wooster.
A 10-2 run to start the second half by the Scots really gave their crowd a buzz, and while the Wabash turnovers stopped in the second half, missed free throws kept a couple points from turning into a scoring streak.
It was 64-51 after the only turnover points of the second half, and the clock read 7:05. Things looked grim, and Wabash fans had to start thinking about a return trip to Wooster next weekend instead of hosting the last rounds like last season.
But then, things changed.
“Wabash started scoring points with the clock stopped,” Wooster coach Doug Cline said, “and they had the attitude of last year’s Final Four team that they just wouldn’t lose.”
Ahmoni Jones, who had struggled to get an open look, now got to the line. The junior, who led the conference and is 18th in the nation in free throw shooting, went 6-of-6.
Vinny Buccilla was Everyman, as the sophomore dropped two free throws, then hit a three, came up with a huge backcourt steal that Sam Comer turned into a bucket, and then tied the score at 72 on a driving layin.
The Scots missed a three, and Whack’s floater in the lane gave the Little Giants the lead.
The last two seconds, though, went Wooster’s way, and they will stay at home for the conference semi’s and finals.
“We did almost no subbing those last seven minutes,” Brumett said. “Our guys played hard and with great joy, emotion and energy. We will be greedy Monday, and look at the first half turnovers, the missed free throws. We don’t expect every Wabash guy to shoot free throws like Jack Davidson, but we certainly can and need to shoot 75/76 percent from the line. It’s those little things we have to clean up if we want to be the best. The awesome thing is that we did those things the last seven minutes.”
Wabash finished 18-of-27 from the stripe, and had one second-half turnover.
Leading the way for the Little Giants was Buccilla with 26 points. The sophomore was solid all game, with 12 points in the first half and 14 in the second. “He played like a Conference Player of the Year,” Brumett said, “and he will be - he’s that good.”
Jones finished with 14 points, including a 10-of-10 outing at the line. Whack had 12. For the game, Wabash was 46 percent from the floor, only 26 percent from long range.
Kurt was the leading scorer for Wooster, finishing with 16, six better than his season average. He was 2-of-2 from three-point range, including the game-winner.
Wooster finished 45 percent from the field, 43 percent from deep and 59 percent from the line.
The win ends a four-game Wabash win streak over the Scots. No team has won five straight over Wooster since 1990.
“It’s hard to get down 13 to such a good team,” Brumett said, “in a hostile environment and a place where they have won so much. Give Wooster credit for finding a way to win, and give our guys credit for handling the environment really well. Wooster has won so much here, and they expect to win here. We are trying to change that.”
Both teams will host a Tuesday first-round NCAC game. The Little Giants, as the No. 2 seed, will host Hiram, the No. 7 seed, at Chadwick Court.
“Tuesday is the most important game next week,” Brumett said. “In 2020, we were the No. 2 seed and lost to Denison, and it was the worst feeling of my coaching career.”
With a win, it is a trip back to Wooster next Friday and Saturday for the semis and finals, with the league automatic NCAA bid on the line.