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Wabash on verge of championship 40 years in the making

Wabash comes into Friday’s matchup with Elmhurst winners of 24 straight games. The Little Giants will look to cut down the nets one more time as they’re two wins away from a national championship. Photo Courtesy of Wabash College Athletics

Wabash College basketball is on a run that has been 40 years in the making.

The Little Giants have been through a gauntlet of teams in the NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball Tournament, and are still standing as they prepare to take on Elmhurst College in the Final Four on Friday.

Wabash opened up the tournament with a 91-79 win over No. 21 Berry. They then followed that with a 87-86 thrilling victory over No. 12 Emory on their home floor to punch their ticket to the Sweet 16.

In the round of 16 the Little Giants took down No. 22 Williams College 73-59 in which they allowed the fewest points they had all season. In arguably their toughest game of the tournament against No. 7 Illinois Wesleyan, once again in hostile territory on IWU’s home floor, the Little Giants came away with an 81-75 win to advance to the Final Four.

“This is a dream come true in a lot of ways,” Wabash coach Kyle Brumett said. “Going to the Final Four is really cool. We’re certainly grateful and not taking anything for granted. We’ve played an unbelievably tough schedule to get to this point. We had to play both host schools in the second game at each stop so there’s been some big challenges, but we have a really good team and they’re playing with a ton of confidence right now.”

What now lies ahead for the Little Giants is an Elmhurst team who holds a record of 26-6 and is ranked No. 16 right behind Wabash who sits at No. 15. The Bluejays knocked off No. 6 Mary Hardin-Baylor in the Elite Eight 87-84 in OT.

Elmhurst is led by senior guard Jake Rhode who averages 17,6 points per game. Fellow senior Lavon Thomas controls the paint while standing a 6’5 and averaging 12.2 points and grabs five rebounds. Wesley Hooker rounds out the double-figuring scoring for the Bluejays with 11.5 a contest. Elmhurst much like the Little Giants love to push the tempo and average nearly 82 points per game.

Wabash meanwhile scores 89.8 a game and will put their 24-game winning streak on the line.

“They’re on a run of their own,” Brumett said of the Bluejays. “They won a very good league and it’s going to be another challenge for us.”

The guard combination of Jack Davidson and Tyler Watson who Brumett has called ‘the best back court in the country’ have been working for this opportunity for the past four years. The duo talked about the journey that the Little Giants have been on during their tournament run.

“We’ve just had to take things game by game,” Watson said. “There’s definitely no looking ahead to Saturday as we’re locked in on Elmhurst. We’re excited that there’s a buzz around what we’re doing because it hasn’t been done in 40 years. I’m just excited that I get to go out there and play one more game with my teammates.”

Davidson who has been the leader both on and off the court for Wabash this season echoed Brumett’s comment’s about the high level opponents that the Little Giants have knocked off on their way.

“We’ve had the toughest road of the four teams left,” he said. “I think that will serve us well coming into this weekend. I wouldn’t want it any other way for us. To make it to the Final Four you’re going to have to beat the best and to be the best you have to beat the best as well. Our tough non-conference schedule I think helped prepare us for this tournament.”

Brumett was confident he could get his team playing their best down the stretch of the regular season. That stretch carried over into the North Coast Athletic Conference Tournament and has now carried over into the NCAA Tournament.

“At this level you hope that great play carries over into March and we’re thankful that it has,” Brumett said. “The thing that is I’m most proud of is that we’re still getting better and continuing to play at such a high level. It doesn’t look these guys have any mental fatigue on the improvement side.”

The support that Wabash has received during this run has been something special to watch. Not only from former players, Wabash students, faculty and alumni, but the Division III hoops community has started to take major notice of what the Little Giants are accomplishing. The entire city of Crawfordsville has also embraced the Little Giants and supported them the entire way.

“We love living here in Crawfordsville and my wife and I have appreciated the relationships that we’ve built here,” Brumett said. “That makes what we’re doing even more special. Having Coach (Mac)Petty and Coach (Ron) Hendricks as a part of that has been real fun. This has been what we’ve been working for for four years now. Coach Sully (Pat Sullivan) and I believed that this could be done here.”

Both Watson and Davidson also made notice of the support that Wabash has had no matter where they’ve had to travel in the tournament. Whether it be a 10 hour trip down to Atlanta, Georgia or just a two-hour trip across state lines to Illinois Wesleyan, the Wabash faithful have made their presence felt and the duo is expecting the same thing Friday.

“Our fans have been incredible,” Davidson said. “It’s felt like we’ve played a home games even though we’ve been on the road and they’ve made a huge difference for us. I know they’re going to be awesome again for us in Fort Wayne this weekend.”

Watson added that the support he and the Little Giants are receiving will be a memory that sticks with him for the rest of his life.

“It’s something that we’re going to look back on in 30 years and be blown away with the amount of love and support that we’ve been getting,” he said. “Having that support from everyone, there’s no way that we can’t go play our hearts out for them and leave anything out on the court.”

Wabash (28-3) and Elmhurst (26-6) will get underway at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Allen War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne. The winner will play the winner of the first game between the top two teams in Division III as No. 1 Randolph Macon battles No. 2 Marietta.

The national championship game will take place at 6 p.m. Saturday.

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