Junior forward Ahmoni Jones scored the final six points, all from the free-throw line in the final 21 seconds, to help the Wabash College basketball team win its first-ever North Coast Athletic Conference Championship with an 85-84 win over the College of Wooster in overtime.
The win is Wabash’s 20th straight and propels the Little Giants into the NCAA Division III Tournament for the first time since 1998. Wabash improved to 24-3 on the year and took all three games against Wooster’s Fighting Scots (19-9) for the first time since Wabash joined the NCAC in 2000.
“Wooster is really good, and I’ve got a lot of respect for what they’ve done over the last 25 years – it’s insane,” Coach said Kyle Brumett. “We really needed a game like this. Today’s game was exactly how it had to go – great team, close game, tournament atmosphere.”
Indeed, Wooster has played for the NCAC Championship in 23 of the last 25 years, but the Little Giants built big leads twice, held off several Wooster haymakers, and hit big free throws down the stretch to claim the title.
“We really fought and clawed in this one,” Brumett said. “I’ve got really good players, especially my guards. They were not super-heroes today, but they were very good.”
Wooster played sticky defense on senior guard Jack Davidson, who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player after scoring 97 points in three games. The national Player of the Year candidate got off to a slow start, but finished with 28 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists – playing all 45 minutes of the game.
Fellow senior guard Tyler Watson started hot – scoring all 16 of his points in the first half when Wabash built a 43-34 lead – but took a nasty shot to the face, which briefly sidelined him. Watson earned a spot on the All-Tournament Team.
Wooster led by five points, 18-13, seven minutes into the game. The two teams went back and forth for the next five minutes before Davidson hit a pair of three-pointers, Kellen Schreiber buried a short jumper, Davidson followed with a layup, and Watson hit a put-back bucket to put Wabash up 12, 39-27.
At that point, the roaring crowd thought the Little Giants were headed to a third straight double-digit win over the Scots. But Wooster’s guards, Najee Hardaway, Brandon Styers, and Jamir Billings, and big men, Elijah Meredith and Turner Kurt, never backed down.
Trailing by nine at the break, 43-34, Wooster stormed back behind Hardaway’s two three-pointers in the opening four minutes of the second half, outscoring Wabash 10-0 to start the half.
Wabash’s Jones calming sank a three-pointer to stop the bleeding and two more three-pointers by Davidson helped Wabash open up another 10-point lead at the 12:30 mark.
But Meredith and Styers each hit threes and it was game-on.
The Little Giants could never shake the Scots from there, and Wooster completed yet another comeback when Kurt sunk an easy layup with 3:08 to play. Kurt’s fellow 6-8 center, Nick Everett, gave the Scots a two-point lead at 2:14 and the teams traded baskets from there.
“Wooster always presents a lot of non-Division III problems,” Brumett said. “They are enormous and have two really good centers. To out-rebound them today is one reason we were able to claw out an overtime win. We won the second-chance points by three, and we won the game by one – that’s the difference. “
Wabash appeared to have the game in the bag when Jones hit a jumper and a free throw to put the Little Giants up 73-70 with just over a minute to play. But Everett hit his own bucket and free throw with 48 seconds left to send the game to overtime tied at 73-all.
Both teams struggled to put points on the board in overtime. Davidson scored Wabash’s first six points in the extra period on a layup and four free throws. But it was Jones with ice in his veins, who calmly sank all six free throws in the final 21 seconds – as Wooster fouled him on a fast break and twice in desperation.
“Ahmoni got to the line three times late – the biggest ones of his career,” Brumett said proudly of the junior who struggled with knee injuries over the last three weeks. “Just having him out there – 28 minutes last night and 36 minutes tonight… he played great and looked healthy.”
Schreiber had a dozen points and five rebounds, while starting point guard Edreece Redmond scored seven points. Freshman Jesse Hall hit all three of his shots for six points in 14 minutes.
Coach Brumett praised back-up guard Vinny Buccilla. The rookie pulled down five rebounds and had a steal. “Vinnie came in and played for 20 minutes,” Brumett said. “He didn’t score, but we outscored them by 19 when he was on the floor.”
Wooster got balanced scoring from its lineup with Hardaway scoring 18, Meredith 17, and Styers 14. Everett had 13 off the bench, and Kurt had 10 points and a team-high nine boards.
Wabash will have to wait until Monday to know whether they’ll host a first-round NCAA tournament game or hit the road. The selection committee will announce the field of 64 teams at 12:30 pm
Brumett knows it’s hard to make the tournament. It’s been 24 years since Wabash was last in the field, and 40 years since the Little Giants ran the table over the final 19 games to win the College’s national championship.
“It’s really hard to put into words. Just to see all the hugs and smiles out there,” Brumett said, his voice trailing off. “A lot of things went right for us tonight.”