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Wittenberg earns third NCAA tournament berth in four years

Wittenberg men’s basketball coach Bill Brown watched the NCAA Division III selection show Monday afternoon with about 10 of his players at the HPER Center. Anyone who didn’t have class was there to watch the show on a projection screen.

Brown and the Tigers weren’t sure what to think as the selection show approached. After their 71-63 loss to Wooster on Saturday in the North Coast Athletic Conference championship game, the Tigers needed some help from the selection committee in the form of an at-large berth.

Around 12:35 p.m., that’s what they got. When they saw the Wittenberg name flash on the screen and learned their season has a second life, Brown said the players let out a collective yelp.

“We’re really excited,” Brown said. “The seniors have been there three out of four years. That’s pretty good stuff. We’re really excited for them.”

The 22nd-ranked Tigers (21-7) will play unranked Calvin College (22-5) in the first round Friday on the campus of Washington University in Saint Louis at 6:30 p.m.

Wittenberg is 5-1 all-time against Calvin in the NCAA tournament, but the teams haven’t played since 1995. Calvin earned an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament by beating Hope 78-53 Saturday in the championship game of the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association.

Washington (22-3) will play Wilmington College in the other game Friday at 9 p.m., and the winners will play at 8 p.m. Saturday in Saint Louis for a spot in the sweet 16. Wilmington, which beat Miami this season, won the Ohio Athletic Conference championship Saturday, 69-63 over John Carroll, for its second NCAA berth in five years.

Wittenberg will make its 27th NCAA tournament appearance, the most in Division III history, and its third in four years. Last year, it missed the tournament. Three years ago, it lost in the second round to Marietta. In 2012, the Tigers lost to Illinois Wesleyan in the final eight.

This year’s senior class is the first since the 2006 group to make the tournament three times in four years.

Wittenberg is one of three teams from the NCAC in the same section of the bracket. Wooster (25-3) will host Saint Vincent (22-6) in the first round, and Ohio Wesleyan (20-7) will play Saint Norbert (24-1) at Illinois Wesleyan. After beating Wittenberg twice in the regular season and then losing to the Tigers in the NCAC semifinals, DePauw did not make the tournament.

Wittenberg, which swept Ohio Wesleyan in the regular season, could meet the Battling Bishops in the Sweet 16. The Tigers wouldn’t play the Scots until the final eight if both teams made it that far.

Brown hopes the strength of the NCAC prepared his team for a run in March.

“Our league is just really good,” he said. “I think that it toughens people up. It’s prepared us pretty well.”

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