Winning streak brings back memories for Wittenberg’s Croci

9:57 a.m. Friday, Feb. 9, 2018 Sports
Wittenberg’s Matt Croci coaches against DePauw on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018, at Pam Evans Smith Arena in Springfield. David Jablonski/Staff

Wittenberg Tigers coach Matt Croci has heard from a number of his former college teammates — Aaron Perry, Anthony Robinson and Luke Ragan, for example — as his team approaches the school record for consecutive victories.

The streak reached 22 games Wednesday with an 84-72 victory against Wabash at Pam Evans Smith Arena. It’s now the second-longest winning streak in school history. The Tigers passed the 1988-89 team, coached by Larry Hunter, that started 21-0.

The third-ranked Tigers need four more wins to tie the school and North Coast Athletic Conference record Croci and his Witt teammates set in 1993-94. His teammates won’t celebrate if Croci doesn’t get it.

“They said they would feel less good about it if I wasn’t the coach,” Croci said. “They don’t want somebody else to break the record.”

» RELATED: Freshman playing key roles for Wittenberg

The Tigers (22-0, 15-0) still have three big challenges in the regular season just to get a chance to play for the record in the NCAC tournament. They face the three teams directly behind them in the standings in the final three games.

Wittenberg travels to fourth-place Hiram (13-9, 9-6) at 2 p.m. Saturday. The Tigers play at third-place Ohio Wesleyan (15-7, 10-5) at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. They close the regular season at home against second-place and 23rd-ranked Wooster (18-4, 12-3) at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 17.

Twenty four years ago, Wittenberg won 26 straight games before losing 84-78 to Kenyon in the NCAC championship game. Croci remembers several close calls during that winning streak. He played a big part in keeping Wittenberg unbeaten for so long.

In December that season, Croci hit a 3-pointer with 32 seconds left to send the game to overtime at Hope College, and the Tigers won 87-77. In January against Wooster, hit a 3-point bank shot from the top of the key as time expired to give Wittenberg a 67-64 victory.

» EARLIER COVERAGE: Ten things to know about winning streak

Croci remembers how coach Bill Brown, then in his first season, approached that season. Wittenberg hired Brown in May 1993 when Dan Hipsher left for Stetson.

“He knew he had a really good team,” Croci said said. “He knew he had a lot of talented guys. He was trying to put us in the right spots and let us go. It’s very similar to what I’m doing with these guys.”

Even though he’s the coach now and said he has less control over the game once the ball gets tipped than he did when he was playing, Croci said this season and this team reminds him of his senior year.

“When I see the personality of our team,” Croci said, “and how well they get along and play together and the energy and how they just love to compete, those things are very similar to my team.”

Croci averaged 18.9 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.9 assists as a senior that season. He was named a third-team All-American. He ended his career with 1,289 points and ranks 13th in school history in scoring.

» GAME STORIES: Tigers beat Oberlin to reach 21-0Witt 20-0 after beating KenyonWittenberg beats Denison for 19th winWittenberg shows grit in 18th victory

Ragan led the team in rebounds in 1993-94. Robinson was the assists leader. Croci, Ragan and Perry were team captains. Croci, Robinson and Aaron Smith made the All-NCAC first team.

After losing to Kenyon, Wittenberg won three NCAA tournament games before losing 93-83 in overtime in the Final Four to Lebanon Valley, which went on to win the national championship. The team’s star was Mike Rhoades, who’s now the head coach at VCU.

Wittenberg will have to wait to think about the NCAA tournament this year, though it’s in good shape to make the field with an at-large berth if it doesn’t win the NCAC tournament. The Tigers rank No. 1 in the Great Lakes Region, and every other team in the region has at least four losses.

Wittenberg and No. 1 Whitman (22-0) remain the only undefeated teams in Division III. The Tigers hope to keep the streak going as long as they can. Alumni have the same hopes.

“The winning is great,” Croci said, “but our alumni are just proud of how we play.”