- Doug Harris Contributing Writer
Wittenberg basketball coach Matt Croci believes in working on late-game situations extensively. And while the players may not always understand why they go over every conceivable scenario in practice, it certainly came in handy in the third game of the year.
Croci drew up his full-court out-of-bounds play while tied with Capital with two seconds left. And sophomore Jake Bertemes caught a baseball pass from freshman Rashaad Ali-Shakir and scored the winning points on a left-handed scoop just before the horn sounded.
“You can go a whole season and not have that situation come up, but you have to prepare for it anyway,” Croci said. “I’m proud of the guys for executing. It was a really good in-bounds pass, and Jake made a heckuva catch and had the poise to see no one was in front of him and not panic.”
The Tigers have ripped off eight straight victories to start the season, and if they continue their torrid ways, they might look at that conquest over an Ohio Conference stalwart as a turning point.
“We were still trying to figure out who we are, and Capital is a really good team. It was back and forth the entire time,” Croci said. “For us to finish it off, it gives us the confidence that if we face that again, we’re not going to wonder, ‘Can we do it?’ We’ve already done it.”
While the second-year coach is cautious about making too much of the 8-0 record, the Tigers could be poised for a breakthrough season after going 18-9 last year. They have two reliable post players in Chad Roy, a 6-foot-11, 240-pound senior from Toledo, and Connor Seipel, a 6-6, 220-pound sophomore from Columbus.
Roy averages 13.8 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds, and Seipel 12.9 and 5.8.
“We talk about playing inside-out,” Croci said. “Even though we feel good about our guards and how well they can score, we still want to throw the ball inside first and make everybody guard us at the rim, and then we’ll play from there. Those guys have delivered.”
Giving the team an unexpected boost is 6-0 junior point guard Mitchell Balser, a Centerville product who played two seasons at Wooster before transferring. He’s averaging 12.9 points and a team-best 3.3 assists.
“Mitch has had a big impact just from his competitiveness. It helps that he can shoot and handle the ball and do some skill-type things, but his biggest strength is his vocal leadership. He brings it every day, and the guys want to follow him,” Croci said.
The Tigers are one of the top offensive teams in Division III, averaging 80.9 points and shooting 50.7 percent from the field. And they don’t seem to mind who does the scoring because they’re averaging a robust 17 assists.
“They really share the ball, and it’s making us hard to guard,” Croci said.
The Tigers visit Heidelberg (4-4) at 3 p.m. Wednesday. After a break for Christmas, they’ll host the Kiwanis/Wittenberg Holiday Classic on Dec. 29-30. The other participants are Marietta, Hanover and Ohio University-Chillicothe.
They’re already 4-0 in the NCAC and will start facing conference foes again Jan. 3 with a trip to Kenyon.
“Even though we lost a lot from last year, I thought we had a chance to be good,” Croci said. “It was really going to be about chemistry and teamwork, and they’ve bought in and been a joy to coach.”