The Wittenberg University men’s basketball program beat rival Wooster 88-81 in front of 2,875 fans at Pam Evans Smith Arena on Saturday night, claiming its 13th North Coast Athletic Conference championship.
While the fifth-ranked Tigers will celebrate the title, the program is focused on bigger goals, said coach Matt Croci. The Tigers celebrated Champions Night at halftime, honoring many of Wittenberg’s past great teams.
“We’ll enjoy this, anytime you can win a conference championship it’s really important for the program,” Croci said. “The reality is that there are some implied expectations in this program and winning the conference is one of them. While we’re really happy about what the guys have done, the elite teams that were back from our alumni group tonight recognize we’re not just here for conference championships. We want to finish the season strong and get into the conference tournament playing well. We don’t want to coast — we want to continue to keep our foot on the pedal.”
Wittenberg senior and Southeastern graduate Jake Bertemes scored 23 points and had a game-high seven assists. He hit a free throw late in the fourth quarter to reach 1,000 points for his career.
“It’s nice to do it at home,” Bertemes said. “We’ve got all of these fans here. A lot of people come to this game every year.”
Junior James Johnson scored a career-high 31 points for the Tigers, shooting 11-for-18 from the field and 4-for-7 from behind the 3-point line.
“We felt like we had some matchups here and there and we kind of went at them,” Croci said. “James and Jake have kind of been our guys all year with (Connor Seipel) obviously being that third guy. He and (Wooster’s Dontae Williams) were battling and kind of cancel each other out most of the time because they’re such good players. Jake and James having a good night for us was important.”
The Tigers led 35-30 at the half, but the Scots took the at 39-38 with about 17 minutes remaining. Wittenberg immediately reclaimed the lead and extended it to 12 with about four minutes remaining. Bertemes scored 15 points in the second half.
“He’s a big-game player,” Croci said. “We can game plan to a certain degree but at some point players gotta go out and make plays. In a game like this, your best players have to go out and perform well. It’s what happened at Wooster — their best players played really well up there and ours performed much better here. I’m really proud of Jake
“He’s worked and worked and added to his game,” Croci continued. “Everything he’s getting now has been earned through hard work, which is fun for him and it’s fun to watch.”
Danyon Hempy had 21 points and Keonn Scott added 20 for Wooster (17-6, 11-5).
Scots coach Steve Moore, a 1974 Wittenberg grad, was honored before the game with a piece of the old gym floor at the 1929 Fieldhouse where he played and later served as an assistant under former Tigers coach Larry Hunter.
“It was much appreciated,” he said. “I’ve got great memories of playing in that old gym and coaching with Larry Hunter. My thoughts are really about my team. Right now, I just want to try to improve and bounce back from this game.”
Wittenberg (22-1, 15-1) have won eight straight since it lost at Wooster on Jan. 18. The Tigers travel to Wabash on Wednesday and return to Springfield to host Hiram on Senior Day at 3 p.m. Saturday in their regular season finale.
“We’ve got some motivation going into the tournament,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to keep our foot on it.”
Thank you for reading the Springfield News-Sun and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.
Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Springfield News-Sun. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.