Wittenberg poses for a team photo after winning the NCAC championship by beating Wooster on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, at Wooster's Timken Gymnasium.
Photo: Submitted
Photo: Submitted

Mitch Balser after Wittenberg’s second straight NCAC title: ‘All I ever wanted’

Senior’s layup in final seconds beats Wooster in championship game

The Centerville High School graduate Balser lost in the NCAC final with Wooster as a freshman in 2016, won a NCAC tournament title with Wooster in 2017 and then transferred to Wittenberg and won back-to-back tournament championships with Wooster’s biggest rival in 2018 and 2019.

» HISTORY LESSON: Witt, Wooster meet in final for 13th time

Balser’s career isn’t over. He’ll play with the Tigers in the NCAA Division III tournament next weekend. But for now, he can celebrate his third NCAC tournament championship, which he secured with a go-ahead layup with seven seconds to play Saturday and then two game-clinching free throws with one second left.

No. 22 Wittenberg beat No. 12 Wooster 79-75 at Wooster’s Timken Gymnasium as the two winningest programs in D-III history added another memorable chapter to the rivalry.

“I’m just thankful to be a part of this team and this program,” Balser told Scott Leo of the Tiger Sports Network after the game. “It couldn’t have worked out better than this. This was all I ever wanted — to be a part of something so big. To win this again this year, to be a senior on this team, I’m just thankful.”

Balser scored 19 points. Connor Seipel added 18. James Johnson scored 16. Jake Bertemes had 11.

Wittenberg trailed by as many as eight points in the first half and trailed 41-36 at halftime. The Tigers opened the second half with a 16-2 run, but Wooster rallied, and it was a close game in the final minutes.

Bertemes hit a tie-breaking 3-pointer with 1:09 to play. Wooster’s Danyon Hempy answered by making a 3-pointer with 58 seconds remaining.

Wooster’s Keonn Scott missed a 3-pointer from the corner with 16 seconds left. Balser came up with the rebound after it was tipped by Wooster and dribbled the other way, going coast to coast to score the winning basket.

“We always preach before every game, ‘Toughest team wins,’” Balser said. “In games like this, with the atmosphere in an opposing team’s gym, it’s all about grit, determination, just wanting it more than the other team. We knew it was going to be a big game. We knew it was going to be hard fought. We came out with heart and wanting to win it more than anything.”

For the first time since 2005-06, the Tigers have won back-to-back NCAC championships. They’ll find out at 12:30 p.m. Monday their opponent and destination in the NCAA tournament. The selection show airs on NCAA.com.

Wittenberg coach Matt Croci praised Balser’s performance and what he’s meant to the resurgence of the program in the last two seasons.

“When I talk about toughness and competitive it all starts with Mitch,” Croci said. “To come in as a junior and you’ve got a lot of returning players that are young, he’s vocal. He’s a tremendous leader. He just works his butt off every single day. It’s hard to not follow him. He really just pulled us along. This is clearly a very emotional situation with him being here for two years and now with us. Really special for him to get a trophy. Really proud of him.”

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