McCullough’s best player, senior guard Josh Tolliver, said his coach used halftime to point out everyone’s mistakes. The Wildcats hadn’t been focused on the details and turned the ball over frequently.
“When I was in the locker room, I just felt it coming because of the way we were playing,” Tolliver said.
The Wildcats weren’t expected to win. They entered with a losing record and Wayne is ranked No. 9 this week in the Associated Press Division I state poll. But the Wildcats were a different team in the second half, erasing an eight-point halftime deficit and making big plays in the final minutes to stun Wayne 59-57 on senior night and overcome a 23-point effort by the Warriors’ Prophet Johnson.
“There were a lot of people doubting us,” Tolliver said. “But I’m not going to say a lot, I’m going to say everybody. Saying we weren’t going to get the win because they have more talent than us.”
Tolliver scored 21 points and made the winning basket. Eddie Muhammad dribbled through Wayne’s pressure defense and passed to an open Tolliver near the basket. Tolliver scored despite a hard foul across the arm. He added the free throw for the two-point lead with eight seconds left. Muhammad made a steal with two seconds to go to seal the win.
“He’s a strong kid,” McCullough said of Tolliver. “It didn’t surprise me that he would make that layup getting fouled. Not at all.”
Wayne senior Prophet Johnson goes to the basket against Springfield's Josh Tolliver during the second half of Springfield's 59-57 victory Friday night. Johnson led all scorers with 23 points. Jeff Gilbert/CONTRIBUTED
Springfield (7-7) is not at all the same team that lost at home to Wayne 97-82 on Dec. 22 in its second game. The Wildcats got a late start because of the football team’s run to the state semifinals, then a Covid shutdown. They had practiced for only five days before their first game. Not much time to learn about the new coach.
“We’re buying into everything he says,” Tolliver said. “At the beginning he was a new coach, and we weren’t really getting what he was saying at first. We were thinking, no this isn’t it. But then we started thinking this really might work. So things he told us to do in the game, we did it and it’s really paying off.”
Wayne coach Nate Martindale sees a difference from the Wildcats from that early game and from scouting them on film.
“The difference is they’re more together, more connected than they were early in the year,” he said. “Their chemistry is better, and that makes sense having a new coach and getting to understand him.”
For Martindale and the Warriors (13-3), this was a difficult loss. He expects his team to bounce back, but he also knows there is work ahead to be as tournament ready as he wants.
“I take full responsibility for the loss … just gotta do better and have to be better, period, especially getting ready to play in the tournament,” he said. “A loss means you’re out, so we gotta get better.”