- Doug Harris Contributing Writer
Wittenberg coach Matt Croci subbed liberally in the first half against Wisconsin-Oshkosh in the NCAA Division III tourney, but each lineup he tried looked as disjointed and panicked as the previous one.
The Tigers, who trailed by as many as 17 points, faced a 34-19 halftime deficit. They shot 30 percent, committed nine turnovers and looked nothing like the team that averaged 82.3 points this season.
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“We were trying to let them know a lot of things that weren’t going our way were controllable,” Croci said. “We just weren’t handling pressure. We were getting a little frazzled. We weren’t executing. We talked about getting back to our plan and doing what’s got us to this point.”
The Tigers managed to find the form that made them one of the tourney favorites — even taking a brief lead after a furious rally — but the Titans outscored their hosts, 17-7, over the final four minutes for a 68-60 second-round win Saturday.
“We just put ourselves in a tough spot. I don’t think we necessarily ran out of gas. They made a couple shots down the stretch that we couldn’t match,” Croci said.
The 1,678 spectators at Pam Evans Smith Arena sat on their hands most of the night, but they became a rowdy presence during the second-half charge.
The Tigers, returning to the tourney after a four-year absence and playing at home for the first time since 2006, shaved the deficit to single digits early in the second half by scoring seven straight points in rapid fashion, five coming from Centerville native Mitch Balser.
Jordan Pumroy’s 3-pointer cut the gap to 49-47, and Jacob Bertemes drove for a basket to tie the game with 6:10 left.
The Tigers then took a 53-51 lead on Pumroy’s layup at 4:28. And the sophomore from Fairborn made one of two free throws for a 54-51 edge.
But Wisconsin-Oshkosh, which will take a 22-7 record into the Sweet 16, scored five consecutive points, including a pair of foul shots from Jack Flynn with three minutes to go for a 56-54 edge. Connor Seipel’s jumper tied it at 56 with 1:55 left. But the Titans answered with a trey from Ben Boots, who had a game-high 20 points, 11 seconds later.
After Roy scored inside, Charlie Noone knocked down a back-breaking 3-pointer from the corner with 1:06 to go for a 62-58 edge.
“We’re at Game 29 with these guys right here. We’ve been through a lot of battles,” said Wisconsin-Oshkosh coach Pat Juckem, flanked by Boots and Noone. “They’ve played now in three national tournaments. Just the mental toughness of these guys — they’re never rattled. They responded.
“We caught our breath, regrouped and made some winning plays. These guys make me look like a much smarter coach than I am.”
The Tigers, who had been 16-0 at home, shot 50 percent in the second half (41.1 for game) and had just five turnovers. Chad Roy scored a team-high 13 points, while Balser and Seipel had 10 each.
Though the defeat will be hard to shake, the Tigers had a season worth celebrating, going 27-3 and winning the NCAC regular-season and tourney titles.
It’s been a startling turnaround under Croci, who produced an 18-9 record in his first season last year with largely the same players that went 14-12 and 10-16 the two years before that.
Wittenberg is back to being Wittenberg again.
“Where the program was in the last handful of years — I’m proud of them,” Croci said.
With a nod to the seniors, he added: “They put our program back to where we feel it belongs. That’s not to sound arrogant or elitist. But this program has been at a high level for 60 years, and we felt we needed to get back to playing Tiger basketball — tough and gritty and being good teammates.
“It was a joy coming to work every day. When we get a little distance from (the loss), we’ll look back and feel good about our season.”