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Unbeaten Wittenberg moves to No. 5 in poll

Tigers are 15-0 and play Ohio Wesleyan at home Wednesday


Coach Matt Croci won’t shave his beard until Wittenberg loses.

For more than a decade, Wittenberg men’s basketball players have celebrated victories at Pam Evans Smith Arena by pounding on their lockers.

“We take a kneel, settle ourselves, and all of a sudden, coach says, ‘All right, bang on some lockers,’” sophomore guard Jake Bertemes said. “Then we get a little beat going.”

Bertemes and teammates Chad Roy and Jordan Pumroy didn’t know the history behind the celebration when asked about it Monday. They just know they have rattled those lockers time and time again this season. The Tigers, who rose from No. 10 to No. 5 in the poll this week, improved to 15-0 overall and 8-0 in the North Coast Athletic Conference by winning 86-75 at Wooster on Saturday.

The tradition of banging on lockers after victories goes back at least as far as 2005. Former coach Bill Brown used to explain the tradition to the newcomers after the first victory every season.

Dane Borchers, Wittenberg’s 10th all-time leading scorer (1,461 points), gets credit for creating the tradition.

“I guess Dane was just talking about how it’s a grind and it’s tough to win,” Croci said. “They went through a stretch where they were winning but they weren’t celebrating it as much, so they started doing it and it kind of stuck. We’ve kept doing it.”

» RELATED: Tigers showing poise in second halves of games

Wittenberg survived a major test Saturday, winning at Wooster for the first time since 2011, and it faces another big test at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday when No. 23 Ohio Wesleyan (11-4, 6-2) visits Pam Evans Smith Arena.

The Tigers have lost six of the last seven games in the series. The Battling Bishops have won or shared the regular-season title three years in a row, though they’ve already lost as many as conference games this season as they did last season and in 2015.

Wittenberg’s winning streak has led to another tradition that would end with any loss. Croci has not shaved since the season began. He had never grown a beard before but now has more hair on his face than he does on the top of his head.

“I did the no-shave November,” Croci said. “Then we got to December 1, and we hadn’t lost. The guys are like, ‘Don’t shave that. It’s bad juju.’ My wife does not like it. She can’t stand it. My kids are OK with it.”

» RELATED: Wittenberg in top 10 for first time since 2007

Croci brought another tradition to the program last season. He would write “Tiger Up” on a dry-erase board before every game and have each player sign the board. This season, he writes that and three points of emphasis:

• Play for your brothers.

• Play your (butt) off.

• Worry about what you can control.

The Wittenberg basketball Twitter account shared a photo of the board before the game at Wooster.

“I make them sign their name to the board, kind of owning what we’re going to be about,” Croci said.

What Wittenberg has been about since the season opener Nov. 17 is winning. The Tigers are still 11 wins away from matching the 26-0 start of the 1993-94 team, coached by Brown, but this is only the fourth team in Wittenberg history to reach 15-0. The 1988-89 team, coached by Larry Hunter, was 21-0. The 1989-90 team, coached by Dan Hipsher, was 18-0.

The pressure of keeping the winning streak alive hasn’t fazed the Tigers.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” Roy said. “I just treat every game like the first one.

“We try not to look ahead,” Pumroy said. “One game at a time, that’s our philosophy.”

“As good as 15-0 is, we could go 15-10,” Bertemes said. “We just want to keep it going.”

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