SPRINGFIELD — Wittenberg’s ugly first half Wednesday night motivated the Tigers twice. And both times they had to have it.
Down 10 at the half, the Tigers dug in on defense and used a 16-0 run to surge to a five-point lead. But Kenyon didn’t quit and responded to take the Tigers to overtime.
Overtime meant a jump ball and fresh start for the Tigers. For the next five minutes they were almost perfectly efficient, playing the way, as junior Jeff Queen said, they are trained to play. They scored on 9 of 11 possessions and held on for a 75-72 North Coast Athletic Conference victory at Pam Evans Smith Arena.
“Once that overtime hit I feel like we all just had a blank slate,” Queen said. “And we could play from the tip like we were supposed to do the first tip.”
The Tigers (7-7, 3-3 NCAC) are trying to find consistency with a younger lineup than head coach Matt Croci is used to having. Kenyon (7-9. 0-7) didn’t look like much of a foe on paper but Croci said the Owls are young, talented and show potential, led by forward Gefen Bar-Cohen, who scored 24 points.
After shooting 38.5% in the first half and allowing the Owls to get too many good shots and shoot 48.1%, Croci challenged the Tigers at halftime to turn it around. The Owls shot 30.8% in the second half and committed eight turnovers.
“It took us a little bit of time to get into a rhythm, but the guys really responded,” Croci said. “They competed much harder, much better. We got in a stance and guarded and that changed the course of the game. These guys decided that they didn’t want to lose tonight.”
Led by Queen’s 16 points and Levi Boettcher’s 15, all five Wittenberg starters scored in double figures. Brice Hill and Trey Killens scored 12 apiece and Jerry Saunders Jr. scored 11.
At the end of regulation Saunders made one of two free throws with 54 seconds left to tie the score 57-57. And the game went to overtime that way when Kenyon missed an open 3-point shot just before the buzzer.
In overtime, Saunders made a tough short shot, Hill scored on a feed from Boettcher and Boettcher hit a turnaround jumper to beat the shot clock for a 63-59 lead with 3:32 left. Then Queen made 15-footer and a layup for a 67-62 lead with 2:07 left. Kenyon made two 3-pointers in the final 17 seconds, but the Tigers made all six of their free-throw attempts in the final 24 seconds to hold on.
“Guys made the right decisions with the ball – they shared it,” Croci said. “But again, my thing is we got in a stance and we guarded just enough – we’ll talk about those those threes at the end and what we need to do to clean those up – but in the guts of the game and overtime we got it done.”
The Tigers now face the top of the NCAC. Wooster (11-3, 5-1) comes to town Saturday, then it’s a trip to Wabash (11-3, 4-1) on Wednesday. Queen knows the approach his team must take.
“Coach Croci lit a fire under us at halftime and said we have all the talent in the room, and we know that,” Queen said. “We’ve got to play with, as (assistant) coach (KC) Hunt would say, fearless passion for the game and really go out and get it.”
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