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Wittenberg hopes home crowd helps it in NCAC tournament

Tigers play Denison in semifinals on Friday

Matt Croci shaved the beard he wore for more than three months when the Wittenberg Tigers finally lost a game after 22 straight victories. The coach and his team now have a modest two-game winning streak going — though it’s too early to tell if a beard will come with it — and would like to extend it as long as possible.

That will be easier to do this weekend because Wittenberg gets to stay at home for the North Coast Athletic Conference semifinals and the championship game should they advance. The Tigers (24-2) are 13-0 at Pam Evans Smith Arena.

Croci credited the fans with helping the Tigers rally from a 10-point deficit in the final 90 seconds Saturday against Wooster in a game they won 78-77 in overtime. Top-seeded Wittenberg then beat No. 8 seed Oberlin 70-54 on Tuesday in the NCAC quarterfinals to earn a matchup with No. 5 seed Denison (15-11) at 5:30 p.m. Friday.

The Tigers hope a big crowd can help them reach the NCAC championship game against No. 2 seed Wooster (21-5) or No. 3 Ohio Wesleyan (18-8). That game will be played at 4 p.m. Saturday in Springfield. The regular-season champion has won the tournament once in the last six years.

“(The fans) mean everything,” Croci said. “The crowds have started to come back. Certainly when you’re winning and playing well, people want to come and watch and support you. Saturday night was an amazing experience for our guys, not just to have a big crowd from the community, but there were a lot of students and student-athletes and coaches. To have a lot of people pushing us along, we could really feel their presence.”

Wittenberg is 5-1 against the three other teams in the semifinals. It played Ohio Wesleyan and Wooster last week in its final two regular-season games. It hopes the experience of those games makes them better prepared this weekend.

“I think it’s going to help us in the long run,” senior Chad Roy said, “and I hope we can pull it out this week.”

Here’s a quick glance at the semifinal matchups:

Wittenberg vs. Denison: The Tigers beat Denison 86-55 and 84-61 in the regular season. The last time Wittenberg hosted the NCAC tournament in 2012, it lost 66-58 to Denison in the semifinals.

Denison won 73-60 at Hiram on Tuesday. It was Denison’s third victory against Hiram this season. Chris Sullivan, Wittenberg’s all-time leading 3-point shooter, is in his seventh season on head coach Bob Ghiloni’s staff.

Wooster vs. Ohio Wesleyan: The Scots beat the Battling Bishops by three points twice in the regular season: 73-70 and 75-72. Wooster beat Ohio Wesleyan 76-72 in the championship game last season and has won six of the last 10 tournaments. Ohio Wesleyan last won the tournament in 2013.

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