Wittenberg ready for ‘sprint to the finish’ after another big win

Improved defense playing a part in late-season winning streak

Wittenberg players and coaches don’t walk back straight back to the locker room after finishing with the postgame handshake line following a victory. They turn around and start a new line, slapping hands with each other.

If the high fives had a little more juice Wednesday, there was a good reason. For the second time in five days, the Tigers beat a top-25 team by double digits.

» PHOTOS: Wittenberg vs. Wabash

A 76-62 victory against No. 24 Wabash at Pam Evans Smith Arena followed an 84-74 victory Saturday at No. 14 Wooster. No one enjoyed the wins more than senior guard Mitch Balser, who won on Senior Night at Wooster, where he played his first two seasons, and on his own Senior Night at Wittenberg.

“Everything I could have wanted,” Balser said.

The Centerville graduate Balser is Wittenberg’s only senior, and he scored 14 points in his last regular-season home game. Jordan Pumroy led the Tigers with 16 points. James Johnson and Landon Martin added 12. Jake Bertemes scored 11.

The Tigers held Wabash to 34.9 percent shooting. Wabash’s leading scorer, sophomore guard Jack Davidson, who averages 25.2 points per game, matched his season low with 10 points. He made 3 of 3 free throws and needs two more to tie the NCAA all-divisions record of 94 straight made free throws.

In winning these two games, Wittenberg reversed the results of consecutive games against Wabash and Wooster in January. The Tigers lost 96-83 at Wabash on Jan. 9 and 73-65 at home to Wooster on Jan. 12.

Asked what has changed about the team during this six-game winning streak, Balser said, “The difference is heart. We’re kind of getting to that point in the season where — especially me, I’m running out of time — you’ve got to want it. Our guys are really just embracing that heart and wanting to win and doing everything necessary to win on and off the court, studying our scout teams, stuff like that. Everybody came locked in, ready to play from the tip. That’s something that changed. At the beginning of the year, we struggled in the first half. We never came out ready to go. Now we’re fight ready. We’re really just trying to sprint to the finish line.”

The Tigers (19-5, 13-4) moved into a tie for second place in the North Coast Athletic Conference with Wabash (19-5, 13-4). The Tigers finish the regular season Saturday at Hiram and will play a NCAC tournament quarterfinal game at home Tuesday. Wooster has clinched the outright title and will host the NCAC semifinals and finals if it wins its quarterfinal game.

» 2018 NCAC FINAL PHOTOS: Tigers beat Ohio Wesleyan

After leading for the last 29 minutes against Wooster and pulling away from Wabash late in the first half and dominating the second half, Wittenberg has the confidence it can win the tournament for the second straight season.

“We’re guarding a lot better,” coach Matt Croci said. “That’s the biggest and most obvious one. Really in late January, we just got back to work and focused on ourselves and improving the things we were not doing well. We got a little caught up in where we wanted to be at the end of the year instead of putting in the daily work and embracing the process, and that goes for the coaching staff as well.”

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