Wittenberg wins NCAC title with stunning OT win over Wooster

Wittenberg’s Mitchell Balser drives the ball against the Wooster defense during the Tigers regular-season finale in Springfield Feb. 17, 2018. Nick Dudukovich/CONTRIBUTED

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Wittenberg’s Mitchell Balser drives the ball against the Wooster defense during the Tigers regular-season finale in Springfield Feb. 17, 2018. Nick Dudukovich/CONTRIBUTED

Wittenberg sophomore Jacob Bertemes wasn’t going to let the Tigers lose.

Bertemes made two game tying shots, and then sunk the free threw that led fifth-ranked Wittenberg to a 78-77 victory over the No. 16 Wooster at Pam Evans Smith Arena Saturday night.

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The victory secured an outright North Coast Athletic Conference title for the Tigers, and assured they’ll be the No. 1 seed in the league tournament, which starts Tuesday.

As far as basketball moments, go, Bertemes, a product of Southeastern High School, had never experienced anything like it.

“This is No. 1,” Bertemes said. “I had a pretty good game in high school, but it does not beat this.”

The sophomore turned it on in the second half, scoring 19 of his game-high 26 points.

Wittenberg (23-2, 16-2) trailed by 12 with just under three minutes to play, but the Tigers cut into Wooster’s lead, getting close enough to strike in the closing moments.

Wooster guard Danyon Hempy’s missed free throw landed in the hands of James Johnson with just over seven seconds remaining on the clock.

His outlet pass went to Bertemes, who drove the length of the court.

Knowing he needed a 3-pointer, the 5-foot-11 guard broke left. He appeared to almost overrun the 3-point arc, but he was just trying to create a little space for shot.

“I was just about to heave it. [The defender] thinks I’m about to heave it. So I’m like, ‘All right,’ I hesitate and I don’t know if i went too far forward, so I stepped back, a little awkward shot, but it went in and took us to overtime,” he said.

The conversion tied the game at 67 and sent the contest in overtime, where Bertemes’ star continued to shine.

He scored the Tigers’ first field goal and then saved more heroics for the end.

With no timeouts, and just over five seconds on the clock, Bertemes dribbled up court, got himself into paint, then sunk a under-handed layup near the rim, getting found in the process.

Having missed four times from the charity stripe already, Bertemes connected with .3 seconds remaining to give Wittenberg its improbable victory.

“It’s a blur right now,” Wittenberg coach Matt Croci said after the final buzzer. “…But at the end of the day, players have to make plays like this to win games and our guys did.”

Wittenberg overcame a nine-point, first-half deficit by opening the second half on a 9-0 run. But once the Tigers pulled even, the offense went stagnant and the Scots pulled back ahead. Wittenberg trailed by 10 with just 1:24 remaining in regulation.

“We didn’t put ourself in a great position the first 35 minutes of the game,” Croci said. “Wooster outplayed us. We just had to keep grinding, play to the horn, win or lose, and tonight it just kind of went our way.”

Senior Chad Roy had 10 points and seven rebounds. Wittenberg’s bench outscored Wooster 29-17, led by Johnson’s nine points.

Wooster (20-5, 14-4) was led by Hemphy (23 points) and Ari Stern (12).

As the NCAC’s No. 1 seed, Witternberg will have home-court advantage as long as the Tigers stay alive in the eight-team tournament.

With Wooster as the No. 2 seed, there’s a chance these two squads could meet in the final. Wittenberg must first win it’s first-round matchup against eighth-seeded Oberlin on Tuesday. Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m.

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