The Wittenberg men’s basketball team entered the regular season with extremely high expectations, ranked 27th in the country and picked to finish a close second in the North Coast Athletic Conference. After the team’s close exhibition loss to Division I Western Carolina a week ago, expectations only soared higher.
The Tigers traveled to Wheaton College this past weekend for the Lee Pfund Classic. The Tigers opened the tournament against the University of Wisconsin River Falls, with the winner advancing to take on the winner of Wheaton and Blackburn. Wittenberg started the game out strong and led for the majority of the contest on the way to a 69-62 Wittenberg victory. The first half was a sloppy affair with many turnovers and missed shots. The Tigers led 26-18 at the end of the half. But, the second half featured much better basketball, with the Tigers able to stay ahead of River Falls and coast to the victory.
Senior Zack Leahy led the tea with 16 points, seven assists and four rebounds. Freshman Brock Kieler came off the bench to score 13 points and grab eight rebounds in his first collegiate contest. Senior Cole Bond and junior Sam Collins each scored 11 points, while snagging six and four rebounds, respectively. Senior Scott Masin added nine points and five rebounds as well.
The win versus River Falls pushed Wittenberg to the Championship Game against host Wheaton, who advanced with a 78-46 win over Blackburn. Wheaton entered the tournament ranked fifth in the nation, and the team featured one of the best players in Division III, Tyler Peters. The contest presented the Tigers with an early chance to test themselves against one of the best teams in the country and see how they stacked up.
Just like in Wittenberg’s first game, the first half was a slow, dragging half of basketball, with the two teams combining to shoot just below 35 percent from the field. At the end of the half the score was 23-21 Wheaton. Wittenberg should have been ahead at halftime, but turnovers kept the team from getting in any sort of rhythm offensively. However, the team’s defensive plan of double teaming Peters and forcing other Wheaton players to make shots was extremely effective, as the Thunder missed a great deal of wide open shots.
The two teams continued to battle in the second half, and seemed to be very evenly matched. Wittenberg had the ball with forty seconds left and a tie game, but was unable to convert. But, the Tigers responded with a big stop defensively, as Leahy forced Peters into a thirty-foot three pointer at the buzzer that missed badly to force overtime
Unfortunately, overtime belonged completely to Wheaton, as the hosts jumped ahead right away and quickly built a double digit lead. The Tigers were unable to come back, falling 73-62. Senior Steven Newell led the team with 14 points, four rebounds and three assists. Masin recorded his first double-double of the season with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Leahy chipped in with eight points, four assists and four boards. Kiesler again was big off the bench with nine points and four rebounds in only nine minutes. Junior Alex Fultz also had nine points, including a clutch three pointer late in regulation.
While it is very disappointing to let such a big game slip away, the Wheaton game showed that the Tigers can compete with anyone in the country and will be a force to reckon with this year. But, a big negative for the Tigers was their poor free throw shooting, as the team went 9-19 from the foul line and directly resulted in the loss. The Tigers open the home slate with a game Wednesday, November 20 at 7:00 p.m. at Pam Evans Smith Arena against Capital.