The Illinois Wesleyan men's basketball team came out Friday evening against top-seeded Augustana playing at Carver Center as if its season was on the line — because it was.
Being the aggressors in the second CCIW Men's Basketball Tournament semifinal, the Titans, needing a championship this weekend to make the NCAA Division III Tournament, jumped out to an early lead and held that for the first 19 minutes of the game.
“They came out and punched us in the mouth,” said Augie senior guard Nolan Ebel.
However, the veteran Vikings, ranked third this week nationally, punched back and in a big way en route to an 89-65 victory to log a second double-digit victory over the Titans this season.
“We came out guns a blazing, and I thought we played really well,” said IWU coach Ron Rose.
However, as the game wore on, the hosting and top-seeded Vikings slowly worked their way back into the contest. With fouls and frustration mounting for IWU, a double-digit lead that grew to 12 dwindled.
And when Ebel hit two 3-pointers on Augie's final two possessions of the half, the hosts had somehow worked their way into a 39-37 lead at the break.
In the second half, the 24-2 Vikings left little doubt as to the outcome, running away with the victory and into a spot opposite No. 2-seeded North Central (21-5) in tonight's title game back at Carver.
The nationally 21st-ranked NCC Cardinals beat third-seeded Wheaton 94-87 in the opening semifinal. In that game, Matt Cappelletti (27 points), Connor Raridon (21 points) and Blaise Meredith (19 points, including 6-for-6 3-point shooting) led the Cardinals. Aston Francis led five Thunder (19-8) players in double-digit scoring with 30.
“For us, the end of the first really hurt,” said Rose. “They gained momentum going in and really carried that into the second half. Had we been able to finish the half better, it certainly would have been much better for us.”
For the Vikings, it worked out just fine despite the slow start.
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“We were down 12 and win by 24,” espoused Augie coach Grey Giovanine. “When we're dialed in and focused, we're really good.”
As was IWU early on.
Taking that momentum from the end of the first half, Augie started the second half with the first 10 points. Center Micah Martin hit two free throws, Ebel followed with a 3 before Pierson Wofford hit a 12-foot jumper, forcing IWU into a timeout with the Vikings up 46-37. After an IWU shot clock violation, Austin Elledge drilled a triple to make it a double-digit difference.
From there, the Titans were only as close as seven at 49-42 as Augie held them to just 28 points in the final 20 minutes.
“Our guys stayed the course,” said Giovanine. “We had a couple of intense timeouts, but they responded great.”
Ebel, who got off to a horrid shooting start, led the Vikings with a game-high 27 points. Elledge added 12 off the bench and Wofford dropped in 11. Three other Vikings scored at least eight.
“They had contributions from a lot of guys and it's hard to guard five guys when they are all scoring,” said Rose. “Tonight, they had everybody come to play.”
Augie won the board battle 44-31 with Wofford and fellow starters Martin (nine points) and Brett Benning (eight points) grabbing a team-high six rebounds. Alex O'Neill led IWU with eight.
Brady Rose finished his career with a team-high 25 for the Titans, who finished 18-9. Colin Bonnett added 18 as the Titans only had six players crack the scoring column.
“Give them credit. They had won seven in a row and were playing with tremendous confidence and they come in and stick a bunch of shots early,” said Giovanine. “They had things going. But 10 minutes into the game, we started to speed them up and kind of imposed our will on them.”