WOOSTER, Ohio — After falling behind for the first time in the second half (51-49), The College of Wooster answered with an 11-2 run to go ahead by seven (60-53) with about 5:45 remaining and went on to knock off Whitworth 76-66 in an NCAA Div. III Men’s Basketball Championship sectional championship game, sending 3,330 boisterous fans at Timken Gymnasium into elation.
Wooster, which matches its highest win total for a season at 30-2, will now be making its third trip to the national semifinals in Salem, Va., with the three coming every fourth year — 2003, 2007, and 2011.
Whitworth (28-2), the No. 1 ranked team in D3hoops.com’s top-25 poll prior to the NCAA Tournament, held the early momentum, building a series of eight-point leads during the first half of 18-10, 20-12, and 27-19. The No. 5 Fighting Scots rallied following the Pirates’ third eight-point cushion, first with Ian Franks converting a drive from the left of the hoop while being fouled and adding the free throw for a three-point play.
The next three Wooster possessions all resulted in 3-point makes, the first two by Matt Fegan and one from Justin Hallowell, the latter putting the Scots ahead 31-29, their first lead since it was 3-0. Whitworth regained the lead with four-straight points, all coming from Mike Taylor, but then Wooster accounted for the last six points of the half, four via Jake Mays, adding up to a 37-33 advantage.
Early in the second, the Scots upped their lead to eight at 45-37, but then they hit an offensive drought with just one field goal and two free throws over the next eight minutes. That allowed Whitworth to go ahead, doing so when David Riley collected his own offensive rebound off a missed 3-pointer and put it back up and in while fouled for an old-fashioned three-point play.
Down 51-49 with 8:24 to play, Wooster used a timeout at that point and came out of it with Nathan Balch nailing a 3-pointer, and the Scots would never trail again.
The key stretch was, after the Pirates pulled within one at 54-53, Wooster scored six in a row. Franks fed Bryan Wickliffe underneath for a lay-in, Balch made a steal and turned it into transition points with a pair of free throws, and after another steal, Franks beat the defense for a driving lay-up that made it 60-53.
Whitworth would get within four a couple more times, but each time, the Scots responded with a 3-pointer, one from Justin Warnes, assisted by Franks, and the other coming off the hands of Franks, assisted by Warnes.
Ahead 66-59 with 3:00 to play, Wooster came up with back-to-back defensive stops and then Balch added a jumper in the lane for a nine-point cushion at the 1:09 mark.
The Scots sealed the victory with 8-of-11 free throws in the final minute.
Statistically, two of the key factors for Wooster were limiting one of the top offensive teams in the nation to 40.4 percent shooting from the field (23-for-57), nearly 10.0 percent below Whitworth’s season average (.495). The Scots also committed just nine turnovers – the eighth game they’ve finished in single digits this season.
Wooster put four in double figures, including 19 from Franks. He also dished out a team-high four assists, while Hallowell scored 16 and recorded a squad-best eight rebounds.
Balch chipped in 12 points, and the Scots received a significant boost from Warnes as he reached double digits for just the second time this year. His 11-point night consisted of 3-of-4 3-point shooting and a first-half dunk that electrified the crowd.
Taylor headlined the Pirates with 25 points, while Felix Friedt added a double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Next up for Wooster is No. 4 ranked Williams College (29-2) at the Salem Civic Center. It will mark a rematch of a 2003 semifinal between the schools, when Williams prevailed 74-72 on a tip-in at the horn of the end of overtime.