As the College of Wooster attempted to pick up the pieces from a 75-68 loss to Guilford in the second round of the NCAA Division III tournament last season, there were lessons to be learned underneath the rubble.
Perhaps the toughest lesson was that the Fighting Scots discovered the importance of playing great defense. Granted, Guilford shot less than 40 percent from the field in the win, but if you give up more points than you score, winning is impossible.
“I think our guys learned what it was going to win at this level,” Wooster head coach Steve Moore said. “We had a lot of guys gain experience this year and they all learned what playing defense at the college level is all about.”
The lessons have served the Fighting Scots well. Ranked fifth in the nation and the proud owners of a 30-2 record, they are back in the DIII national semifinals for the first time since 2007. It is the program’s third trip in nine seasons and Moore is pleased with the way his team has performed on the road to Salem, Va.
The Scots will continue their journey Friday night when they battle Williams at 6 p.m. ET at the Salem Civic Center. Wooster punched its ticket to Salem with a 76-66 home win against top-ranked Whitworth in a sectional final.
“We had a real good win on Saturday,” Moore said. “Our guys went into that game with the right frame of mind and they are playing with a lot of confidence right now.”
It’s not a surprise. The Fighting Scots clamped down on defense against the top-ranked and explosive Pirates, limiting them to 40.4 percent shooting from the field. That shooting clip was nearly 10 percent below their season average of 49.5 percent.
The stellar defensive effort helped the Fighting Scots overcome three eight-point deficits in the first half en route to the win. An 11-2 run in the second half helped catapult Wooster to the win.
“We were very solid on defense and played extremely hard,” Moore said. “We also communicated well. It was a great defensive effort against a very good basketball team.”
Several players have helped orchestrate the defensive success. Senior guard Nathan Balch has racked up 32 steals while senior forward/center Bryan Wickliffe has tallied 25 steals.
Junior forward Justin Hallowell has blocked 23 shots and senior guard Ian Franks has come up with 24 steals to help anchor the defense of a team that is giving up 62.6 points per outing.
“Our guys play with a lot of effort on defense,” Moore said. “There have been stretches in games this season where we have not executed well on offense, but our defense has stepped up.”
Great defense has helped set the stage for a strong offensive showing this season as well.
Wooster is averaging 76.8 points per outing and shooting 47.5 percent from the field. Franks is the leading scorer, torching opponents for 18 ppg and draining 33 treys.
Balch is averaging 12.2 ppg and Hallowell is scoring 12 ppg. Wickliffe is clicking for 10 points per outing.
“When you get defensive stops, it helps out the offense,” Moore said. “We have struggled to shoot at times, but our defense has kept us in games and we hang around until we can start hitting shots again.”
Wooster was once the No. 1 team in the nation this year. It rattled off 20 consecutive wins before a crushing 69-68 loss to Wabash. The Fighting Scots are currently in the midst of a nine-game win streak and have allowed more than 70 points only twice during that stretch.
It has all added up to a season in which they have the most wins in school history and to an opportunity to deliver the program’s first national championship.
Moore has won more than 500 games in his career at Wooster and has guided the Fighting Scots to 19 appearances in the NCAA tournament.
It is interesting to note that Wooster and Williams have a little history in the semifinals. Back in 2003, the Fighting Scots lost 74-72 to the Ephs on a tip-in at the buzzer in overtime.
Wooster could be in for another grueling battle against Williams on Friday night. Moore knows the key to success is for his team to continue to rely on the same type of blue-collar defensive effort that helped propel it to Salem.
“They have an outstanding basketball team,” Moore said. ‘They have good post play and great outside shooters. We know we are going to have to be very solid on defense if we want to give ourselves a chance to win the game.”