SALEM, Va. — Nathan Balch pulled up for a 3-pointer with less than two minutes to play in a NCAA Division III national semifinal, ignoring the pressure riding on the moment and hoping his shot would go down to complete a rally that seemed to have no chance of happening earlier in the night.
The trey by the senior College of Wooster guard found the bottom of the net, giving the Fighting Scots their first lead of the game against Williams College in a riveting showdown at the Salem Civic Center Friday night.
“We have been working on that kind of shot for the past week,” Balch said. “When teams start sinking under ball screens, we just have someone step up from behind the arc and shoot. I’m just happy Coach (Steve) Moore didn’t call a timeout. He was about to do it.”
Black-and-yellow clad Wooster fans roared to their feet as the shot went down, overwhelmed with joy that their team had a 70-67 lead. The Wooster bench came to life as well, believing that maybe, just maybe, this dream of winning a national title wasn’t going to end here.
The dream is indeed still alive after a heart-stopping 73-71 win that catapults the fifth-ranked Fighting Scots (31-2) into Saturday’s national championship game.
The comeback was made official when fourth-ranked Williams failed to hit a season-saving basket. James Wang had a 3-pointer rattle in and out of the basket while Taylor Epley had his layup come up short, the ball dancing around the rim for what seemed like an eternity before rolling out as time expired.
There was a time when the Fighting Scots were down by as many as 17 in the second half. Sometimes, though, miracles do happen.
“It was an improbable comeback,” Moore said. “We have been in that situation a few times before this season and found a way to win. Our guys realized it wasn’t over.”
Never mind that Wooster was in a 42-28 hole at halftime. And never mind that Wooster was behind 63-46 against the Ephs (29-3) with 8:54 remaining in the game.
As long as there was time still on the clock, the Fighting Scots were not going to stop believing.
Balch certainly had plenty of faith. He came into the game with 63 treys made this year and as the team’s second-leading scorer at 12.2 points per game.
So he did what any battle-tested veteran would do. He stepped up and drilled a trey that helped ignite the rally. Balch didn’t score again until he delivered his clutch 3-pointer, snapping the 67-67 tie that Wooster had forged when Ian Franks drove in for a layup with 2:45 remaining.
Franks didn’t see the basket that gave his team the lead for good.
“I was on the bench and I didn’t even see the 3-pointer go in,” Franks said. “Coach Moore jumped in front of me.”
Balch finished the game with 13 points while Franks led the charge with 24. Justin Hallowell scored 18 and Bryan Wickliffe dropped in 14 points for a Wooster team that shot 42.6 percent from the field and dug down deep defensively late in the half, allowing the Ephs to score just eight points in the final eight minutes of the game.
Balch isn’t surprised by the balance. It’s all part of being a great team and there is no question teamwork is one of the reasons the Fighting Scots are still in Salem today.
“It’s so great to have guys like Justin, Ian and Bryan that can knock down big shots,” Balch said. “We have great team chemistry and it has been such a blast being around this team this season.”
Williams has one of the most dangerous offenses in the nation, averaging 81.7 points per outing, but the Ephs struggled to stay on course in the second half as the Fighting Scots battled back to take control.
The fact that the Fighting Scots were able to step it up on defense is hardly a surprise. Wooster has a knack for playing great defense and came in giving up just 64.2 points per outing.
“Williams is so tough to defend because of their execution,” Moore said. “I don’t think we were playing bad defense, but we needed to play outstanding defense. I thought we were more determined to do that in the second half. We moved our feet better and started communicating more.”
It all adds up to the Fighting Scots having a chance to raise a national championship banner today.
“We believed in each other. Even when we were down and frustrated, we didn’t give up,” Balch said. We just kept chipping away and found a way to win.”