WOOSTER, Ohio — After more than 39 minutes of intense, back-and-forth action, Friday night’s NCAA tournament clash between Wittenberg and North Central (Ill.) was decided by a defensive stand. The Tigers stood strong for more than 30 seconds to secure a 58-55 victory and a spot in the national quarterfinals.
Every North Central player on the floor for those final 30 seconds touched the ball multiple times, but the Cardinals never found an open look. As the clock wound down after a North Central timeout, all the Cardinals could manage was an off-balance 3-pointer that was off the mark with one second left.
The result was a Wittenberg win that at one point seemed quite unlikely. The Tigers trailed by eight points with 10:36 left in the game, but they outscored North Central 29-18 the rest of the way to reach their first NCAA Division III Tournament quarterfinal since 2006.
The Tigers held an early 13-7 advantage, but North Central got the best of things over the final nine minutes of the first half to take a 32-30 lead into the locker room at halftime. The lead expanded to 47-39 on a short jumper by the Cardinals’ Derek Raridon with 10:36 remaining, but the Tigers answered with a 13-2 run over the next five minutes, capped by a pair free throws by Zack Leahy at the 5:31 mark.
The Tigers couldn’t push the lead out any greater than four points the rest of the way, but the Cardinals managed just two fields and two free throws over the final five minutes.
“I’m just extremely proud of the guys,” Wittenberg head coach Bill Brown said. “We talked at the half about how a couple of the players were sort of out of sorts emotionally. They really righted the ship. There’s no magic forumla for why it turned our way. Both teams were playing hard. We made some shots. They didn’t. And it fell in our favor.”
Wittenberg put three players in double figures offensively as the Tigers shot 49 percent from the field and 80 percent from the free throw line. Two North Central players finished in double figures as the Cardinals hit 40 percent from the field (on 12 more attempts) but just 6-of-11 from the charity stripe.
The Tigers were paced by Leahy with 15 points to go along with three rebounds and three assists. Alex Brandt added 13 points and five rebounds before fouling out in the closing moments and Clayton Black chipped in with 12 points and three boards.
North Central was led by Raridon with 13 points and nine rebounds and Aaron Tiknis with 11 points and nine boards. The Cardinals won the rebounding battle 35-27, including 13 offensive caroms.