KJ Evans leads Wisconsin-Whitewater into national championship game
SALEM, Va. -- One more game. A career-high 30 points from junior forward KJ Evans, 20 of those when Wisconsin-Whitewater took the lead in the second half, propelled the Warhawks to the championship game of the NCAA Division III men's basketball tournament with a 71-63 win against Illinois Wesleyan on Friday at the Salem Civic Center. UW-W (28-4) will face Williams (28-4) a 98-69 winner against Amherst in Friday's other semifinal, in the Division III championship game Saturday.
There wasn't much to separate the Warhawks and Titans in the first half. Evans opened the scoring with a pair of free throws at 18:27. Andrew Ziemnick of IWU tied it with a driving lay-in, and Titan Victor Davis followed with a 3 to put IWU in front 5-2. Whitewater's Alex Merg nailed a 3 from the left of key to tie the game at 5 and the pattern was set. Mike Marietti's lay-in at 13:29 gave Illinois Wesleyan its largest lead of the hal, 14-7, but a 6-0 Whitewater run that ended with a Quardell Young free-throw line jumper with 10:59 left pulled UW-W within one, 14-13.
The halftime statistics mirrored the play, with little to separate the teams. Whitewater shot 44 percent from the floor, Illinois Wesleyan 39 percent. UW-W was 2-for-6 from beyond the arc, IWU 3-for-10. Both teams went 4-for-8 from the line. Evans was the leading scorer with 10 points. Marietti topped the Titans with eight points.
Prophetically, Evans scored the first basket of the second half, giving UW-W a lead it would never relinquish. Merg, one of the holdovers from the 2012 championship team, hit a pair of free throws at 18:07, followed by a 3-pointer from the left angle that put UW-W in front 39-33 with 17:19 left.
Fate almost intervened, as senior center Reggie Hearn picked up his fourth foul and his backup, Egan, hurt his shoulder within a 30-second span with more than 16 minutes left.
IWU pulled within two, 41-39, on Jordan Nelson's free throw with 13:58 on the clock -- and then Evans went off. He scored seven points in a 10-0 Whitewater run that pushed the Warhawk bulge to 51-39 at 10:49. Odegaard, another of the holdovers from 2012, contributed a 3-pointer in that run.
Odegaard's lay-in gave UW-W its largest lead of the game, 55-40 at 9:42.
The Titan defense clamped down, with IWU fashioning a 7-0 run, part of an 11-1 streak that tightened the difference to 62-59 with 2:26 in the game. Eight of Whitewater's last 10 points in the last 8 minutes of the game came at the free-throw line. Facing that shrinking lead, Evans hit two free throws with 2 minutes left to make it 64-59. That was followed by Eric Bryson's lay-in off a length of the court touchdown pass from Hearn for a 66-59 lead. Young, another of the Warhawks with championship experience, made a free throw with 1:09 left for a 67-661 lead, and Evans made it 68-61 with a charity toss at 53 seconds. Bryson grabbed two crucial rebounds, and made a pair of free throws, in the final 31 seconds to seal the win.
Whitewater's defense limited the Titans to 31 percent (9-for-29) shooting in the second half. Included in that mark, IWU went 5-for-23 (22 percent) from 3-point range. The Warhawks shot 48 percent on field goals and 50 percent (5-for-10) from beyond the arc. Both teams made 18 free throws, with IWU having one more attempt.
Evans, whose previous career high of 27 came in the sectional final against Emory, hit 10 of 19 from the floor and 9 of 10 from the line. Merg and Bryson chipped in with 10 points each, with Bryson and Hearn collecting nine boards apiece. Young topped both teams with six assists. Ziemnick led IWU with 13 points, with Davis chipping in with 10 points and a team-high eight rebounds. Sodemann was also in double figures with 10 points.
UW-Whitewater will be looking for the school's fourth men's basketball championship. UW-W won NCAA III titles in 1984, '89 and two years ago. Five members of that 2012 team will be looking for their second title.
Illinois Wesleyan College, the 1997 NCAA III champions, end the season 27-5.