SALEM, Va. -- Imagine a boxing match where the combatants trade punches in the early rounds, then keep each other at arm's length as the fight winds down, never breaking the other's defenses.
That's how Wisconsin Stevens Point's 68-59 win against Virginia Wesleyan was in the second Division III national semifinal game at the Salem Civic Center.With just less than 12 minutes left in the game, junior guard Stephen Pelkofer drained a 3-pointer to give UWSP a nine-point lead. From that time, the Marlins margin was never less than seven and never greater than 10.
The Marlins (27-6) tried to mount a charge and cut the margin, but the shots wouldn't fall when they needed them most.
The Pointers were getting stops, but couldn't capitalize by following a great defensive effort with a score of their own. Points were being scored, but in fits and starts, never strung together for either team.
UWSP coach Bob Semling lauded the effort of both teams, crediting Virgina Wesleyan with "bringing out our best."
He said the Pointers' late game offensive execution was not what he wanted, but the defense was stout -- a trademark of UWSP basketball.
"They made us earn it down the stretch," Semling said.
Part of the ability to hold off the Marlins was success at the stripe. Forced to foul late, the Virginia Wesleyan was hoping for misses, but they didn't come. The Pointers were 13-for-15 shooting in the second half, an 86.7-percent clip.
It's hard to make a comeback when the free throws are falling.
"They're incredibly efficient," Marlins coach Dave Macedo said. "In the second half we came right out of the gates, tied it up, then I thought we had some breakdowns. Against a team like this the margin of error is very small."
The Pointers lead the country in scoring defense, allowing 54.6 ppg. In the second half, they held the Marlins to a shooting percentage of .321 (9-for-28).
"The thing that stood out to me was how physical they were," Macedo said. "They impede your progress, they anticipate your cuts. They do a very good job of trying to take you out of your strengths. Our guys were forced to try to make some plays and we didn't make as many as we normally make."
Virginia Wesleyan sophomore guard Khory Moore, who led the Marlins with 18 points, said shot selection played into the offensive difficulties.
"We were rushing our offense, trying to play catch up and forcing things," Moore said.
That included a dunk and a running lay-up following a steal where Moore seemed to be trying to draw a foul instead of finishing at the hoop.
"We missed some shots we normally make, whether it was an open 3 or 2 down low," Macedo said.As rare as it is for the turning point of a game to come in the first half, Macedo said that's what happened when UWSP went on a 9-0 run on three consecutive treys. With the Marlins up six, Jordan Lutz drained a three to cut the margin. Austin Ryf, who led all scorers with 21, then hit a game-tying bomb. Following a steal by Stephen Pelkofer, Ryf turned the trick again, sinking a shot from behind the arc to put the Pointers up three.
The Pointers were trailing by as much as seven in the first half, but found themselves leading by three at the half.
"We knew they would land punches," Semling said. "That's what happened, but our guys were prepared for that mentally. We sparred with them. We hung in there mentally until we got back on track."
Pelkofer said Ryf was the spark for the Pointers in the first half -- his 13 points were a team-high -- but the balanced attack was evident in the second. Ryf's contribution in the second half was a perfect 8-for-8 shooting from the line.
"Obviously Austin Ryf stepped up in the first half and carried us offensively. In the second half they might have keyed in on him and we just hit big shots. [Alex Richard] was hitting big shots inside, I hit a couple shots outside. It's kind of like picking your poison," Pelkofer said.
Pelkofer scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half and Richard had 10 of his 17 after the break.
"We battled well. They landed the first punch and we had to stay sound, take those punches," Pelkofer said. "We stepped up on the biggest stage and it's going to be a bigger stage tomorrow. We're ready for it."
The Pointers are now a perfect 7-0 in games played in Salem, Va., having won three national titles here in 2005, '06 and '10.