SALEM, Va. -- Wisconsin-Stevens Point scored on six consecutive possessions early in the second half to open up a nine-point advantage and went on to advance to its fourth NCAA title game with a 68-59 win against Virginia Wesleyan on Friday night at Salem Civic Center.
UW-Stevens Point (26-5) broke open a 35-35 tie by going on an 11-2 run in a 4:36 stretch to take a 46-37 lead with 12:48 remaining. The Pointers would lead Virginia Wesleyan (27-6) by no fewer than six points the rest of the way.
"They brought out the best in us and we've been playing really good basketball down the stretch," head coach Bob Semlingcommented. "We went from heartbreak and disappointment in our WIAC Tournament to finding our way. I can't be more proud of our young men, the way the represent our basketball team, the university and our community."
"It's very special," senior guard/forward Joe Ritchay said of playing for a national championship. "It's obviously the goal of 400-plus teams to start the year and we're going to try and play our best basketball and go out on top with each other."
"That's a dream right there," added senior forward Alex Richard. "I've been playing basketball competitively with these guys since third grade. As seniors on this team, we get to play our last competitive game in the national champonship. That's a feeling nobody can describe and I can't wait to do it with my best friends, my teammates."
After the Marlins tied the game at 35-35, Richard capped the 11-2 run with back-to-back layups. Virginia Wesleyan promptly got a 3-pointer from Khory Moore to draw within six but that is as close as VWC would get in the final 12 minutes, as UWSP led by between seven and 10 points for the final 11:43.
UW-Stevens Point shot 13-for-15 (86.7 percent) from the free-throw line in the second half and Austin Ryf went a perfect 8-for-8 from the charity stripe in the second half. Ryf scored a game-high 21 points, one shy of his career high, on 5-for-9 shooting from the field and 3-for-6 from 3-point range.
"Obviously, Austin stepped up big-time in the first half and carried us offensively," junior guard Stephen Pelkofer said. "Then in the second half, they might have keyed in on him and we just hit big shots. Rich [Richard] hit a couple inside, I hit a couple outside, then it's like picking your poison."
Virginia Wesleyan got off to a quick 13-6 start in the first seven-plus minutes after a 3 by Moore but a barrage of 3-pointers helped UW-Stevens Point build a three-point halftime lead. Jordan Lutz hit a 3 to start the comeback and Ryf added back-to-back 3s, as part of a 13-point first half, to put the Pointers ahead by three.
"We talked about [Virginia Wesleyan], how they are very explosive and we knew they would land punches," Semling said. "We knew they were going to sting us and they might bloody our lip, but our guys were prepared for that mentally. They knew we were going to see a really good team and we hung in there till we got back on track."
Ryf was joined in double figures by Richard and Stephen Pelkofer. Richard shot 7-for-11 from the field and scored 11 of his 17 points in the second half. Pelkofer added 14 points, six rebounds and five assists, with a dozen of his points coming after halftime.
UW-Stevens Point shot 50.0 percent from the field in both halves to offset a season-high 15 turnovers. Virginia Wesleyan shot a blistering 62.5 percent in the first half but was hampered with 11 first-half turnovers.
The Marlins cooled off in the second half, shooting 32.1 percent after the break, to finished at 43.2 percent. Moore led Virginia Wesleyan with 18 points on 7-for-12 from the field, including 4-for-6 from behind the arc. Greg Montgomery added 15 off the bench, to help the Marlins hold a 20-2 edge in bench scoring.