Langston Hood, Senior Sports Writer
Last week played host to the NCAC men’s basketball tournament, which began Tuesday, Feb. 21 and ran through Saturday, Feb. 25. The tournament field featured the top eight teams in the conference, leaving only the Kenyon Owls at home while the rest of the teams competed for the title of NCAC Champion. Wooster earned the one seed after winning the regular season competition thanks to a win over Wabash in the last game of the regular season.
Wooster’s victory and subsequent NCAC regular season championship set them on a collision course with Oberlin, as the Yeoman would serve as the first stop on the Scot’s revenge tour. In their last meeting with the Yeoman, Wooster was defeated for the first time in decades, but that would not be the case in the rematch. The Fighting Scots ran the Yeoman out of the gym in a commanding 92-77 victory, highlighted by junior Carter Warstler’s offensive explosion off the bench. The marksman put up 25 points, going 8-11 with six three-pointers. Warstler’s performance pushed the Scots to victory along with junior Elijah Meredith’s 19 points and a trademark performance from sophomore Jamir Billings, which featured 15 points and four steals. This dominant victory over Oberlin would set Wooster up to host both of the semifinal games, their own against Denison and a match up between the two Indiana schools of DePauw and Wabash.
Friday night would be one characterized by revenge, as Denison defeated Wooster 78-70 in their last regular season meeting. The Fighting Scots seemed to take that personally, as they came into the matchup looking for vengeance. The first half was highly contested with Wooster only stretching their lead to eight at multiple points in the half. Heading into halftime Wooster would hold their eight point lead as the half closed at 37-29.
In the second half, Wooster would stretch their lead to 12 by way of a Meredith three-pointer, but the Big Red would roar back and cut the lead to single digits. A flurry of points from junior Nick Everett at the 12-minute mark would stretch the lead from nine to thirteen as he scored six consecutive points, dominating the paint. Everett would add three more points, before a Meredith bucket would bring his individual brilliance to an end. However, the damage was done at that point as Wooster held a 59-43 lead with 9:34 to play in the second half. The Scots would end the game on a 20-11 run to end the Big Red’s season with another commanding win by a score of 79-54.
The Fighting Scots had avenged their last regular season loss on the back of double digit performances from Najee Hardaway ’22, Meredith and Everett who dropped 15, 15 and 11, respectively. Hardaway and Billings also served as the playmakers on the day dishing out six and nine assists, respectively. This victory set the Scots up on a collision course with the Little Giants of Wabash, after their victory over DePauw. Of note, this was the first time in the long rivalry between the Little Giants and the Tigers that the two met on a neutral court. The title game had all the makings of a classic with the overused and tired white and red of the Little Giants marching into the Timken to try and steal a victory from the regular season champion Fighting Scots.
As the game tipped off, Wooster may have suffered from their overdominant showings in the first two games of the tournament. Wabash rattled in three straight triples to go up nine just two minutes into the game. But the elder statesmen Najee Hardaway had an answer, adding a three-pointer of his own to get the Scots on the board in this highly contentious title game. Wabash would continue unfazed as they answered with two more three-pointers to take a commanding 15-3 lead on the Scots homecourt. It was clear from the outset that if Wooster wanted to stay in this game they were going to have to respond and endure the shooting masterclass that Wabash displayed early on. Wooster would battle back to cut the lead to eight, courtesy of a pair of Everett free throws.
But, the big red machine that is Wabash, clad in the red and white striped overalls that are seared into every Wooster fan’s memory, continued to roar. At about the eight-minute mark, Wabash would take a 17-point lead, but this seemed to startle the Scots as they went on a 9-0 run to cut the lead to eight and pull themselves back into the game. Billings played a vital role in this comeback as he hit three triples to cut the lead to seven as part of his never before seen shooting display. Wooster would continue to fight with everything in them, cutting the lead to just three thanks to a pair of Everett free throws. Despite another pair of Billing’s three-pointers Wooster would head into the break trailing 48-42, as the all-world sophomore looked like the third splash brother, raining in six three’s on seven attempts in the first half. The backcourt of Hardaway and Billings also played every minute of the first half as Everett added 15 points of his own including a flawless 5-5 from the charity stripe.
The second half proved that the game was anyone’s to take as senior Turner Kurt and Meredith combined for an early flurry to cut the Wabash lead to just one point. A convenient foul call for the Little Giants stretched the lead back to three. A timely Billings answer knotted the game at 50-50 with 17:39 to play. The rest of the second half proved to be a true street fight, for every run Wabash had, Wooster responded and the two NCAC powers went back and forth over and over again.
Knotted at 74, the game was coming down to its much anticipated end, as the team’s had been each other’s equal for the majority of the afternoon. The second half of junior J.J. Cline’s trip to the free throw line saw Wooster go up by one, before Wabash answered with two free throws of their own. Both teams would go cold until Billings rained in his tenth three of the game, breaking the Wooster record for single-game threes, and giving the Scots a 78-76 lead. Wabash would take the lead right back with an old-fashioned three point play, before a pair of pressure-packed Meredith free throws gave Wooster a one-point lead. Wabash would go ahead with a lucky turnaround jumper from the eventual player of the tournament and Wooster would get the ball back with just under 10 seconds to play. The final possession was pure calamity and completely unrepresentative of the offensive prowess Wooster had displayed all afternoon, it resulted in a forced three from Billings as time expired, giving Wabash, not just a one point victory, but an NCAC tournament championship.
Despite the team’s loss, Cline reflected positively on the season, “My favorite memory from our season was that our team was fortunate to play in the 125th game between Wooster and Wittenberg. This rivalry is historic in Division III basketball. The two teams are number one and two in wins in the division. Being able to play in that game and knowing the magnitude of the rivalry was something special. And of course, being on the court when Turner Kurt hit the game winning three for the regular season NCAC championship will be a memory I will never forget.”
Congratulations to the Fighting Scots Basketball Team on a great season.