Men’s basketball shocked by IWU in second round
Prior to the March 6 second-round game, Washington University and Illinois Wesleyan University had faced each other three times before in the Division III men’s basketball NCAA tournament. The Titans had prevailed in all three games.
This contest was no different.
The No. 1 Bears could not overcome a seven-point deficit with 3:11 left in the game, losing 75-70 to Illinois Wesleyan University and ending the team’s run at a third straight national championship.
“We’ve won a lot of close games in our four years at Wash. U.,” senior co-captain Cameron Smith said, “and we have found a lot of different ways to make things happen throughout games, especially at the end of games: getting stops here, making big buckets there. This was just a game where we couldn’t make big plays happen at the end of the game. That was the only difference.”
Senior co-captain Aaron Thompson recorded 20 points in the game, but was limited in the game with foul trouble. Junior Spencer Gay had 14 points and 13 rebounds, but the Titans’ Sean Johnson scored 24 points.
A 7-0 run gave the Titans a 17-10 lead with 12:30 left in the first half. Turnovers and missed shots plagued the Bears, 2 of 9 from beyond the three-point arc in the period.
Thompson and graduate student Sean Wallis, a co-captain, were forced to sit through most of the first half because of foul trouble. The two combined for just four points and 18 minutes in the period.
With the Bears’ two leading scorers out of the game, the Titans maintained their lead.
“When you have two All-Americans on your team, and they’re both on the bench, it pretty much limits you, particularly when the team is used to counting on their scoring all year long and they’re not out there to give it to you,” Edwards said. “To me, that was the biggest problem we had.”
A layup with 1:18 left in the half gave the Titans an eight-point lead, its largest of the half, but the Red and Green managed to cut it just to three by halftime.
Thompson hit a three-pointer, his first of the night, only six seconds into the second period to tie the game. Gay gave the Bears the lead on the following possession, but it lasted only 23 seconds and would be the Bears’ only lead for the rest of the game.
“We were definitely capable of playing better than we did, but, at the same time, I’m not going to fault our kids,” head coach Mark Edwards said. “We got beaten by a team that was better than us that night. Whether they’re better than us overall, I don’t know, but they were that night.”
Sophomore Jordan Zimmer’s layup gave Illinois Wesleyan a 48-39 advantage with 14:18 left in the game. Aaron Thompson got the Red and Green within just one point at the 1:46 mark, but the Bears could not complete the comeback.
“It just seemed to me that we couldn’t get over the hump, couldn’t get the big stop that we needed when we needed it, and they just made some plays,” Smith said.
With the Titans up by just three with 15 seconds left, Doug Sexauer corralled an offensive rebound off a missed free throw. After he was fouled, his two free throws put the game out of reach.
“[The win] was definitely in our grasp,” Gay said. “The last play, there was a loose rebound, and we definitely had a chance, but it slipped out of our fingers.”
The loss snapped the Bears’ 14-game NCAA tournament win streak, and ended the careers of the winningest class in school history.
“We would be demeaning to the careers of our seniors and Sean [Wallis] if we focused upon just this one game,” Edwards said. “Obviously, in the locker room everybody was down, but that’s the emotion of sports. Once that wears off, and you look back at your accomplishments and what these guys have done together, you’ve got to feel good about that.”
“I’m sure in five years, when I look back at my career at Wash. U., I’m not going to remember this game, but right now it’s hard to think of much else, honestly, because you live for the game that you’re playing, not for your past successes,” Smith said. “Each game is the most important game you’ve ever played, so it hurts, but we’ll be all right.”