Heartbreak at home: Bears ousted from NCAA tournament
A heartbreaking second-round loss in the Division III NCAA tournament Saturday night spelled the end to a season—and the end to an era of sorts—for the Washington University men’s basketball team.
No. 23 North Central College played with confidence, vigor and discipline on the No. 19 Bears’ home floor en route to a 72-68 win.
The Red and Green exceeded expectations this year by winning the University Athletic Association Championship after being ranked third in the preseason conference poll, but the second round NCAA loss was still tough to stomach, especially for the team’s three seniors, guards Dylan Richter and Jake Seymour and center Alex Toth, who began their Wash. U. careers as national champions in 2009.
“This is our carry-over group. These are the guys who were cutting down nets in [Salem, Va.,] as freshmen,” said head coach Mark Edwards, who was visibly emotional talking about his seniors and this year’s squad as a whole. “They’ve done a great job in transferring that emotion, that dedication that it takes in order to do that.”
The Bears reached the second round thanks to a 71-59 win over Buena Vista University Friday night. Richter scored 18 points on 7-17 shooting in the victory.
North Central entered the matchup fresh off a thrilling 74-71 victory over Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. The Cardinals demonstrated their energy and physicality early against the Bears, who found themselves in a 36-28 hole at halftime after shooting 34.6 percent and making only six of 13 free throws.
“The biggest thing in this game is that we just dug ourselves into too big of a hole,” Richter said. “We got close, but we never quite got over it.”
North Central extended the lead to nine before the Bears found life with five straight points that closed the deficit to 42-38. The Cardinals called a timeout, but it couldn’t halt the Red and Green’s momentum. Richter and junior guard Ben Hoener hit three-pointers, putting the team ahead for the first time in nearly 23 minutes of play, as the Bomb Squad erupted in delight.
But North Central persevered, answering every Wash. U. basket with a bucket of its own. From the 12:32 mark in the second half to 2:37, neither team attained a lead of more than four points. The Bears’ largest advantage in that span was two.
However, Wash. U. had picked up its tenth team foul of the second half with 4:03 left, meaning North Central would shoot two free throws on any foul for the duration of the game. The Cardinals hit their free throws down the stretch and pulled away to a 64-57 lead with 2:07 remaining. The Bears clawed back to 66-63 on a three-pointer by Hoener and got a key stop at the defensive end, but an offensive rebound by North Central’s Aaron Tiknis with 32 seconds remaining forced Wash. U. to foul intentionally.
The Cardinals’ Kevin Gillespie, who scored 22 points on only seven shots, knocked down both free throws. Wash. U. sophomore forward Chris Klimek put back a missed three-pointer by freshman guard Brayden Teuscher for a layup, but North Central again hit a pair from the charity stripe.
Richter connected on a difficult three-pointer with eight seconds left before Gillespie made two more free throws to seal the win for North Central. Despite his two momentous second-half threes, Richter could not seem to find his offensive rhythm, shooting 4-13 for the game. He scored 14 points while playing all 40 minutes.
Coming off the bench, Hoener shot six-of-seven and carried the Bears in the second half by scoring 14 of his team-high 16 points. Sophomore guard Alan Aboona (11 points) and freshman forward Matt Palucki (10 points) also turned in strong efforts. Klimek hauled in 10 rebounds but struggled to score inside against the Cardinals’ athletic big men, finishing with eight points on four-of-10 shooting.
“It’s a very disappointing way to end a season, but I’ve had as much fun this year as I’ve had any time I’ve been coaching,” Edwards said. “This has been a great bunch to coach, to battle with, share frustrations with, and we had our moments of glory, too.”
The Bears return three of five starters and most of their rotation players from this year’s 20-7 team for next season. Still, the loss of their three seniors cannot be underestimated.
“I just want to say that I wouldn’t want to play for any other captains in the entire country,” Hoener said. “Whether it’s Dylan keeping us loose in practice and making sure we have fun out there, or Jake just being there whenever you need support or anything, or Toth getting us fired up and getting us focused and ready to play. These guys are awesome. I couldn’t imagine playing under three better captains in my life.”