Seniors lead men’s basketball to win in first round

| Managing Editor

Zoe Kline | Student Life

An official signals for a jump ball as senior Rob Burnett (top of pile) and sophomore Matt Palucki (middle) fight for a loose ball with a Spalding University player. The game was physical from the onset, but Washington University emerged with a +17 advantage in rebounding margin.

Even if the official celebration was last week, Saturday might as well have been the Washington University men’s basketball team’s Senior Day.

Seniors Rob Burnett and Ben Hoener carried the No. 17 Bears to a 70-61 victory over Spalding University in the first round of the NCAA Division III national championship tournament. The win advances Wash. U. to the second round, where it will face rival Illinois Wesleyan University next Saturday.

It was the seniors who carried the Bears down the stretch as Hoener and Burnett scored 23 of the Red and Green’s final points. Burnett collected 10 rebounds to go with his 13 points for his third double-double of the season, and Hoener finished with 19 points on the night.

When the final horn sounded, Wash. U. had a 43-24 advantage in rebounds, including a +17 margin (26-9) in the second half.

“Every night is a battle for us down low, but we worked together and really focused on playing good defense. That generates points on the other end with easy buckets,” Burnett said. “Me, [sophomore Matt Palucki and junior Chris Klimek] are all very hard workers around the basket, and we know that if one of us comes up with a tipped ball or blocked shot, it is going to result in another possession because we are all long and we can all go for the ball.”

“I think the big difference between the first half and the second half was the rebounding,” head coach Mark Edwards added. “That is indicative of the intensity that we had during the second half.”

The game was physical from the beginning, and an ugly first half for both sides ended in a 29-29 tie. The Bears shot just 33.3 percent from the field and largely kept pace with some timely three-pointers.

“We took a vote to see if we wanted to come out for the second half, and we did,” head coach Mark Edwards joked. “We took a vote to see if we wanted to turn up the defense a little bit, and we thought we did.”

Junior Alan Aboona led the way at the break with eight points and two early three-pointers, and Hoener chipped in seven points off the bench. Wash. U.’s offense was hindered in the first half by Klimek’s two quick fouls, as he played just nine minutes and had two points and two rebounds.

Klimek came out of the break with a vengeance, scoring more points in the first three minutes than he had the entire first half with a fast break layup and a free throw. Spalding started the second half shooting 1-9 before making a fast break layup, cutting the Bears’ lead to one at 34-33.

At that point, head coach Mark Edwards went to a smaller lineup, substituting in the six-foot Hoener for six-foot-seven-inch Burnett. This spread out Spalding’s defense, and Palucki responded with a big three-pointer to push the lead to 39-33.

“I think [coming off the bench] is a mindset that suits me a little. It lets the game get into a rhythm, and I have fun disrupting that rhythm,” Hoener said. “If the other team thinks they have figured us out, I like to think that I can come in and mess them up a little. It’s fun for me. I have had many different roles on this team throughout the years, and I think Coach [Edwards] has finally found the right spot for me. It is fun for me to come in and provide a little energy, a spark off the bench, and help the team however I can.”

After Spalding managed to keep it close, Hoener took over. With the lead down to four and the shot clock winding down, Hoener drove into the lane and was met by two much taller defenders. He leaped and wrapped a pass around a defender to a wide-open Burnett for an easy layup.

Two possessions later, Hoener once again found the ball in his hands with the shot clock winding down. This time he drove, stopped and spun around to swish a fadeaway jumper.

Two possessions after that, Hoener stripped Spalding’s Thomas Blakemore and beat two defenders for the fast break layup, screaming in motivation at the Wash. U. bench on his way back up the court.

Palucki swatted a layup from Spalding’s Cody Curtsinger on the ensuing possession and fed Hoener once again on the fast break. Hoener drove hard into the lane and spun around a defender for yet another layup, prompting a Spalding timeout as the Field House roared. Hoener’s six straight points pushed the Wash. U. lead to seven at 54-47.

“Sometimes the team gets into a lull, and it was really fun to get everybody fired up. I’m really proud of everybody and how hard we fought in the second half,” Hoener said. “The ball bounced in our area a couple times. Rob got some easy baskets; I got a couple easy baskets.”

From there, the Bears coasted to the finish. Although the lead shrunk to five with just under two minutes to play, back-to-back layups from Burnett quickly put the game out of reach.

“We knew they were a good team. We saw it on tape,” Edwards said. “We knew they were talented. We knew they were well coached. Tonight, we saw two teams ready for the tournament and one of them win…There is no doubt that these kids believe in themselves and believe in each other. Even on the nights when it didn’t go well, they don’t quit believing.”

No. 10 Illinois Wesleyan, a team Wash. U. has never beaten in the NCAA tournament, is next up. The two met earlier this season on Dec. 1, in a game the Bears won 67-57 in the Field House. Defense was the key to the victory in that one as the Red and Green held the Titans to 33.3 percent shooting on the night.

“When you’re playing in the tournament, you’re going to play good teams. We have a great history of great competition between the two schools over the years, and it seems that it ends up in the NCAA tournament a number of times,” Edwards said.

“We have played Illinois Wesleyan once, and we know the little things they do and the intricacies of their offense. I have the utmost confidence in our team,” Burnett said. “The coaches will put in a game plan, and we will follow it. We’ll work on honing our skills in preparation for Saturday’s game.”