Video by Ben McCombs, University Communications
MARIETTA, Ohio — The Wittenberg Tigers jumped out to a 16-point halftime lead and held off a stern challenge from La Roche College to capture a 74-68 first-round NCAA Division III Tournament victory.
The Tigers picked up their 15th NCAA Division III Tournament first-round victory against just three losses and improved 20-8 on the 2010-11 season. Wittenberg advanced to face host Marietta College, 67-62 winners over Centre College, in a second round game at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 5. La Roche, regular season and tournament champion of the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference, ended the finest season in school history with a record of 25-3.
The Redhawks, who were making their first national tournament appearance ever, held a three-point advantage at the 9:11 mark of the first half after a jumped by Joel McIntosh. But Wittenberg's offense got untracked at that point, starting with the third three-pointer of the first half from junior Michael Cooper (Springfield, Ohio/South). Wittenberg outscored La Roche 25-6 over the final 9:11 of the first half to take a commanding 42-26 lead into the locker room. The Tigers scored the last seven points of the half, starting with Cooper's fourth trey (on four attempts) and ending with a short jumper by senior Seth Hill (Bellefontaine, Ohio/Bellefontaine) with five seconds left.
The Tigers pushed the lead to 22 points on two free throws from junior Clayton Black (Lancaster, Ohio/Lancaster) at the 16:59 mark of the second half before the Redhawks picked up their defensive intensity and slowly whittled the lead down. A three-pointer from La Roche's leading scorer, Nate Wojciechowski, with 18 seconds left pulled La Roche to within four points. But after Cooper hit 1-of-2 free throws, Wojciechowski lost the handle on a three-point attempt and Black was fouled as he corralled the ensuing loose ball. He also hit 1-of-2 free throws to secure the six-point win.
A big key to the game was rebounding — Wittenberg won the battle by six in the first half and La Roche won it by 11 in the second, keying the comeback. The Tigers shot 44 percent from the field, while La Roche finished at 41 percent on nine more attempts. The Redhawks made four more three-pointers in the game, but Wittenberg held a 22-8 edge in made free throws, with the Tigers dropping 22-of-28 for the game.
Cooper was one of four Tigers to score double figures in the game, leading both teams with 23 points to match his career high established in the 2010 North Coast Athletic Conference Tournament championship game against Wooster. He also added 10 rebounds, four assists and four steals in a tremendous all-around performance.
Black finished with 22 points, including 10-of-12 from the free throw line. He also added four rebounds, two steals and four blocked shots to the Tigers' total team effort. Also of note was the play of junior Alex Brandt (Lewis Center, Ohio/Olentangy) with 12 points and a game-high 12 rebounds and Hill with 11 points and three rebounds in 25 quality minutes off the bench. Leading scorerChris Sullivan (Columbus, Ohio/Upper Arlington) was held scoreless for the first time in the 2010-11 season, missing all seven of his shots from the field.
Head Coach Bill Brown was pleased with his team's effort, noting that the Tigers picked up important contributions from players throughout the line-up to overcome Sullivan's off night.
"For us to score 74 points and have such good team balance tonight, I hope that bodes well for us," he said. "We're moving on and that's what it's all about now."