Four players scored in double figures to lead the Ohio Wesleyan men’s basketball team to its first North Coast Athletic Conference tournament title game appearance since the Bishops last won one in 2012-13.
“The guys were ready to play after losing at this point the last two straight years – I think the guys were pretty determined to play a championship game (Saturday night) on our home floor,” OWU coach Mike DeWitt said.
Junior guard Seth Clark and freshman post Grant Gossard scored 17 points apiece to lead top-seeded OWU to a 77-68 victory over fourth-seeded Wittenberg in the NCAC tournament semifinals Friday evening at Branch Rickey Arena.
Gossard scored 11 points in the second half, including a clutch three-pointer. He was back in the starting lineup for the first time since Dec. 29. after making starts in each of the first 10 games for the Bishops.
“We have, honestly, three, four, five guys that we feel comfortable putting in there – they just don’t have a lot of experience,” DeWitt said. “They’re young … so, they make a lot of freshmen mistakes. We’ve been playing that position by committee and Grant’s been playing well lately.”
Gossard’s 17 points is a new career high, besting the old one by four points. He scored in double figures for the sixth time this season. He also set a career high with eight rebounds.
“I felt fine when I wasn’t starting,” Gossard said. “I just knew that when I’m starting I’ve got to do my job and just do it better.”
Senior post Ben Simpson worked around first half foul trouble to post his 14th double-double of the season with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Junior guard Nate Axelrod came an assist shy of a double-double, finishing with 14 points and nine assists. He was held to one shot until the 11:09 mark of the second half when he buried the first of back-to-back threes. He was held to four first half free throws to that point.
“Wittenberg does as good a job of defending him as anybody,” DeWitt said. “Their guards do a good job of keeping Nate in front. I think as the game wore on, Nate wore them out a little bit and he found some gaps and Ben found him a couple of times for shots.
“You expect your best players to make plays … in that last 10 minutes, Nate made some big shots for us.”
Axelrod’s two threes kept the Bishops (21-6) afloat as Wittenberg tried to rally from a 15-point deficit in the second half.
Cody Phillippi knocked down a pair of three-pointers before Micah Miller added a third to get the Tigers (18-9) as close as five with 12:46 left.
Wittenberg got it as close as three in the second half. Chad Roy scored on back-to-back possessions, including a three-point play to cut the deficit to 62-59 with 8:53 left.
But OWU responded. Axelrod found Gossard at the top of the key for three to answer and Wittenberg never threatened again.
“You don’t see a freshman step up with confidence and hit threes like he did – he made a big one to stop a Wittenberg run,” DeWitt said. “He’s not afraid of the moment and he wasn’t afraid of the moment (Friday night).”
Axelrod assisted on five of OWU’s first six baskets after the Bishops had spotted Wittenberg a 4-0 lead 58 seconds into the game.
OWU ran off eight straight points to take the lead and never trailed again. Axelrod found Simpson for a dunk to start the run and then found him again for a three on the next possession to give OWU the lead.
“We’ve, unfortunately, gotten into the habit, preceding this game, to get down by 12 or 14 early … I’m glad we only got down four. That’s kind of easy for us,” DeWitt quipped.
Simpson was falling out of bounds when he found Gossard alone under the basket for a two-handed stuff to cap the early rally.
“(Gossard) has a knack for finding gaps and doing some things offensively that we were missing offensively,” DeWitt said. “That shows in some of the easy layups he’s able to get for himself.”
OWU pushed the lead to as much as nine at two different points in the first half, including a 35-26 lead at the break.
Roy had a game-high 23 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Tigers and Phillippi added 21 points, hitting five of Wittenberg’s six three-pointers.
OWU faces the winner of second-seeded Wooster and third-seeded Denison today at 4 p.m.
Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichdelgazette.