Senior post Ben Simpson scored 14 of his 18 points in the second half to lead the Ohio Wesleyan men’s basketball team almost all the way back from a 21-point second half deficit.
But, his go-ahead three-point attempt with 13 seconds left rimmed out and the Battling Bishops fell 76-72 to Wooster in the championship game of the North Coast Athletic Conference tournament Saturday afternoon at Branch Rickey Arena.
“When you look at the stats, there was no way we should have been in the game,” OWU coach Mike DeWitt said. “So, I’m really proud of our effort to get back from down (21) to have literally a shot go in and out to take the lead at the end.”
The win gave Wooster head coach Steve Moore career win No. 800. Moore spent his first six seasons heading Muhlenberg College and the last 30 with the Scots, who captured their 16th NCAC tournament championship.
The game featured six of the NCAC’s top 15 scorers.
Senior Dan Fanelly, second in the league in scoring, earned the Al Van Wie Award as the tournament’s most valuable player thanks to a 34-point, nine-rebound effort. He had 32 points and eight rebounds in Wooster’s semifinal victory over Denison.
“When he can control his emotions, he’s probably the best player in our conference,” DeWitt said. “For two nights – he was able to do that in some very hostile environments both nights. That’s a no-brainer for tournament MVP.”
Junior Spencer Williams, 11th in the league in scoring, added 18 points and went 5-for-10 from the floor and sophomore Reece Dupler, 15th in scoring, pitched in 14 points on 6-for-12 shooting.
OWU’s top three struggled from the field. Simpson, sixth in the league in scoring, finished 7-for-15 from the field; Nate Axelrod, fourth in the league, struggled to a 3-for-17 performance from the field and Seth Clark, ninth in scoring, finished 3-for-12.
“You need your best players to step up and I don’t think ours did,” DeWitt said. “Our three best players didn’t play as well as their three best players and I think that was the difference.”
Simpson posted a game-high 17 rebounds in the setback, Axelrod finished with 12 points, five assists and a couple of steals and Clark added 11 points and five rebounds.
“In a game that close, you’re counting on your leaders to step up and be able to finish shots and make shots – I think that was a lot of the difference in the outcome,” DeWitt.
Williams knocked down a couple of free throws to give Wooster a 58-37 lead with 11:57 left – the largest lead of the game for the Scots.
OWU scored 11 of the next 15 points on layups by Erick Bryant, Grant Gossard and two straight by Simpson, the second of which came off his own steal. Will Orr knocked down a short jumper in the midst of the run.
Bryant added 10 points and three rebounds in 13 minutes off the bench.
“He developed into a valuable guy off the bench for us over time,” DeWitt said. “He’s just a good, solid player. You know what he’s going to get when you put him in the game. He’s going to make open shots and he plays hard – he’s undersized, but he gets some things done.”
Fanelly kept Wooster afloat with 24 points in the second half. He had a layup and a pair of free throws on consecutive possessions to push the lead back to 14 with 7:46 left.
Orr, Clark and Gossard each knocked down three-pointers down the stretch. Clark added another from long distance with 54 seconds left to cut it to 74-70.
Simpson stole the ensuing inbound pass out of a timeout and laid it in to get it to two. Simpson rebounded a missed layup on the next possession, but his go-ahead three-point attempt from the left wing rimmed out.
Fanelly rebounded and buried both free throws for the final margin.
The Scots used a 10-2 run to break a 10-10 tie and never trailed after a Williams layup with 15:25 left in the half off a Milt Davis offensive rebound. Wooster led 39-30 at the break.
The win gives Wooster (21-7) the NCAC’s automatic bid for the NCAA Division III tournament. The Scots have won five straight and 15 out of the last 16.
Meanwhile, DeWitt isn’t confident in OWU’s chances at an at-large bid. The Bishops (21-7) won the NCAC regular season title on the strength of a 14-game winning streak, which was snapped in the title game.
“Our strength of schedule, through no fault of our own, isn’t good because the bottom of our conference was weak this year,” DeWitt said. “We’re too far down in the regional rankings and there are too many teams ahead of us to, honestly, really even be considered.”
The pairings will be announced today at 12:30 p.m.
“I would be shocked … absolutely floored if we get into it,” DeWitt added.
Williams, Simpson, Axelrod, Cody Phillippi of Wittenberg and Jett Speelman of Denison joined Fanelly on the All-Tournament team.
Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichdelgazette.