|Once Nate Schimonitz got back into the lineup and got his legs under him, Nebraska Wesleyan started rolling.
Photos by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com
By Nathan Ford
Nebraska Wesleyan’s hopes for a special season took a hit with 1.7 seconds left in its exhibition game. They weren’t fully restored until Nate Schimonitz awoke from surgery over a week later.
After an all-conference freshman campaign in which Schimonitz averaged a team-high 19.1 points and 4.0 assists while leading NWU to a share of the Iowa Conference title, coach Dale Wellman was eager to see how good his star point guard could get.
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On Nov. 13, Schimonitz piled up 25 points on 8-of-16 shooting and four assists in 36 minutes as the Prairie Wolves beat Peru State 103-96. Everything was clicking.
“(Schimonitz) played unbelievable in the preseason,” Wellman said. “Really got us going.”
NWU, also returning its next top five scorers from 2016-17, was certainly capable of an outstanding campaign without him. Still, seeing Schimonitz go down with a knee injury in the final seconds of a game that didn’t count put a damper on the upcoming season’s tipoff.
“For that to happen, obviously I felt for him, and then felt for his teammates, who get to play with him,” Wellman said. “He’s a great guy to play with; he makes everyone better.”
As Schimonitz waited for the results of his MRI exam, there was doubt about how long he’d be out. Knee injuries are common in sports and often come with lengthy recovery periods. This was new to a guy who couldn’t recall missing more than one game at a time in his basketball career.
He eventually learned one of two surgeries would be required to repair a torn meniscus.
One would keep him off the court for four to six weeks.
The other would sideline him for four to six months. Or, all of what had been expected to be a promising 2017-18 season.
“I actually didn’t know until I got out of the surgery (which operation was performed) because that’s when they made the decision,” Schimonitz said.
“It was a new experience and tough to handle, but I was just thankful that I would have some season to play at some point.”
So was Nebraska Wesleyan.
In the right hands
With 13 seconds left last Friday and host UW-Platteville having just taken its first lead in more than 11 minutes, Nebraska Wesleyan called timeout with its season on the brink.
|Nate Schimonitz hit plenty of big shots against UW-Platteville in the Sweet 16.
Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com
In a hostile environment against the eighth-ranked team in the country, Wellman knew exactly who was getting the ball.
Even on a team with six players who average double figures in scoring, there is a go-to guy in situations like this.
“I don’t think there was any question in my mind …” Wellman said. “I knew I wanted to draw up something to get the ball in Nate’s hands. He’s been in that situation.”
Fellow sophomore Jack Hiller brought the ball up and Schimonitz raced from his position on the left block to get it at the top of the key. The Prairie Wolves cleared out the right side, and Schimonitz went to work.
“Once I saw that I had 1-on-1, I just tried to get the best shot I could and figured I could kind of use my height (6-4) to shoot over him,” Schimonitz said. “So once I got to about 5 to 10 feet, I felt comfortable and just rose up and took the best shot that I could.”
With 3.1 seconds to go, Schimonitz banked in the go-ahead shot. The ensuing inbounds pass was tipped away and another March moment was sealed, as NWU moved on to the Elite Eight with a 79-78 victory.
Twenty-four hours later, that moment was confined to history. A 33-point victory over the undefeated, No. 1 team in the country tends to stand out.
Schimonitz made seven of eight shots and finished with 16 points and five assists in a 130-97 demolition of Whitman. Hiller was 6-of-10 from 3-point range and scored 30 points. Deion Wells-Ross, the team’s only senior, had 21 points and 15 boards. Cooper Cook also scored 21. Ryan Garver filled up the box score with 14 points, seven rebounds and eight assists. The team shot 68.1 percent.
Everything was clicking.
“It was a fun thing to be a part of, because our team is so deep because we don’t really have one guy who will score all the time,” Schimonitz said. “We have so many guys who can go off … It’s just a lot of fun to see everyone doing their thing and everyone having fun out there together.”
Back at full speed
Wellman was expecting cohesion on Dec. 30 at Grinnell, another full-court pressing team. It was Schimonitz’s first game back and the Prairie Wolves were 10-0 in his absence. The next gear was surely coming next.
Yet Schimonitz struggled to gain his footing (and his conditioning). He was 3-of-13 from the field in his first two games. In a 91-73 loss to Buena Vista on Jan. 3, he had four turnovers and zero assists.
“I needed to learn that it’s going to take a little time,” Wellman said. “He’s going to have to feel comfortable on his knee and he’s going to have to feel comfortable with the team and the roles were going to have to change again. He was going to have to play.”
NWU took a pair of overtime losses in January, but Schimonitz kept getting better. He pinpoints the final week of the regular season as the final step.
In wins over Buena Vista, Loras (both games which avenged previous losses) and Wartburg, Schimonitz totaled 83 points and 21 assists. He’s kept it rolling through the postseason and is now averaging 17.3 points and 5.1 assists for the season, helping Nebraska Wesleyan (28-3) to its first Final Four since 1997. The Wolves will take on Springfield (22-8) at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Salem, Virginia.
“I think a lot of it had to do with being more aggressive, feeling comfortable and attacking the rim and not being scared of contact,” Schimontiz said. “Having full confidence in my knee being 100 percent and also just being well-conditioned again to play a full game and play two or three games in one week.”
Ever since that time, Wellman has noticed what he calls a “laser focus” in his guys. It was apparent when the team rallied from 18 down with less than 11 minutes left to beat Central in the Iowa Conference championship, and in all four NCAA wins thus far.
Schimonitz and Wellman both pointed to Wells-Ross as a big reason why.
“When we need to dial things in, he’ll tell us to,” Schimonitz said. “Every game here is not just the last of his season, but the last of his college career if we lose. So that will help us all play for him and lock in again.”
On a team that is deeper than most, everyone knows their roles. Wells-Ross is the senior leader. Garver is the lockdown defender. Schimonitz is the clutch-shot creator.
When they started functioning together again, a really good team became elite.
“It was just right back to where we were in the preseason,” Wellman said. “Everything clicked. Guys knew their roles. It helped us peak at the right time.”