|Ben Boots has averaged 20.3 points per game for UW-Oshkosh in the Titans' four NCAA Tournament wins, including 20 in the second-round win at Wittenberg.
By Joe Sager
The UW-Oshkosh men’s basketball is grateful for a second chance.
The Titans are making the most of it, too.
A 71-63 loss to UW-Stevens Point in the WIAC semifinals left UW-Oshkosh in limbo. Would it still make the NCAA Tournament or would the Titans call it a season at 20-7?
The program received an at-large berth to the tournament and UW-Oshkosh knew it had to make some tweaks if it wanted to keep going.
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“As we entered the season, we felt that this team had a relatively high ceiling, potentially,” Titans coach Pat Juckem said. “With that, we knew we had a terrific nonconference schedule and our league was going to be extremely competitive. We had a lot of success and good performances, but also had some inconsistency. After we got to the conference tournament and lost in the semis, I could see that this is a team that has another level that it hasn’t reached at a consistent basis. So, we were hopeful to get at-large bid.
“Sometimes, you lose sight of where you are as a team. That loss allowed us to refocus ourselves and get better,” he continued. “One of the biggest things we needed to improve on was just taking better care of the basketball. There was some carelessness and a lot of it was unforced. It was nothing earth-shattering, just passing, catching, having good footwork and making the simple play. We had some drills that maybe addressed those, but, more so, it was just an emphasis. I saw our guys holding themselves accountable.”
The Titans (24-7) took those lessons to heart and are now one of four NCAA Division III teams left playing. They meet Ramapo (25-6) in the national semifinals at the Salem Civic Center on Friday.
“I am thrilled and excited for the guys and our program to have this opportunity. For all of us who work in basketball, you always hear so much about the Final Four. It’s the ultimate,” Juckem said. “We have more work to do, but we had a chance to take a step back and appreciate and be thankful for the opportunities that have come to us. It’ll be an experience none of us will forget.”
In addition to taking better care of the ball, UW-Oshkosh wanted to enhance its defense.
“We’ve been really good defensively some games and, other times, not so much. I challenged them to try to get three or four more stops each game. We’ve gotten enough stops to get to this point and we’ve played some talented teams that can really score so far this postseason,” Juckem said. “That’s not changing now. We’re playing a really, really impressive team next. When I watch tape on Ramapo, I know why they are here, let’s put it that way. We’re looking forward to competing against the best teams in the country. It’s a lot of fun.”
The Titans had a lot of fun in winning the program’s first sectional title, too. They beat Emory, 93-72, and Augustana, 95-88, in overtime.
“It’s really cool being a senior and seeing how much the program has grown over the past four years. It’s a testament to everyone involved,” Titans guard Charlie Noone said. “It’s such a long journey with so many peaks and valleys. We’ve tried to stay the course knowing it’s such a long grind. I couldn’t be happier with how the team has progressed and jelled and come together on and off the court. I am just excited to spend another week with my guys.”
Noone helped extend UW-Oshkosh’s season with a career-best 32 points against Emory. Junior Ben Boots one-upped him with a career-best 36 points in the victory over Augustana.
“That worked for us this past week. I wouldn’t say that’s the normal formula for us,” Boots said with a laugh. “It was just couple guys getting hot and hitting some shots.”
That a different player emerged both games is no surprise for the Titans, though. They have five guys averaging double figures in scoring – Boots (15.9 points per game), Jack Flynn (12.9), Adam Fravert (12.4), Brett Wittchow (10.6) and Noone (10.2).
“We are so balanced and teams can’t just key in on one guy. Just the fact we have so much talent and depth off the bench makes it difficult to stop one guy,” Boots said. “Charlie and I were able to get going in those games, but it’s a culmination of all the talent we have on the team.”
The team’s reserves have developed into valuable assets, too.
“We’ve had some huge contributions from our bench guys. Then, you add in some key performances like Ben had Saturday and it’s been pretty special to see,” Noone said. “It’s not just one or two guys stepping up every night. It can be a multitude of different guys. That’s what makes us special.”
Juckem is confident he can call upon many people to deliver in different situations.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
“The emergence of some of our reinforcements off the bench has been critical. We’ve been playing 12 guys in some of these games and every guy has made a contribution. They were making timely plays and smart plays and doing it on a really big stage,” he said. “I think that’s been a huge factor for us. I am really proud of those guys. We would not be playing this weekend without then, that’s for sure.”
That was especially true in the Augustana game. The UW-Oshkosh bench players – Kyle Beyak, David Vlotho, Jake Laihinen, Sam Ebersold, Connor Duax, Alex Van Dyke and Brian Wilman – produced 16 points and 11 rebounds in the overtime thriller. It was the second time this year the Titans and Vikings needed extra sessions. The two met Dec. 2 and UW-Oshkosh posted a 95-89 double-overtime victory.
“The atmosphere was all you can ask for and more. It was an amazing setting and two teams that were really familiar with each other battling every possession,” Boots said. “It was one of those games I’ll never forget. I am just happy to come out of there with a win.”
Added Noone, “They are an unbelievable program and the two games we played against them were the most physical and intense games we’ve had all year. We have a crazy amount of respect for them and it was just a great atmosphere.”
The Titans expect more of the same against Ramapo.
“It’s been a lot of fun so far,” Boots said. “We’re starting to play our best basketball now. Hopefully, we have two of our best games in front of us.”