Oshkosh closes door on unfinished business

More news about: UW-Oshkosh
Matt Lewis holds the net aloft before flinging it into the air in Fort Wayne.
Matt Lewis holds the net aloft before flinging it into the air in Fort Wayne.
Photo by Matt McClure, d3photography.com

By Ryan Scott

Last year ended one step short of a national title for UW-Oshkosh, and that was tough for the Titans to take.

“Getting to the national championship game and losing is one of the most devastating feelings,” said UW-Oshkosh senior All-America selection Ben Boots. “We knew that were fortunate enough to get back, we weren’t going to let that happen again.”

They didn’t.

The Titans set a record for made 3-point field goals against Nebraska Wesleyan in the 2018 title game, but it wasn’t enough. If they were going to redeem that loss, they were going to have to get better. Doing whatever it took to win became a mission.

Senior Brett Witchow added, “It’s been the only thing on my mind the whole year. We were tested; we got everybody’s best shot and we found a way to win.”

They took Swarthmore’s best shot in the championship game and came out on top, leading from start to finish, winning 96-82. Junior All-American and NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player Jack Flynn led the way, nearly unstoppable in the paint on both ends of the floor. He finished with a game-high 33 points on 13-for-18 shooting.

Accustomed to being the bigger team, Swarthmore struggled with the length and height Oshkosh brought to the table. The Titans led 11-0 before Garnet All-American Zac O’Dell hit a putback layup to start the scoring.

Swarthmore eventually settled in and got the deficit down to three late in the first half, but it was the closest they would get in the contest, unable to make key stops down the stretch and simply not shooting as well as UWO.

“[They were] obviously the better team tonight,” said Swarthmore head coach Landry Kosmalski. “Their experience last year getting to this game and losing helped them a lot. Definitely worth national champions.”

Returning all but one player from the rotation, Oshkosh didn’t rest on their laurels, but spent the off-season improving. Flynn was perhaps the most obvious example, transforming himself from a pretty one-dimensional big man, to a mobile, active presence on both ends of the floor. His offense was something Swarthmore just could not come close to stopping.

“Definitely [I’ve developed] a left hand,” said Flynn. “Last year I’m not sure I could hit one standing under the basket.” This year he was devastating with both hands and on defense. Also, he’s just a junior. Losing just Boots and Witchow, Oshkosh will be a formidable defending champion.

Runners-up Swarthmore lose just one player of their own. All-American Cam Wiley had one of the best weekends of his life, scoring 43 over the two games and solidifying his place in Swarthmore history.

Wiley reflected on how far the program has come in just a short time. “What we’ve accomplished I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams. People forget how quickly our program got to this level. We’ve sacrificed our individual desires for the good of the team in ways that fans and media don’t really understand.”

Kosmalski added, “We’re really proud of our guys, the way they battled all season, the way they battled today. We sacrificed and committed a lot. A disappointing ending doesn’t take away from the great season we had.”

“Swarthmore was really impressive,” said Oshkosh interim head coach, Matt Lewis, a former UWO assistant who took over the program after Pat Juckem left for Washington University in the offseason. “They are so well coached; they just kept coming at us.”

“I couldn’t have asked for a better group of guys,” said Lewis about his team, “I remember the days when [Boots and Witchow] committed, special days. From those days forward, we knew we were going to have something special. Today in the hotel, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous, but I realized, ‘What’s there to be nervous about [my players] are incredible; they have so much confidence in themselves and what we’re doing. As coaches, we just have to not screw it up. Our guys played the way they can and I’m so proud.”

One face not present was Juckem, who recruited and trained not just the Oshkosh players who won this title, but Lewis himself. Both coaches have talked about the depth of the friendship between the two and Lewis teared up as he spoke of Juckem’s part in his life.

“There are couple people I look up to in the basketball world,” said Lewis, “Pat is one of them. He did an unbelievable job mentoring me and I miss the heck out of him.”

Flynn, Wiley, and O’Dell, who led Swarthmore with 22 points and 11 rebounds in the championship game, were named to the All-Tournament team, along with Oshkosh junior Adam Fravert and D3hoops.com National Player of the Year, Aston Francis. But individual awards pale in comparison to the collective achievement of a championship.

Oshkosh is the fourth WIAC team to win a Division III title, but it’s the first for the school, helping to cement a legacy that will carry on into the future, one Lewis and the players are excited to be in the center of.

“We were sitting in the locker room a year ago on this night,” said Lewis, “while Nebraska Wesleyan was celebrating. We all looked at each other in tears, crying our eyes out, dreaming about getting back to this stage and cutting down the final nets.”

Mission accomplished.