MADISON, Wis. – It's amazing what happens when a team simply refuses to let their season end. The Edgewood College men's basketball team, thought by many to be in rebuilding mode under second year head coach Justin Meyer, pulled a shocker over Lakeland College in the NACC Tournament semifinals. The seventh-seed Eagles stunned the third-seed Muskies 77-76 to advance to their third NACC Tournament championship game in the last four years.
Edgewood College (13-14) had lost twice to the Muskies in the regular season, including a 73-66 loss in the Edgedome just a week ago. The Eagles trailed for a vast majority of the first half, but wouldn't let the taller Muskies put them away. A three-pointer by Lakeland's Justin Ward put the Muskies ahead 18-9 after six minutes of play. The Eagles never panicked and began to chip away from the three-point line. Triples on back-to-back possessions by Joe Klocek and Matt Savatski and a short jumper in the paint pulled the Eagles back to 21-19. The Eagles didn't regain the lead before halftime, but stayed close at 40-36, thanks to a Tal Diekvoss three-point shot in the final minute.
If the first half was close, the second half was like a rush hour ride in a New York City subway car. The Eagles opened the half with another three-pointer from Diekvoss, a three-point play by Trevor Neale and a pair of free throws by Dylan Rusch to take a 44-43 over Lakeland College (19-8). The two teams would trade the lead 15 times in the second half, as Rusch seemed to answer every Muskie basket with a play of his own.
Trailing 48-47, Rusch put the team on his back. The junior guard from Jackson scored 16 of the Eagles' next 19 points. In fact, for a nearly 13 minute stretch of the second half, no Edgewood College player other than Rusch scored a field goal. Yet, the Eagles trailed 71-66 with four minutes to play.
Edgewood College went inside to Williams who scored on a putback and a post move to bring the Eagles within two at 72-70. After a Lakeland miss, Rusch tied the game at 72-72 with a ridiculous contested runner in the paint. The Muskies' Joey Burris looked for three on the other end but was off target. Diekvoss was fouled by Lakeland's Stan McKenzie on the rebound. Diekvoss calmly sank two free throws, but then watched as Zach Van Engen's three-point shot put Lakeland back in front 75-74 with 2:10 to play.
The Eagles and Muskies traded a two empty possessions each, but Lakeland got to the free throw line with 32 seconds left after Edgewood College failed to collect an defensive rebound and was forced to foul. Van Engen made one of two free throws to set the stage for the biggest moment of Joe Klocek's college career.
Trailing 76-74, the Eagles' Rusch attempted to drive the right lane line, but lost the ball out to Emilio Lopez on the wing. Lopez took advantage of the brief loose ball and penetrated hard into the paint, drawing two Muskie defenders. Lopez kicked out to an open Klocek just left of the top of the key. Klocek fired and was leveled by McKenzie on his follow through. The three-point shot rippled the net, silencing the raucous Woltzen Gymnasium and giving the Eagles a 77-76 lead.
Klocek missed his free throw attempt, but the Muskies' Burris missed on a long two-point shot on the other end. Williams ripped down his ninth rebound of the game and was fouled with 4.3 seconds to play. But again, the Eagles couldn't convert at the line as Williams missed the front end of a bonus and Lakeland called timeout with 3.6 seconds remaining. Lakeland inbounded from the sideline in their own backcourt and threw the ball ahead to James Oshkesequoam. He made one dribble to free himself, but his 24-foot attempt at the buzzer struck the front of the iron and bounced away.
Rusch was unbelievable. He went 8-for-9 from the field in the second half and scored 20 of the Eagles' 41 points. He finished with 27 points. Diekvoss made four three-pointers and scored 18 points, his career-high as an Eagle. His collegiate career high is 21 points, which was set in the same gym as a freshman on the Lakeland College team in 2010-11. Klocek's game-winning shot was his third of the night and gave him 11 points to go with a team-high five assists and eight rebounds. Williams led the Eagles with nine rebounds. Edgewood College was 11-for-20 from the three-point line and shot 58.3 percent from the field in the second half.
Lakeland College received 18 points and 10 rebounds from their star senior Ward, who closed out a stellar career. Burris came off the bench to hit four three-point shots and finish with 17 points. Van Engen had 13 points and five assists for the Muskies. While Lakeland shot 56.5 percent in the first half, the Eagles held them to just 30.6 percent in the second half.
Edgewood College will return to the NACC Tournament championship game after just a one year absence. In 2012, a senior laden club defeated Lakeland College in the title and went on to record the Eagles' and the NACC's first ever NCAA Tournament victory. This time around, Edgewood College will be the decided underdog facing NACC champion and top seed Marian University at Sadoff Gymnasium in Fond du Lac. The Eagles and Sabres will battle for an NCAA Tournament bid beginning at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday evening. Marian University will provide a live videostream of the game. Links can be found at EdgewoodCollegeEagles.com.