Another thrilling North Coast Athletic Conference clash between The College of Wooster men's basketball team and Ohio Wesleyan University came down to the wire, where in the end, the Fighting Scots' all-around stifling defensive effort and dominance in the rebounding department won out as the Black and Gold warded off a late charge by the ninth-ranked Battling Bishops to win 73-70 on Saturday afternoon at Branch Rickey Arena.
Wooster (10-3, 4-2 NCAC), which picked up its second win of the season against a team ranked in the top 10 of the D3hoops.com poll, controlled the pace from the start and held Ohio Wesleyan (10-3, 5-1 NCAC) to over 18 points under its season average. Individually, leading scorer Seth Clark faced tough sledding against the Scots, as he was held to nine points, thanks to the defensive efforts of sophomore Danyon Hempy and junior Blake Blair. Of note, Clark didn't hit a 3-pointer in the contest, and he came into the tilt sporting a 44.7 percentage from beyond the arc while making nearly four per night.
"The guys were really determined," said head coach Steve Moore on the defensive effort. "They really played with great desire today. Defense was a big key. Danyon did another great job going against Seth, and Blake stepped up and guarded him too when Danyon picked up his second foul. Overall, I think our guys played very good team defense."
Wooster, which won the rebounding battle 51-30, saw all nine players who entered the game record at least two rebounds, and in fact, the Scots nearly matched the Bishops total rebounding total on the offensive end where Wooster was in total command 21-4.
Senior Alex Baptiste was at the forefront early on the glass, and for the game he logged nine of Wooster's 21 offensive boards. Two of those came in the opening 1:51 when the forward cleaned up a pair of Wooster misses to cap an early 8-0 scoring spree.
"Alex's offensive rebounding was very important in us building the lead," said Moore. "Alex was very active going to the boards. He's more aggressive and more confident now, and we want him to keep that going."
Later in the game, classmate Ari Stern hustled down four offensive rebounds, two in each half. The final one led to an assist by the senior that had Wooster up 11 with 3:44 to go in the second stanza.
"Ari's rebounds were at critical points of the game as it gave us extra possessions," added Moore.
The Scots' defensive efforts yielded three early steals, including two by Hempy. Offensively, Wooster was clicking seamlessly in all facets out of the game as junior Eric Bulic knifed down the lane with 14:28 left in the opening stanza and laid one in to kick off a 7-0 spurt that bumped Wooster's lead out to 18-6.
Chris Allocco trimmed the Scots' lead back down to single digits at the 8:51 mark when his offensive rebound and put back made it 20-11, but that was the lone second-chance opportunity Ohio Wesleyan cashed in on for the game.
Hempy bumped the lead out to 11 at 32-21 when he pulled up to hit a field goal in the paint after a steal, and Wooster led by as many as 13 before the lead was cut to nine at 35-26 when Ohio Wesleyan standout Nate Axelrod knocked down a pair of free throws at the end of the half.
Of note, the 26 first-half points allowed by Wooster marks the third straight meeting between the two programs where the Scots have limited the Bishops' to 30 or fewer points in the opening 20 minutes of action.
While the Scots' only knocked down five 3-pointers on the day, three came at critical junctures, including one by sophomore Trenton Tipton that pushed the lead out to a second-half high 13 points at 45-32 with 16:22 remaining.
Later, Bulic knocked down a 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down, and drove the lane for a key lay-in that made it 50-36 with 13:36 remaining, but back-to-back 3-pointers by Axelrod had the Bishops chomping at the Scots' heels at the period's midpoint.
Axelrod cut further into Wooster's lead as his layup with 6:02 to go made it a three-point tilt at 56-53, but the Scots bounced back with an 8-0 spurt to pull ahead by 11 at 66-55.
Then, it was Ohio Wesleyan's turn to rattle off eight-straight points, but Wooster led by at least three down the stretch. In fact, Hempy knocked the lead back out to two possessions when he split a pair of free throws with 4.6 seconds left.
Hempy led the way in the scoring column with 16 points, while Bulic and senior Spencer Williams combined for 27 points and each finished a rebound shy of a double-double. Other stats to note include five assists by junior Reece Dupler and two by Stern.
While Axelrod did score a game-high 30 points, he finished the day 9-for-22 from the field, thanks to a plethora of Scot defenders who heavily contested nearly every shot attempt.
"Nate scored a lot of points, but we made him work hard to get them," summed up Moore.
Next, Wooster hosts Allegheny College (5-8, 2-4 NCAC) at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 10.