UNIVERSITY HTS., Ohio – Junior Reece Dupler went 7-for-8 at the free throw line over the final 1:47, and clinched the 72-68 win for the 23rd-ranked College of Wooster men's basketball team by knocking a lengthy rebound out to half court at the buzzer to erase any chance of last-second heroics by 25th-ranked Illinois Wesleyan University in the 2018 NCAA Div. III Championships first round on Friday evening at the Tony DeCarlo Varsity Center.
"Reece's clutch free throws were extremely important," said veteran head coach Steve Moore "Without him making those foul shots, I'm not sure we would've been able to hang on."
Wooster (22-6), which improved to 35-27 all-time in the Div. III Championships, and 14-4 in the first round, now awaits the winner of the second first-round contest between host John Carroll University and Thomas More College. Saturday's second-round game, to be played at John Carroll, starts at 7 p.m., and tickets will go on sale at 5:30 p.m.
Dupler's first trip to the charity stripe made it a five-point game at 67-62 with 1:47 remaining, but the Titans (19-8) forced a key turnover on a Scots' inbound pass with :18 remaining. Illinois Wesleyan's Grant Wolfe split a pair of free throws to make it a one-possession game, but Dupler canned a pair at the free throw line with :12.6 on the clock to extend the lead to 71-66. Wolfe, again was fouled late, and he knocked down both free throws to pull the Titans back in within a single possession with :08.8 to go.
Wooster was on the verge of pulling away early in the second half thanks to the play of senior Alex Baptiste, and the Scots' overall team speed was too tall an order for the length Illinois Wesleyan squad for a bit.
With points at a premium to start the second half, Baptiste's play defensively helped keep the Scots in front. The senior logged three early steals, and then glided through traffic to extend Wooster's lead back to four at 37-33 at 16:48 left in the game. On the ensuing possession, senior Spencer Williams snared a defensive rebound, and it was off to the races with Warrensville Hts., Ohio native leading his team on a 3-on-1 fast break right down the road from his hometown. That possession led to a lay-in by junior Eric Bulic in traffic.
Later, Baptiste had the Scots up seven with an and-one after finishing a dump-down lay-in off the assist from Williams. Sophomore Danyon Hempy took charge from there with six straight points, and he had the Scots up 10 at 51-41 with 12:54 remaining.
Said Moore, "Alex rebounded extremely well again. His offensive rebounding was very important. He went up strong and made some big baskets for us."
Illinois Wesleyan's Brady Rose, who scored a game-high 31 points, led a spirited comeback bid, and quickly had Wooster's lead trimmed to five after a 3-pointer with 10:05 remaining. In fact, Rose's free throws at the 8:36 mark pulled the Titans within two at 54-52, but the Scots' never relinquished the lead thanks to a lay-in by Dupler and a jumper by junior Blake Blair that had the lead back out to six with 6:43 to go.
Wooster raced out to an 8-0 lead to start the first half with Hempy and Williams accounting for six of the eight points.
Speaking of Hempy, the sophomore factored in extensively on the defensive end at the game's onset with a block on the Titans' first possession, and a steal that led to a Titan intentional foul less than 2:00 into the game.
Rose took charge from there by scoring nine straight points as an 11-0 run had the Titans up three with 14:39 before halftime.
Two Williams free throws with 2:48 to go before halftime ultimately put the Scots back on top, and a late jumper from the senior had the Scots up 35-31 at the break.
Hempy led the Scots with 20 points on 7-for-14 shooting, including a 3-for-5 night from beyond the arc. Baptiste finished a point shy of a double-double, and he battled the Titans' 6-9 big man Alex O'Neill all night long on the boards, where the senior accounted for 12 of Wooster's 37 rebounds. Dupler chipped in 15 points, while Williams dished out six assists.
Sophomore Trenton Tipton provided a big spark off the bench with 10 points, six of which came on a pair of 3-pointers.
"Trenton was ready to go when we put him in there in the first half," said Moore. "He made some shots and played very well overall."
Bonnett and O'Neill joined Rose in double figures with 11 points each, while O'Neill secured a game-high 14 rebounds.