Nebraska Wesleyan ends Pioneers' year, 79-78

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Nebraska Wesleyan's Nate Schimonitz scored on a driving layup with 3.1 seconds remaining, lifting the Prairie Wolves to a 79-78 victory over host UW-Platteville Friday in the NCAA III Sweet 16 game on a sold-out Bo Ryan Court.

NWU (27-3) will face top-ranked Whitman (29-1) Saturday at 7 p.m. in Platteville. The Blues eliminated UW-Stevens Point 65-55 in Friday's first game. 

UW-Platteville, the regular season Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champion, ended its year at 24-5 despite a late rally from a 75-68 deficit to take the lead with 13.9 seconds remaining. 

"I could not be prouder of a group of individuals," Pioneer coach Jeff Gard said. "What they did this year was unheard of. That's what makes this so hard."

The eighth-ranked Pioneers were the first team in the history of the league to go from last place one year to first the next. They reached the round of 16 for the first time since 1999 and were rewarded with the sellout crowd.

"It was unbelievable. It's stuff you dream of," said center Clay Gerds, who had 11 points and 13 rebounds. "Our fans are crazy. Reaching the Sweet 16 was awesome." 

The Prairie Wolves raced out to a 10-2 lead before the Pioneers scored the next nine points. The teams then slugged it out back and forth for the rest of the first half. NWU used a late surge to lead 45-39 at the break.

The visitors shot 51.6 percent from the floor in the first half, and their zone defense forced the Pioneers to attack with outside shots. UW-Platteville made just 4-16 of its three-point attempts in the first 20 minutes. 

NWU led the first seven minutes of the second half, until Trey Sigel made a three-point basket to tie the score at 55-55. The Prairie Wolves were called for a foul underneath the basket on the play, and Sigel drilled another three on the inbounds play for a 58-55 lead. 

With a 16-4 run, Nebraska Wesleyan retook the lead and extended it to 71-62. Schimonitz had 10 of the 16 points during that spurt.

The Pioneers were forced to play much of the second half without Jake Showalter and Quentin Shields, who each picked up their fourth fouls with more than 10 minutes remaining. The Pioneers, who committed 19 fouls to NWU's 13, were called for a technical foul with 2:23. NWU made both technical shots for 75-68 lead.

"That's a tough one," Gard said. "The official's exact words were 'he looked at me.' Well, there were 2,500 people looking at him. But it was one play. It did not lose us the game."

Instead, the technical foul seemed to spark the Pioneers, as Matt Oestreich and Robert Duax responded with three-point baskets to bring the game within one point at 75-74. The comeback raised the decibel level in the fieldhouse. 

"We knew we weren't out of it," Gerds said. "We could have put our heads down, but we were resilient."

Schimonitz and Showalter traded baskets for 77-76 Nebraska Wesleyan advantage in the final minute. The Pioneers then forced a missed shot with 30 seconds to play, and Showalter grabbed the defensive rebound. After Sigel missed a three-point attempt, Duax picked up the offensive rebound and scored with 13.9 seconds left for a 78-77 Pioneer lead. Nebraska Wesleyan called aa timeout, and set up Simononitz's right-side drive to the hoop. On the ensuing possession, the ball was knocked away from Duax before he got across half court, ending the game.

Schimonitz scored 27 points, Cooper Cook 14, and Deion Wells-Ross and Jack Hiller 13 apiece for Nebraska Wesleyan, the Iowa Conference regular season and tournament champions.

"Give credit where credit is due," Gard said. "That's a phenomenal group of shooters."

Duax led the Pioneers with 22 points, 17 coming in the first half. Sigel added 15 points, Gerds 11 and Carter Voelker 10.

"We handled great adversity in a great, great college basketball environment," NWU coach Dale Wellman said.