Battle-tested. That is the best way to describe the Denison men's basketball team.
While navigating their way through the shark infested waters of the North Coast Athletic Conference, some nights they have passed their tests with flying colors. Other days have left them wishing the professor had graded with a curve.
All of those successes and failures peaked Tuesday night when Denison found themselves hosting an NCAC quarterfinal for the first time since 2005. In front of a lively crowd at Livingston Gym, this tenacious bunch tested its mettle against the fifth-seeded Wittenberg Tigers and came away with an 81-75 victory. That punches Denison's ticket to the NCAC Semifinals for the fifth time in program history.
Denison led 70-69 with less than four minutes to play when Garrett Collier came up with a steal that resulted in Matthew Bauer's fourth 3-pointer of the game. That gave Denison a four-point lead with 3:26 remaining.
Wittenberg would respond with back-to-back field goals by Chris Sloneker in the post, tying the game for the eighth time with 2:30 to play. On Denison's next possession, the Big Red chose to ride the hot hand as Bauer connected on his fifth 3-pointer, giving DU a 76-73 lead with 2:09 on the clock.
The Tigers would call on its top scorer, Jaelin Williams, who missed his 3-point try from the elbow. Jett Speelman was there to corral the rebound prompting a Big Red timeout with just 92 seconds separating them from a date with top-seeded Ohio Wesleyan on Friday night.
Out of the timeout, Denison put the ball in the hands of junior point guard David Meurer who had just scored his 1,000th career point minutes earlier. Meurer weaved his way through traffic and finished with a layup at the rim to put his team up five. The Tigers would counter with a put-back off an offensive rebound.
With only 25 seconds remaining and the shot clock turned off, Wittenberg was forced to foul while trailing by three. Garrett Dorfman committed the foul, sending Bauer to the line with a chance to cap off his fairy-tale night. The 6-6 junior calmly sank both free throws to put his team up five. A Wittenberg turnover on their ensuing possession would seal up the win for Denison.
Bauer scored a career-high 19 points via 5-of-7 shooting. All five field goals were from beyond the arc. He was also 4-of-4 at the line and finished with four rebounds in 24 minutes off the bench. Meurer led all scorers with 24 points off 8-of-13 shooting in 20 minutes off the bench. Add eight points from John Cheng and two from Johnny Vernasco into the mix and that allowed Denison's bench to outscore Wittenberg's 53-25.
Among the starters, Speelman would finish with 14 points while going 7-of-8 from the free throw line.
Meurer is the 21st player in Denison history to score 1,000 career points. He accomplished the feat in only 77 career games. He heads into Friday's semifinal with 1,005 career points and a career scoring average of 13.1 ppg.
Williams led the Tigers with 17 points while Cody Phillippi followed with 13 points. The Tigers shot an impressive 59 percent from the floor and were 8-of-20 (40 percent) from 3-point range. Denison shot 49 percent for the game and was 36 percent from deep (11-of-24). Wittenberg held a 28-25 edge on the boards while DU committed only nine turnovers compared to 13 for the Tigers.
At 15-11, Denison will gear up for top-seed and 10th ranked Ohio Wesleyan on Friday at 8:30 p.m. in Delaware. As the No. 1 seed, Ohio Wesleyan will serve as the host for both NCAC Tournament semifinals games as well as Saturday night's championship game. In the other NCAC semifinal, The College of Wooster will face Hiram College at 5:30 p.m.