Four years ago an underdog Denison squad went into nationally-ranked Wittenberg and upset the top-seeded Tigers to earn the program's first North Coast Athletic Conference Tournament championship berth. Fast forward to Friday night and the fourth-seeded Big Red were in a very similar situation. This year's opponent was 10th-ranked Ohio Wesleyan in Branch Rickey Arena, a place the Big Red had not left a winner since the 1996-97 season.
The fact that a Denison team hadn't won at Ohio Wesleyan in 14 tries didn't alter the Big Red's never say die attitude as they used a 74 percent shooting performance in the second half to knock off the tournament's top-seed, 95-85, on Friday night.
The two teams battled throughout the entire 20 minutes of the first period. Denison held the largest lead of the half at nine points, but it was the home team that entered the locker room with a 39-38 edge. The Bishops were never really able to pull away from the Big Red in the opening stages of the second half. Ohio Wesleyan never led by more than four points through the first 13 minutes.
Trailing by one at 72-71, Denison went on an impressive 14-4 run over the next 2:40 that turned the deficit into three-possession lead. Senior Darius White got things going with a pair of free throws. After a one-and-done by OWU, junior Jett Speelman drilled a 3-pointer to open up a four-point advantage. Two possessions later, Speelman grabbed an offensive board and converted the putback. White followed up with a triple off a feed from Johnny Vernasco on the next DU possession.
Nate Axelrod cut the margin to five, but a free throw by David Meurer and a Matthew Bauer three off an offensive rebound by Devon Pitts capped off the surge. During the run, the Denison defense forced three OWU one-and-done's, while the offense produced points on six of their seven possessions.
The Bishops pulled to within six twice inside the final 1:12, but free throws from Meurer and Speelman locked up the 10-point victory.
The Big Red shot a season-high 59 percent (31-for-67) from the field which included a 20-for-27 (74 percent) showing in the second half. Denison had a balanced attack from 3-point range as eight different players knocked down a triple en route to going 10-for-18 (56 percent) from beyond the arc. The Big Red dominated the glass 48-18, which include 15 offensive rebounds that resulted in 20 second-chance points. DU also outscored the Bishops in the paint 52-44.
Speelman led all scorers with 26 points to go along with 10 rebounds resulting in his second double-double of the season. Meurer followed with 14 points, five assists, and three steals while Pitts added 13 points, five boards, and three helpers. Sophomore Garrett Collier rounded out the quartet of double-digit scorers with 10 points and three assists.
Matt Jeske and Claude Gray paced Ohio Wesleyan with 23 and 20 points, respectively, while Axelrod finished with 11 and six assists. Ben Simpson led the Bishops on the glass with eight rebounds.
With the win, Denison (16-11) earns a spot in the NCAC Championship game and will take on second-seeded Wooster (21-6), who defeated Hiram 92-79 in the other semifinal game, on Saturday in a rematch of the 2012 NCAC Tournament title game. Tip-off from Branch Rickey Arena in Delaware, Ohio is scheduled for 5 p.m.