DELAWARE, Ohio-- There are team wins and every so often, there are program-defining wins.
On Saturday night, Denison achieved its biggest victory in decades with a 92-81 overtime win against perennial power, The College of Wooster. With the victory, Denison receives the North Coast Athletic Conference's automatic qualifier to the NCAA Division III Tournament.
The gravity of that last sentence will not be lost among those who have traveled the twisting and turning roads of Denison basketball. Judging by the Branch Rickey Arena crowd that featured enough Big Red alumni to start a YMCA rec league, their journey with Denison basketball has stood the test of time.
Denison advanced to the finals of the NCAC Tournament by first dispatching Wittenberg in the quarterfinals and then, top-seeded Ohio Wesleyan in the semifinals. Each victory was a breakthrough in it of themselves, with a crescendo building to a rematch of the 2012 NCAC title game with the Fighting Scots.
This Big Red team was hungry, but for a moment early in the second half it didn't look like hunger was enough to carry DU to a title. After a Dan Fanelly layup, three minutes into the second half put the Fighting Scots on top by 16, tension began to mount.
Luckily it didn't mount for long. Fifteen seconds to be exact. That's when David Meurer swished a 3-pointer and the comeback was on. Another 3-pointer came from Meurer then Andrew Castagnetti cashed his ticket from beyond the arc forcing a hurried timeout from the Wooster bench.
The Scots regrouped, building its lead back to 13 with 13:08 to play. That would be followed by a 9-0 Denison run that was capped off by a Matthew Bauer 3-pointer with 9:49 remaining in regulation.
The fight was on and for the next four minutes to two teams traded buckets. With the game tied at 63-63, another Bauer triple gave DU its first lead since the opening minutes of the contest.
With 2:00 left, Jett Speelman continued his impressive NCAC Tournament with a 3-pointer that put his team up four. Denison had a chance to go up seven, but a 3-point try by Darius White was halfway down, then out. Wooster's Mitch Balser was fouled on the next possession. Balser connected on both charity tosses, cutting the DU lead to two. After a Denison timeout, the Big Red drew up a play for Speelman but his spin move to a baseline jumper was off the mark. Wooster was off to the races and on his third try after two offensive boards, Fanelly converted in the paint, tying the game at 73-73 with 20 seconds to play.
On their final possession, Denison put the ball in the hands of Meurer who knifed through traffic but came up dry. Wooster's final desperation 3-point try from just beyond half court drew iron and a gasp from the Denison cheering section.
In overtime, Wooster struck first, but back-to-back treys from White and Meurer gave Denison an 81-78 lead. Over the next 3:31 of overtime, Wooster went 1-for-8 from the floor. As red hot as the DU offense had been throughout the tournament, it would be the defense that carried them through their toughest moment.
Oh, and free throw shooting.
The Big Red calmly sank 11-of-12 free throws over the final 1:49 of overtime. Tenacious defense and clutch free throw shooting. That's the secret recipe needed to outscore a team 19-8 in overtime.
Meurer finished with 28 points, five assists, and five steals and was named the NCAC Tournament Most Valuable Player in the postgame awards ceremony. Speelman followed with 25 points while going 9-of-18 from the field. Bauer continued to sizzle, going 4-for-6 from 3-point range to finish with 17 points and four rebounds. White also reached double figures with 10 points in 35 minutes.
Denison shot 53 percent from the field (31-of-59) and was 15-for-29 from beyond the arc. Wooster shot 49 percent while attempting 12 more shots than DU thanks to dominating the glass 45-22.
Fanelly led Wooster with 28 points and 11 rebounds. Josh Kipfer followed with 14 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. Freshman Reece Dupler chipped in 12 points in 40 minutes of action.
Joining Meurer on the NCAC All-Tournament team was Speelman. Meurer averaged 22.0 ppg in the tournament while Speelman scored one point less than his high school teammate (65) for an average of 21.6 ppg.
Denison will learn its NCAA Tournament destination and opponent on Monday, Feb. 29 at 12:30 p.m. This is the second NCAA Tournament berth in school history and the first since 1996-97. The NCAA Division III Tournament selection show will be streamed online at NCAA.com.
- Audio Interview with Coach Bob Ghiloni
- Audio Interview with Tournament MVP David Meurer
- Audio Interview with Jett Speelman
- Photo Gallery (Facebook)
- On-Court Celebration Video (Facebook)