Defense and clutch shooting proved to be the difference in Marietta College's 63-62 come-from-behind triumph over Wittenberg University in an NCAA Division III men's basketball first round game at Ban Johnson Arena Saturday night.
MC will now advance to the Sweet 16, and play top-ranked Whitworth (Wash.) at the College of Wooster's Timken Gymnasium at 5:30 p.m. Friday. In the second game of the sectional, host Wooster 27-2) will be facing Cabrini College (24-5) of Radnor, Pa.
One week before in the Ohio Athletic Conference Tournament final at BJA, it was a 60-point second-half offensive explosion that enabled MC to erase a 21-point halftime deficit in an 88-85 win over John Carroll University.
"We just find a way," said Pioneer wing Jacob Owens after the Wittenberg game. "We just go out there, play hard and find a way to win.
"At halftime, we were thinking this is nothing and that we've got plenty of time so we should be fine."
MC sophomore J.J. Martin, who scored 11 points coming off the bench Saturday night, agreed and added, "In the locker room (at halftime), we were upset. We didn't play very good (against Wittenberg) in the first half. But last week, we were down 21, so 7 was nothing.
ART SMITH The Marietta Times
Marietta College basketball coach Jon VanderWal gets a hug from his wife, Tera, after the Pioneers advanced in the NCAA Division III tournament Saturday night.
Marietta, No. 11-ranked with a 27-3 record, trailed WU at the intermission, 34-27. The Tigers (20-9) led in part due to the shooting of senior Chris Sullivan, who torched the Pioneers for 14 points on 5 of 5 from the floor.
Early on, the 5-foot-9 Sullivan, who didn't even score in Wittenberg's win over La Roche Friday night, drained three consecutive threes to give the Tigers a double-digit advantage (13-3).
"I felt pretty good," said Sullivan, who finished with a game-high 17 points. "I didn't shoot very well yesterday (vs. La Roche). So, I just came back today, another day. The big guys set some good screens for me, and I got open looks and hit the open shots."
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Needless to say, Marietta had to figure out a way to contain Sullivan after the break, and the 5-9 Owens got the job.
"At halftime we talked about getting (Sullivan) stopped," Owens said. "He really went off in the first half and got them going shooting threes. Coach (Jon VanderWal) came up to me and said that I had to be the guy to stop him.
"Everyone was surprised when (Sullivan) came out shooting like that. I knew he could shoot, but I didn't think he could shoot like that. He doesn't really need a lot of space. He's a real good shooter, so I just had to stick to him."
When Owens wasn't chasing Sullivan on defense, Pioneer teammate Joe Puch got the job. And, together, they limited the Tiger sharpshooter to one triple in the second half. And, as a result, the navy blue and white was able to stage a comeback.
Sullivan's only points, though, were big, with 29 seconds left, and it put Wittenberg in the lead, 60-58.
"I got a good look on that one, and it was a big shot," Sullivan said, "but they came down and hit another big one themselves."
Did they ever.
With 19 seconds remaining, Puch got the ball, and never hesitated in launching and making perhaps one of the biggest, clutch 3-shots of his career. When the ball swished through the net, Marietta was back in front, 61-60.
"I had the ball on the wing, and I saw (Kevin) Knab come out and set a screen," Puch said. "Time was running down, 25 seconds or so.
"My guy (Wittenberg defender) kind of backed off a little bit, because he saw the screen coming. So, he let me see the hoop and...every day in practice, I practice that shot. I got a perfect look and I'm just glad I made it."
Interestingly, before Puch delivered the go-ahead shot, VanderWal was trying to signal a timeout, but the officials apparently didn't see it.
Still, there was time left, and Wittenberg's Seth Hill got fouled while shooting with 11.4 seconds on the game clock. Calmly, he converted both free-throws to give the Tigers a 62-61 advantage.
That, as it turned out, set up the mother of all clutch shots as Marietta freshman Tyler Hammond raced down the court and kissed a floater off the glass with six seconds left.
"It was both a tough shot and the type I can make," said Hammond, smiling. "It was 50-50."
Game over. Well, almost.
With time winding down, Sullivan was able to get off a desperation shot - but it was off the mark.
"We led for most of the game, but you've got to lead at the end, I guess," the Wittenberg standout said. "That's when it counts the most.
"Marietta looked real good. You can see why they've won 27 games. They're a good team. Hopefully, they'll play Wooster and hopefully they'll get them. Best of luck to them. Got to give credit to them. They played a good game."