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Taking down the top dog
We've already seen plenty of drama through one weekend of NCAA Tournament action -- two rounds in, and already one defending champion has bitten the dust and another faces a daunting test up ahead. So it goes this time of year.
A week ago, the Washington University men were on top of the world. Mark Edwards' Bears had won back-to-back national championships. And with a strong group of senior leaders, a national No. 1 ranking and a 12-game winning streak, they look primed to bring home another -- until Illinois Wesleyan rolled around.
Ron Rose brought his Titans into St. Louis coming off a tough loss to Carthage in the CCIW title game, having backed into an NCAA berth despite a rough February that left them reeling. But an 86-81 win over Central on opening night gave the Titans their momentum back, and it carried over into a stunning upset last Saturday night. Forget the three-peat -- Wash U is done, and Illinois Wesleyan moves on with a 75-70 victory decided by a gritty two-minute last stand.
"Washington University is a great team," Rose said. "They're a championship-caliber team. And we have all the respect in the world for what they've accomplished. But having played them earlier in the year to a close game gave us some familiarity with them. And I believe that our players went in prepared and confident that we were capable of winning that game.
"Both teams are very skilled teams, and it came down to what you'd expect, which was a very close game. Fortunately we were able to play from ahead, with a slight lead for the majority of the game, which I think really benefited us."
The Titans got 21 points from their shooting guard, junior Sean Johnson, and six points late from junior big man Doug Sexauer to seal the deal. It was an big breakout win for an Illinois Wesleyan team that had lost to Wash U earlier this season, 76-71 back in November, and wanted to get revenge at NCAAs. This wasn't just a survival game -- it was a statement win, and a big confidence booster to boot.
"I do think that the Washington University win was a very significant win for this group because it confirms what we believed," Rose said. "Which is that we're capable of playing with anybody and beating anybody in the country. It will prove to be a great confidence builder for us."
The Titans have a young roster for a Sweet Sixteen team -- in a tournament often dominated by deep senior classes and experience-laden rosters, Rose is playing with only one senior on the active roster. His starting five is made up of four juniors and a sophomore. His team is young, but it's loaded with guys that are ready to win.
"Most of the players that we have on the team came from winning programs in high school," Rose said. "And there's an expectation with the winning tradition at Illinois Wesleyan that we're trying to carry on. The team is excited to be in the Sweet Sixteen, but at the same time, we're not content just to advance through the first round. I really like the mindset that our players are bringing to this tournament right now."
The Titans are headed to Stevens Point, Wis., this weekend, where they meet with familiar conference rival Carthage and the host Pointers square off with visiting Texas-Dallas. Rose's squad might not be a heavy favorite this weekend, but the team has gained confidence and is prepared for the challenge at hand.
"I think last weekend gave our players a taste of success," Rose said. "It gave our players a very real experience of what it's like to advance in the NCAA Tournament. And we're thrilled with the opportunity we have at hand now. But I don't think our guys are approaching it as being happy just to be there. We're going to go up to Stevens Point and compete the best we can."
ONE CHAMP LEFT: The other defending national champion, however, is still alive. But the George Fox women will run into a big challenge this weekend.
Speaking of Carthage ...
It's the Lady Reds, led by veteran head coach Tim Bernero, who head to St. Louis this weekend for a battle with Scott Rueck's Bruins, the defending champs. Bernero has seen these Bruins in action before, and he's liked what he's seen. Now he's got to find a way to beat them.
"It's kind of funny," Bernero said. "I actually saw that game last year in Holland, and I admired how Scott's team played. Everything kind of gravitated toward their size in the middle. Last year it was Kristen Shielee, and now it's the freshman kid Hannah Munger. It's nice for them to be able to replace one kid right away with another. But they've got good perimeter players too, with Keisha Gordon and B.B. Gardner and Elise Kuenzi. They can spread the floor, they can shoot the three, and when they don't make the three they can get the ball inside and score, too."
Carthage got past Northland and UW-Whitewater in the opening two rounds to reach the Sweet 16. This weekend, the road gets tougher -- first they get the defending champs, then if they survive, they run into the winner of Mount Union and host Wash U, the national No. 6. No one said this tournament would be easy.
"I tried to tell our kids before our game Saturday," Bernero said. "I can't find you an 'insert last-place team here' to play at this point. I can't find you a bad team now. You're going to play a really good one no matter which way you turn. It just so happens that George Fox is the one we've got on our plate."
The Reds got here by holding off a strong second-half comeback from Whitewater -- they had a double-digit lead in the second half, 63-49, but watched their edge shrink down to two in the final minutes. It took clutch free throw shooting and a strong defensive last stand to preserve the win. Before that, Carthage ran up a humungous lead on Northland before halftime, 47-28, and hung on in the second half to win 73-60. Their sophomore center, Diana Jacklin, went off in that game for 20 points and 14 rebounds.
"We had to go on the road for those first two wins, and the first one is always a 'feeling your way through' thing. It was the first time there for us in a while. But we played well enough to win, and we played pretty well too against Whitewater, at least for most of the game. They made a little run at us at the end, but we got done what we needed to get done."
Carthage is surviving this time of year with strong senior leadership. Rosie Dorn, their 5-foot-10 power forward, has stepped up this season as a crunch-time scorer. Katie Klemke has evolved into a versatile scoring threat and all-around team player. Heather Gilmore, who originally transfered from Iowa, was the team's only returning starter this season.
This team has the talent to go a long way in the tournament this March. They're not counting on anything or assuming anything, but they've got the confidence to go far.
"I said something to them after our game Saturday," Bernero said. "I said I wouldn't predict that we're the best team in the field remaining, but I don't think there's any reason to say there's a team on the table we couldn't beat."
Bernero might be right. This time of year, anything's possible. That's the beauty of it all.
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