Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh guards Ben Boots, left and Brett Wittchow during practice at Memorial Coliseum on Thursday.
Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette Guard Ben Boots helped Wisconsin-Oshkosh reach the Division III championship game a year ago. His team is back in the Final Four today.
Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh guard Ben Boots, left drives down the court guarded by his teammate during practice at Memorial Coliseum on Thursday.
Friday, March 15, 2019 1:00 am
NCAA Division III Final Four
Pressure same even as venue changes
JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette
Each one of the players and coaches at Memorial Coliseum on Thursday knew the stakes, as they practiced on the court and sat for interviews with reporters in preparation for the NCAA Division III Men's Basketball Championship semifinals today.
While some of the players were familiar with the process – Wisconsin-Oshkosh was the national runner-up last year – the venue was unfamiliar. But if there's one thing the Coliseum is known for when it comes to sports, and there's 67 years worth of evidence, it's that championships have to be earned.
“This is them; it's not about me,” UW-Oshkosh coach Matt Lewis said, looking at his players. “I'm really excited that they have the opportunity to come back to the Final Four. It's a new city, an awesome arena, and so far the city of Fort Wayne has treated us really, really well, and we're excited about the opportunity.”
Lewis, who had been an assistant with the Titans, took over the program after Pat Juckem left for Washington in St. Louis last May. His roster has a bevy of established Division III players, including senior guard Ben Boots (15.7 points, 4.1 assists per game) and junior center Jack Flynn (15.1 points, 8 rebounds).
The Titans, who lost 78-72 to Nebraska Wesleyan in the title game last year, will have to step up as so many others have in big moments at the Coliseum.
Hockey fans can tell you about the heroics of Pokey Reddick or Justin Hodgman as the Komets won Cups. Mad Ants fans bore witness to the contributions of Ron Howard and Tony Mitchell. Encyclopedic basketball fans could tell you about Milo Stovall leading Valparaiso to the 2002 title of the Mid-Continent Conference Tournament, an event not unlike what's at the Coliseum today and Saturday in terms of scope.
At 6 p.m. today, Christopher Newport (Virginia) (29-3) will face Swarthmore (Pennsylvania) (28-3). At 8 p.m., UW-Oshkosh (27-3) takes on Wheaton (Illinois) (23-8).
“Some (teams') guys would sit back after last year and just hope that it happened again, but our guys didn't take that approach,” Lewis said. “They've really invested a lot in each other and in themselves, in this team to earn the right and earn the opportunity to play in Fort Wayne.”
While this stage of the tournament had been played in Salem, Virginia, the previous 23 years, Fort Wayne is uncharted territory.
Wheaton, which hadn't been to a Final Four since 1960, is unfazed after winning two tournament games in Wooster, Ohio, against Hanover and the College of Wooster, then two games in Rock Island, Illinois, against Augustana and Marietta.
“We've kind of been road warriors a little bit and been through true road tests, so I'm really proud of my guys,” Wheaton coach Mike Schauer said. “We came in to this season thinking we could make the NCAA Tournament and some of that, at times, I think paralyzed us a little bit. We were anxious about it and had some moments where it hung over our heads a little bit. But now that we've gotten in, I think we've relaxed a little bit and played the best we've played all year.”
Wheaton senior guard Aston Francis leads all NCAA divisions with 33.9 points per game.
While the Coliseum will be far from full, the pressure will be full bore for the participants. And putting on a good show is important for the Coliseum as it tries to draw bigger events.
“Playing in the (College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin) every single night, it's an absolute battle. And when you go to places like North Central or Augustana or the Illinois Wesleyans, you kind of get used to playing in those atmospheres where it's pretty hostile, pretty unfamiliar territory,” Wheaton senior guard Luke Peters said.
“Our season prepared us pretty well, our schedule prepared us pretty well for those tough moments.”
Justin A. Cohn, senior writer for The Journal Gazette, has covered Fort Wayne sports since 1997. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or phone at 260-461-8429. You can also follow him on Twitter@sportsicohn.