By BRIAN LESTER
Austin Gardner is like most first-year college basketball players. He was a star in high school, but life at the college level is different.
The game is played at a faster pace, it requires more toughness to be successful and it takes time for most freshmen to figure out where they fit in with their teams.
Gardner has played in 21 games with the University of Findlay men’s basketball team, and the freshman point guard from Toledo St. John’s admits he has come a long way since the beginning of the season.
“It’s been more about finding my role this year,” Gardner said. “I think earlier in the year I was trying to do too much. Now, I’m fitting in better and doing what I have to, to help the team out.”
Gardner has indeed fit in quite nicely with the Oilers, running the point effectively when starting sophomore point guard Alphonso Baity is getting a breather or sitting because of foul trouble.
He is only averaging 2.8 points per game and has scored in double figures just once. But he ranks fourth on the team in assists (38) and he has turned the ball over only 11 times.
“Coach expects a lot out of his players off the bench, and I do what I can to step up when I need to,” Gardner said. “It’s at the point in the season where I’m not a freshman anymore.”
Gardner, a first-team Three Rivers Athletic Conference selection as a senior, plays with a great deal of confidence, has adapted to the physicality of the college game and he is willing to dig in defensively.
It’s on the defensive end of the floor where UF Charlie Ernst is most impressed with the growth of Gardner, who has racked up nine steals and has also pulled down 40 rebounds.
“He is a hard-nosed defender and has improved a lot on defense,” Ernst said. “He’s also an under-rated rebounder. We have a team where we expect our guards to be good rebounders and Austin has done a good job accepting that role.”
Gardner will look to continue his progress tonight when the Oilers head out on the road for a 7:30 p.m. Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference showdown against rival Ashland at Kates Gymnasium.
UF (17-4, 13-4 GLIAC) is gunning for its fifth consecutive win and a season sweep of AU (9-12, 6-11), which has lost its last two games but is still clinging to an outside shot of making the conference tournament.
The Oilers dominated the Eagles in the first meeting, winning 85-48. The Eagles were held to 18 points in the second half of that game.
Surprisingly, Ernst doesn’t think his Oilers played their best on defense in that win. He is hoping to get a better effort tonight.
“I’ve watched the video a couple of times, and while it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers, I don’t think we played as well as we could have on defense,” Ernst said. “We might give up more points this time, but still play a better game on defense. We need a great effort to be successful on the road.”
Ashland has been a tough place to play for the Oilers during the last couple of seasons. UF has lost its last two games on the road against the Eagles, including a gut-wrenching 61-60 defeat last season.
“It’s always a difficult place to play,” Ernst said. “Ashland has a good team and it has some good home wins. They are fighting for their tournament lives and we are preparing for this game as if it’s going to be a war.”
The Eagles average 73.6 points per game and allow 75.4. Senior forward Will Evans leads the way as he averages 14 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. He has also knocked down 20 3-pointers.
Freshman forward Wendell Dais is averaging 10.8 points per outing and junior guard Brook Turson is clicking for 10.6 ppg. Turson has connected on 27 treys and junior guard Cole Krizancic (9.4 ppg) has nailed 39 treys.
The Oilers come in averaging 82.6 points per outing and senior forward Greg Kahlig is still on pace to be the first player since Greg Denecker (20.3) in 1994 to average 20-plus points per outing in a season. The reigning South Division Player of the Week is averaging 22.3 ppg and ranks 10th all-time in points at 1,609.
Junior forward Jake Heagen (13.1), sophomore guard Dylan Kaufman (11.3) and Baity (10.5) are all scoring in double figures as well for UF, which is shooting 48.3 percent from the floor.
Ernst believes his team is continuing to make strides on both ends of the floor, which is important as UF heads down the stretch and gears up for the postseason.
But while UF is in the hunt for a division title, it trails Walsh by a half game, and alive in the battle for the overall GLIAC title — Ernst doesn’t want his team getting caught up in the title race and positioning for the NCAA Division II tournament.
“Our approach is to focus on giving a championship effort in practice and in games,” Ernst said. “If we give that kind of effort, everything else will take care of itself.”
UF women seek split
The UF women’s basketball team will look to earn a split in the season series with Ashland when it battles the defending national champions at 5:30 p.m. today at Kates Gymnasium.
The Oilers (10-11, 7-10 GLIAC) lost 80-55 to the Eagles last month and are coming off an 81-59 win over Tiffin on Saturday that ended a three-game losing streak.
UF enters the game in 11th in the overall standings and needs a win to keep its hopes alive of making the conference tourney.
AU (13-8, 11-6) sits atop the division and has won its last three games. Freshman forward Suzy Wollenhaupt scored 22 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in an 81-68 win over Malone Saturday and is averaging 17.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game on the year.
Junior guard Taylor Woods is averaging 15.9 ppg for the Eagles, who average 72.8 ppg and allow 69.8.
Sophomore forward Margaret Wuebker and Ciara Geiger are both scoring in double figures for the Oilers, averaging 12.9 and 10.0 points per outing, respectively.
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