By BRIAN LESTER
John Staley held out his hand and looked at it as he talked about the University of Findlay men’s basketball team’s quest for a third consecutive Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament championship.
Staley is in his first season with the Oilers, a transfer from Northern Kentucky University, so the sophomore forward doesn’t have a ring like most of his teammates do.
The Oilers have been wearing those rings all week and Staley wouldn’t mind having one, too.
“They have been wearing their rings and I’ve got nothing on,” Staley said. “It’s huge motivation for us new guys. We want to be part of the club.”
The next step to gaining membership into that championship club will be taken today when the second-seeded Oilers (22-5) battle third-seeded Walsh (22-5) in a 1 p.m. semifinal showdown at Croy Gymnasium.
UF earned the right to host the final four of the tourney by beating Hillsdale in the quarterfinal round Wednesday night and getting help from eighth-seeded Malone, which knocked off No. 1-seed Lake Superior State 73-65.
Malone (15-12) battles fourth-seeded Michigan Tech University (21-6) in the second semifinal on Saturday. The winners play at 2 p.m. Sunday, with the champion claiming an automatic bid to the NCAA Division II tournament. The NCAA Selection Show is set for 10:30 p.m. Sunday and will be aired live on NCAA.com.
Staley is thrilled to have this opportunity. Contending for a title is part of the reason he transferred to UF.
“It’s a great feeling to be in the tournament, especially playing at home,” Staley said. “I’m excited. I want it to be Saturday already.”
Saturday has arrived and the Oilers expect an intense battle with the Cavaliers, who have won three consecutive games.
UF split its regular-season matchups with Walsh, falling 81-61 the first time and winning 82-81 in the second showdown.
“We will have our work cut out for us, but there won’t be a whole lot of building up to the game,” UF head coach Charlie Ernst said. “We have to figure out a better way to guard them because we didn’t guard them very well the first two times. But if we play with the effort and intensity we played with (Wednesday against Hillsdale), we will guard them better.”
Jesse Hardin, a 6-foot-1 sophomore out of Warren Harding High School, averages a team-high 15.5 points a game for a balanced Cavaliers’ offense that average 83.3 points per game. Hrvoje Vucic, a 7-1 senior from Croatia by way of Valparaiso, averages 13.7 points per outing, 6-5 Toledo St. John’s graduate Jeff Copeland averages 12.3, and 6-6 freshman Trey Fletcher 10.3.
WU is in the final four of the tourney for the first time as this is their its first season where they are eligible for the tournament.
The Oilers are playing for the right to advance to the title game for the ninth time in the last 11 seasons. They have won a league-record seven titles, including the last two on the road.
Ernst is counting on his veterans to lead the way in a game that will carry a lot of weight for NCAA tourney seeding. The Oilers are ranked fifth in the Midwest Regional poll and the Cavaliers are ninth. The top eight make the tourney.
“There is a lot to play for,” Ernst said. “When you have a veteran team that has played as many games in the postseason as we have, the players understand how you have to play to be successful. I feel good about that going into Saturday.”
Senior forward Greg Kahlig headlines the list of veterans. The GLIAC Player of the Year and one of the nation’s top scorers is averaging 23.6 points per game. Mark Frilling (4.2 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and Sean Samsel (2.7 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 1.1 apg) are the other seniors while juniors Jake Heagen (12.7) and Dylan Kaufman (10.6) and sophomore Alphonso Baity (10.6) have been key as well.
Ernst will also be counting on a solid corps of younger players for the depth so vital to postseason success, players like Staley and freshman Tyler Stern-Tucker, redshirt freshman Quaran Jones and true freshmen Austin Gardner and Ricardo Smith.
“People have probably questioned some of our guys off the bench throughout the year, but I haven’t lost confidence in them,” Ernst said. “Tyler is a great example of someone who makes a positive attitude and hard work pay off. I don’t hesitate to put him in. He has played like a seasoned veteran at times.”
Kahlig, a focal point of defenses, is thankful the Oilers have a lot of options offensively, which takes pressure off of him.
“Everyone is capable of getting in on the act, and that is what it’s all about,” Kahlig said. “We have so many players capable of scoring, and when we play team basketball, we are a lot more dangerous.”
The Oilers have to be dialed in defense as well, and playing hard on that end of the floor is linked to how the minutes are shared. That is where having a reliable bench comes in handy. Nine players average 10 or more minutes a game and UF is allowing 68.1 points per game.
“This is a tough time of the season because we just got done playing 26 games in the regular season, including four of our last five on the road,” Ernst said. “We have to be careful about minutes because you don’t want to wear anyone out. I thought the minutes were just about right against Hillsdale (on Wednesday).”
The seniors on this team are playing their first GLIAC tourney at home, and for them, it means a little more.
“We (the seniors) were talking about it the other day about how we don’t want to look at each other 20 years from now and talk about how we should have won a third ring,” Frilling said. “We want that ring.”
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