By BRIAN LESTER
Sometimes the little things can add up to something special.
Little things such as Mark Frilling grabbing a huge defensive rebound, Jake Heagen crashing to the floor to pounce on a loose ball and get a timeout in crunch time and Sean Samsel coming up with a crucial steal.
Those were a few of the plays that made a big difference for the University of Findlay men’s basketball team Sunday afternoon at Croy Gymnasium as the Oilers defeated Michigan Tech 69-63 to win the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament.
Findlay is the first team in conference history to win three consecutive tournament championships. The Oilers clinched an automatic bid to the NCAA Division II tournament.
UF will now face GLIAC North Division champion Lake Superior State at 9:30 p.m. Saturday in its regional opener at the O’Reilly Family Event Center in Springfield, Mo., the home of defending national champion Drury. The winner of the UF/Lake Superior game takes on either Drury or Wisconsin-Parkside on Sunday night. The regional champ earns a trip to the Elite Eight on March 26-29 at the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind.
As the Oilers (24-5) savored the thrill, winning a tournament title at home for the first time since 2010, they reflected on what it took to survive.
“It took a team effort,” Frilling said. “Michigan Tech is a great team. They fight hard. We knew we would have our hands full.”
Indeed they did. Even when the Oilers were up 64-54 with 4:17 to go, the lead wasn’t safe.
Tech (22-7) fought back, getting a 3-pointer by Jason Hawke, a layup by Austin Armga and a layup by Hawke to slice the UF lead to 64-61 with 2:20 to play.
Turnovers helped set up those plays and the Oilers were on the brink of a collapse. Twice before in program history, UF had been on the cusp of a three-peat. In both instances, the Oilers fell short.
This time was different.
UF’s defensive effort down the stretch, including a steal by Samsel with 12 seconds to play, helped seal it. Samsel was fouled on the steal and hit a free throw for a 68-61 lead.
“We got a lot of good stops at the end,” senior forward and tournament MVP Greg Kahlig said after the Oilers claimed their eighth league title. “They cut into our lead and had a chance to win, but our defense stepped up. That is what it takes to win a championship.”
UF head coach Charlie Ernst, who has guided UF to a tournament title in each of his three seasons and is 9-0 in the GLIAC tourney, said he has been telling his team all season about the importance of being tough.
“I’ve preached it all season,” Ernst said. “Big games come down to making plays. You need heart and toughness, and we found a way to get it done.”
“Findlay is a very good basketball team,” Michigan Tech coach Kevin Luke said. “But our kids played our hearts out. We just came up a little short. I’m proud of our effort.”
The dagger from an offensive standpoint was the shot Kahlig hit with 1:38 to go. Guarded tightly, he dribbled inside the arc on the left side of the floor and pulled up for a jumper that swished through for a 66-61 lead.
Kahlig scored 22 points to go along with eight rebounds and four assists. He scored 93 points in three tournament games, highlighted by a GLIAC-record 55 points in Saturday’s 104-74 semifinal win over Walsh, to break the tourney record of 84 set by UF’s Nathan Hyde in 2010.
“That was the shot of the night,” Ernst said. “He had two guys draped all over him, he was fading backwards and the ball almost hit the rafters and still went in. More importantly, we came down and got a stop.”
The Oilers led 13-11 on a 3-pointer by Heagen and went in front 16-15 when Kahlig nearly shook Jordan Chartier out of his sneakers dribbling to get open for a shot. Chartier fell to the floor and Kahlig hit the trey for the one-point lead.
Moments later, John Staley threw down a dunk as he soared into the lane and the Oilers led 18-15. Samsel’s trey extended the UF lead to 26-20 and Quaran Jones came off the bench to score six points late in the half as the Oilers went into halftime with a 39-36 advantage.
Kahlig scored seven straight points to start the second half, including three off free throws as he was fouled attempting a trey, pushing the UF lead to 47-36.
But the Huskies never backed down. They continued to hang around and overcame a 13-point deficit to make things interesting.
The Oilers, though, weren’t going to be denied.
“To win in front of our crowd means the world to us. It’s a memory I’ll have for a lifetime,” Heagen said. “We knew it would be a battle. It came down to who wanted it more. It’s a great accomplishment for our team.”
Heagen added 15 points and earned a spot on the all-tourney team as well. Dylan Kaufman finished with nine points and four assists and was also named to the all-tourney team.
The Oilers shot 52.2 percent (24 of 46) from the field. Armga finished with 26 points and Ben Stelzer added 14 for Tech, which shot 42.4 percent (25 of 59).
“I think I mixed up three defenses in the second half and it kept them off balance,” Ernst said. “Our 1-3-1 worked better than I thought it would. It frustrated them. That was big.”
MICHIGAN TECH (22-7)
Heller 0-0 0-0 0, Armga 11-24 2-2 26, Culy 3-5 0-0 8, Stelzer 5-13 0-0 14, Hecht 0-4 -0 0, Chartier 2-4 0-0 6, Gregory 0-0 0-0 0, Hawke 2-5 0-0 5, Stankowski 2-4 0-0 4. TOTALS: 25-59 2-2–63.
Heagen 6-11 1-2 15, Khalig 6-11 8-8 22, Frilling 1-3 1-2 3, Baity 1-4 0-1 2, Kaufman 2-4 3-4 9, Gardner 1-2 0-0 2, Samsel 1-2 1-2 4, Stle 2-2 0-0 4, Stern-Tucker 1-3 0-0 2, Jones 3-4 0-0 6. TOTALS: 24-46 14-19–69.
3-POINT GOALS: Michigan Tech 11-29 (Armga 2-7, Culy 2-4, Stelzer 4-10, Hecht 0-2, Chartier 2-4, Hawke 1-2); Findlay 7-20 (Heagen 2-5, Khalig 2-6, Baity 0-2, Kaufman 2-4, Gardner 0-1, Samsel 1-2).
REBOUNDS: Michigan Tech 33 (Armga 8, Culy 6); Findlay 28 (Kahlig 8, Heagen 7).
ASSISTS: Michigan Tech 12 (Armga 4); Findlay 15 (Kahlig 4, Kaufman 4).
STEALS: Michigan Tech 5 (Culy 2, Hecht 2); Findlay 8 (Samsel 2).
BLOCKS: Michigan Tech 0, Findlay 1.
TURNOVERS: Michigan Tech 9, Findlay 9.
TOTAL FOULS: Michigan Tech 14, Findlay 10.
FOULED OUT: None.
HALFTIME: Findlay, 39-36.
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