By ANDY WOLF
Charlie Ernst didn’t need to worry about selection Sunday for a change.
The University of Findlay men’s basketball coach knew his team did more than enough to secure an at-large bid.
Sure enough, the Oilers did.
Findlay (26-4) earned the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region and will meet No. 6 Drury (21-7) in the opening round of the Division II NCAA Tournament at 12 p.m. Saturday.
Top-seeded Ferris State (32-1) will host the entire region in Big Rapids, Michigan.
Ernst already told his players not to get caught up in the seeding.
Just a year ago, the Oilers upset No. 3 Southern Indiana and No. 2 Ferris State to reach the Sweet 16.
“Really, any and all advantages you might be able to come up with prior to the game are gone once the game begins,” Ernst said.
Findlay couldn’t feel any more battle-tested this season.
The Oilers opened the year with gauntlet of a nonconference slate.
They knocked off nationally-ranked foes Indiana (Pa.), St. Thomas Aquinas and Fairmont State before falling to Lake Superior State and Ferris State.
“Another thing that playing those teams did for us was playing teams we weren’t all that familiar with,” Ernst said.
Ernst is very familiar with Drury’s system at least, having seen the Panthers play in many other regional tournaments.
The two schools haven’t met since the opening round of the 2013 tournament. Drury, as the top-seed, prevailed 77-69 and went on to win the national title.
The Panthers are making their 11th overall tournament appearance and first since 2015.
The Oilers are in for the second straight season after a two-year hiatus. They’ve gone from an inexperienced bunch to postseason veterans,
“I think that will help a lot,” senior Martyce Kimbrough said of last year’s run. “In the tournament, the game is a little bit brighter. The fans are a little bit louder. It’s win or go home. Having that experience will help when the game is close, maybe second half and not making a few mental errors that a younger team would make.”
Kimbrough feels confident with the team’s senior leadership and talent in the other three classes as a strong formula for success.
Findlay starts four seniors and one junior.
Kimbrough leads the team in scoring at 18.2 points per game and 96 3-pointers.
He and senior forward Taren Sullivan often flip-flop as the leading scorer for any game and even take on the role as “go-to guy” down the stretch.
Senior 3-point specialist Elijah Kahlig (9.5 ppg) and junior big man Alex White (9.2 ppg) exist as strong secondary scoring options.
Senior point guard Austin Gardner (4.5 ppg) has stepped up his scoring with at least five points in his last seven games for the first time in his career.
The Oilers suffered their first defeat with their starting five active Saturday in the GMAC tournament semis to Ohio Dominican.
Gardner was absent in the Lake Superior and Ferris losses while Sullivan missed the Malone loss (Feb. 1) with an ankle injury.
“The four losses we had were all tough, tight losses,” Ernst said. “That’s a testament to our team. It’s not easy to play 30 games over the course of the season and play somewhat consistent basketball.”
UF’s youthful, energizing bench is usually a big factor.
Guards Trey Smith and Tommy Schomck regularly wreak havoc on opposing ball handlers and each average a steal per game.
Schmock, a true freshman, is excited for his first taste of the NCAA tournament.
“This season has gone really great for me, honestly,” Schmock said. “I got to do a lot, have a big role and also play my game.”
Sophomore forward Aaron Overhiser spells White and chips in 7.1 ppg and 3.9 rebounds per game.
Forwards Anthony Masterlasco (4.1 ppg) and Matt Ashley (3.5 ppg) each have appeared in 28 games.
Masterlasco is a Liberty-Benton grad.
For as deep as the Oilers are, Drury has the bodies to match. Ten players average at least five points per game. Eight of those have started at least 10 games.
Isaac Johnson (12.9 pp) is the only one in double figures and hasn’t started a game since Dec. 30.
The balance carries over into the Panthers’ strength in 3-point shooting. Drury ranks eighth nationally in percentage (40.9) and 10th in 3-pointers per game (11.6).
Each of its five leading scorers makes one three per game.
“They run their offense as well as anyone we’ll play all year,” Ernst said. “The thing that sticks out is their balance without a doubt.”
Drury’s lone senior Brandon Wolfe has played only 96 minutes all season.
True freshman guard Conley Garrison has been key contributor for the Panthers as their second-leading scorer at 9.8 ppg.
“When you watch him play on video, you don’t think of a freshman,” Ernst said. “The way he moves, he moves with confidence. away from the ball.”
The Oilers spend a lot of practice time simulating late-game situations.
Ernst has a several guys who embrace the moment of hitting a big shot.
“Maybe too much,” Ernst said with a laugh. “They have a lot of confidence in themselves.”
The challenge is figuring out who gets the make-or-break type shots.
What won’t be tough for Ernst is trusting the Oilers to make all the necessary types of plays to win.
“Normally in late-game situations we step up and make the right plays,” Kimbrough said. “That’s a testament to coaches putting us in the right position. We have a good core group of guys where we trust each other to make plays. Although we made some errors that Ohio Dominican games, nine times out of 10 we’ll correct those errors.
“I’m very excited for what’s to come.”
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